021: Our Favorite Songs, April-June 2020
Tone Glow's writers highlight 30 songs from the second quarter of 2020
|Jul 6|| 8|
Edited still from The Parallel Street (Ferdinand Khittl, 1962)
One of the songs listed below (I’ll let you guess which one) was compared to Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait by Tone Glow writer Samuel McLemore. I’ve been mulling over that book, how its unyielding stream of sentences (without paragraph breaks!) are arranged in seemingly random fashion, but nevertheless grants fuller understanding of the French author who penned it. It reminds me of how my memory often works, drifting from one idea to the next, ostensibly haphazard to anyone listening in.
Music can serve fruitful functions to combat such scrambled thinking: it grants clarity to certain aspects of our lives, and can lead to deeper consideration for the ideas and themes that underline a given song. And so, with the thousands of words we’ve written below, there’s a sense that the Tone Glow writers are doing just that: sorting through the thoughts that fill our brain—our pasts and our politics, our music preferences and present moment—and scrawling down what comes to mind, finding some kernel of truth in the process.
When you latch onto a song, when you decide to write about one, there’s a fleshing out to the ever-growing Autoportrait you’re living. It’s because: A song is never just a song. Or, perhaps more accurately: a song can always be more than just a song. With the blurbs below, it’s easy to see why these thirty songs were our favorites from the past three months: they left us in awe, they made us ruminate, they made us happy. In other words: They were more than just songs. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Phoebe Bridgers - “Moon Song” (Dead Oceans)
I used to hate Phoebe Bridgers because my ex’s current girlfriend loves her. That happens to me a lot, I discover the favorite artist of someone I’m jealous of and then get nauseous when I hear their music. Even if I wasn’t at one point jealous of my ex’s liberal girlfriend that I am hotter than, I would still think this album is boring, but I digress. When I do like a Phoebe Bridgers song, it makes me very emotional, like how love and hate are two sides of the same coin.
I know that thinking about your ex when you hear a song tangentially related to them is boring and sad, but for some reason, the more your ex treated you like shit, the more you want to remember them when you listen to a beautiful song. So, this song reminds me of him. Phoebe’s voice is sugary when she gushes about how “if I could give you the moon / I would give you the moon”—she sings the words with so much forceful sweetness that it sounds like she’s ripping something apart when she immediately transitions to “you are sick.” It’s a dainty porcelain doll song, a sleepy song. She sounds like she’s hurting and enjoying it, waiting “like a dog with a bird at your door.” No matter how hard I tried and how much better I willed myself to be, it was never enough and it wasn’t right. I think there are some people you meet that will always make you feel like an unloved child. —Ashley Bardhan
Purchase Punisher at Bandcamp.
Owen - “A New Muse” (Polyvinyl)
As a boy I’d lie awake on Saturday mornings, listening in to the sound of my father singing hymns from across the house. He was always up early, our home abuzz with song and sound before I heard steam rise from our rice cooker: a noise soon followed by my mother’s call to eat breakfast. From the comfort of my twin-size bed, I let my father’s vocals soothe me; they represented more than love for some Christian God—they indicated a commitment he held to taking care of our family, for loving his wife more affectionately than all the other Korean men I knew. I learned how to love from my parents’ love for each other.
They weren’t into music, though. I couldn’t ask them for their favorite band—they didn’t have one, they just listened to hymns and CCM. I remember playing my copy of Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and my dad hating the noise of “Cherry Chapstick.” But more than mere aesthetic differences, my parents never really understood why I cared about music—it was, to them, a sinful pleasure. And as I’ve pursued music writing for more than a third of my life, my parents never supported the endeavor; if anything, they actively discouraged it.
There’s a pain in listening to Owen’s music because there’s a pain in growing older, in seeing the gulf between who you are and who you wish you were. I’ve been making changes—I’m letting myself be happy, I’m talking with more people—but sadness feels ever-present. I turned 28 yesterday and no year was more fulfilling than the last, even despite the past few months. In fact, my 27 often feels like the only year I’ve ever truly lived, like every other one is lost to time. In many ways it’s a lie, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that I wasted my life; it’s why everything I try to do now—including Tone Glow—serves some semblance of purpose.
When I listen to “A New Muse,” a song wrought from divorce, I feel the pain in Mike Kinsella’s maneuvering of the refrain. “Dear Lord,” he prays, “let me be anything but bored or in love.” I know what he means. To be bored is to quickly devolve into depression; if I’m left alone with my thoughts—if I’m not doing anything—it isn’t long before I spiral. The second time he sings it, “bored” becomes “a boy”: an admission that he couldn’t possibly consider himself a man. And when he closes the song with “Dear Lord, let me be anything but loved or in love,” there’s a gushing self-sabotaging wound laid bare—its familiarity makes me wince.
I’m not sure I’ll ever know the love my parents have for each other, or if I’ll ever love God in the way they do. I’m not sure I even want to, at least right now. But when I hear Kinsella sing the final verse (“My feet hurt from standing in one place for so long”), I’m reminded that I do want change. Succumbing to paralysis is easy—it requires no decision making, no actions to better oneself, no courage to move past the depression you’ve grown fond of. And right now I think I’m ready to love myself, or at least I know I want to. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Purchase The Avalanche at Bandcamp.
Rie Nakajima - “Karu Kuru” (Takuroku)
I remember having anxiety as early as middle school. I tried a lot of different methods of dealing with it: drawing, yo-yoing, biking, writing self-insert fanfiction with my favorite anime characters, among other things. Some of these helped with varying degrees of success, but my options when the bad feelings hit at school were severely limited. I didn’t have much understanding of what anxiety even was, so I couldn’t vocalize these feelings to my teachers. I had countless drawings confiscated while doodling in class to calm myself down, so that was off the table. There weren’t many places I could go to have a moment to myself before classes were done for the day, but I did at least have access to the library and the music room. My mental map of the Chase Middle School library is still flawless; I visited it every day and familiarized myself with every corner of it. I read the entire series of Zoobooks they had on offer, read about 30 volumes of The Hardy Boys, and learned about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing at a much younger age than most people would by reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham. (It was designated as a higher reading level book, and I wanted to test myself—I’m glad I did.)
The books that captured my imagination most and helped to untangle the knots in my brain, however, were the I Spy series. The spines were designated with a green sticker that indicated that they were the easiest reading level. The librarian encouraged me to look for something with a yellow or red sticker instead, but I didn’t care; I was intrigued by the beautiful covers and wanted something more leisurely on a particularly stressful day. I took my book (the Dinosaur’s Eye volume, I remember it well) to the music room where nobody else went during lunch breaks and spent so long scanning the meticulously crafted two-page spreads that I was late to my next class; I was hooked ever since, and my love for I Spy remains to this day.
I have tried, with staggering difficulty, to explain to people what makes me react so strongly to the sounds of Rie Nakajima’s work. Her debut album, Four Forms, is an all-time favorite that I have described as “what it feels like to be a kid in a candy store,” and “the aural equivalent of tipping over an elaborate domino sculpture.” Rie Nakajima’s work is more adjacent to visual stimulus than music in my mind, and looking at the tools of her trade, it’s easy to see why. The objects strewn about in front of her—which might seemingly be random ordinary things at a glance—are all arranged with a purpose and chosen according to what structure they provide to the music. When I listen to Karu Kuru I feel that these sounds were made by an architect and not just a “musician”; I hear space, I feel movement, and my attention is guided where Nakajima wants it to go. When I learned how I Spy spreads are made and saw the care and microscopic attention that Walter Wick puts into making sure that not a single shadow falls out of line with his vision, it was the same type of eureka moment that contextualized what I like about Rie Nakajima after watching her perform; these are sculptors, testing the limits of what they can do with your spatial sense in a flatter medium, be it a photograph or a recording. Just like I Spy, putting myself in Karu Kuru’s space is a welcome respite when I need some room to breathe. —Shy Thompson
Purchase Karu Kuru at the Cafe OTO website.
Claire Rousay - “im not a bad person but…” (AMPLIFY 2020)
The weary world boils over, pauses to convalesce. Social intercourse slows to a standstill. Guilt lies in wait and eventually emerges. We can only linger around virtual spaces for so long before fatigue sets in—away from our screens and toward a rush of tectonic moral standards, we are stuck with ourselves, reflecting incessantly on poor choices past and present. Unless we possess a mindfulness without limits, rare for even the most contemplative of creative spirits, sooner or later our internal shame crescendos. The louder it gets, the less we know where to put it.
Alongside other domestic documents and impressionist transmissions, I’d play many of Claire Rousay’s recordings in a pitch-black bedroom in the house by the water where I quarantined, especially on nights where communication failed and embarrassment took its place. Before too long, this body of work became somewhat of an acousmatic confidant to me, never seen but deeply heard, providing sleepless solace in lieu of late-night texts as the ice thawed out and winter turned to spring. From the first, her output has consistently exuded an uncanny sense of thereness that reaches past most purveyors of room tonit’s that kind of headphone time-travel that serves as a reminder of how sound always compensates for what language lacks; the quiet commotion of a prolific performer attuned to her own corporeality.
To compile a list of all of your wrongs and to make that the central text of a composition as Claire has done here is, perhaps, to gamble on your growth. To run that text through uninflected speech synthesis is, perhaps, to build a bulwark against the past, against words which one would not be caught dead saying out loud. To mix divulgence with the deadpan is, perhaps, a dangerous chemistry, regardless of whether this text was written in a rush or deliberated over days. To arrange field recordings in the first place is, perhaps, to make art out of quotidian voyeurism. To improvise or compose at all is, perhaps, to run the occasional risk of solipsism and excess. All that said, perhaps we as listeners are unaccustomed to this level of transparency. Perhaps the musical hegemony only pushes bloodletting and the confessional mode so long as it stays vague. Perhaps if we put this piece on repeat, we will hear this strain of specificity as a way forward. One certainty: we have so much to unlearn. Once we set our guilt free, we can start anew. In the dark, away from the world, this was what I heard. —Nick Zanca
Purchase im not a bad person but… at Bandcamp.
Jim O’Rourke - “So You Want to Write a Fugue” (Steamroom)
In that interview you probably read, Jim O’Rourke explained the process behind “So You Want to Write a Fugue.” If you’re smart or into music technology, you probably get at least the gist of what he’s describing. If you’re, like me, extremely not smart, reading O’Rourke’s words should be akin to following magical spell instructions. Extremely twisted, complex, practically indecipherable magical spell instructions. The more you read, the more you forget. You need a chart that lays down each step separately. Perhaps that won’t help, perhaps you need someone explaining it to you in a YouTube video. No guarantees that’ll make you understand, though.
Reading O’Rourke’s words, one name and one title stand out. Glenn Gould. The Goldberg Variations. O’Rourke didn’t specify exactly which Gould recording of the Johann Sebastian Bach piece he used for “So You Want to Write a Fugue”: a 1955 one that serves as a showcase of the pianist’s furiously fast playing, or a 1981 one that gives us a wiser, older Gould who’s not, by his standards, in a hurry? Does it matter? It seems the only real connection O’Rourke’s composition has with The Goldbergs is that along its 36-minute length it feels as if it’s broken up into separate parts, each one arriving after music stops, each one mirroring the parts of Bach’s piece: Aria; Variatio 1. a 1 Clav.; Variatio 2. a 1 Clav.; Variatio 3. Canone all'Unisono. a 1 Clav.; etc.
The 1955 version propelled Gould into fame; with the 1981 one he signed off, leaving millions of fans, obsessives and detractors with dozens of recordings whose worthiness is still hotly debated. “So You Want to Write a Fugue” manages to sound like the best of both worlds. While its tempo is earthly, inviting and melancholy as the later Gould version, it conjures wave after wave of wonder and awe, just like the 1955 recording does, one hundred percent so if you’re a first-time listener, but probably also if you know it from the first note to the last.
The essence, though: that’s what “So You Want to Write a Fugue,” even being a result of transformations and mutations and processing, shares with both of Gould’s recordings. Like them, it’s music for the early hours of the morning, the barren paean to loneliness, trying to sound humane but leaving the most remote and desolate impression. It’s the sound of the man geeking out and trying to prove something—anything—to himself and, second of all, to the audience. The sound of mind perpetually racing and in need of testing itself, unable to take some rest, working and working and working, deep into the night, towards the first rays of sunlight. This is how I spent a lot of the first half of 2020. This is why I relate to this music. This is why it cuts deep. —Oleg Sobolev
Purchase Steamroom 47 at Bandcamp.
Wicket - “Inhaler” (self-released)
Sunlight through your bedroom window, afternoon paints the walls with shadows, tips the tree leaves in gold. Fleeting moments of bliss, minutes before sunset, stillness finds you at last, thoughts carried away by soft wind, kept at bay by golden light and shadowbox silhouettes.
How many years worth of afternoons have you spent like this? The only constant is the way the world looks just before light settles into dark. Memories flash, run together, film reel flickers to life, through bedroom windows, through rearview mirrors, through windshields, through oak trees, along sidewalks and highways, casts shadows, casts aside ghosts of yourself.
A respite to catch your breath through a frenzy of life in motion. A chance to believe there is gentle hope still left for you when everything is bathed in soft gold. Night, too full of empty space; morning too harsh, overexposed. Just before dusk, time rests on its laurels, gives you back to yourself; time to belong, time can belong to you, fleeting, but still yours, still in this moment, perfect still-life, ephemeral, but just enough to cling to. —Mia Antoinette
Purchase Williams // Inhaler at Bandcamp.
Christina Vantzou - “Wild Beast Research” (Edições CN)
Most parks in 2020 won’t be landscaped by humans. The unusually warm fall temperatures will thicken their vegetation and, when winter comes, none of our parks’ overgrowth will lose their green. These abandoned spaces become one again—natural habitats by the time spring 2021 enters. Humans immerse themselves into the wilderness of Christina Vantzou’s “Wild Beast Research”:
Vines’ enchanted entanglements weave a system of strings, vibrating haunted melodies along lost pathways.
Long thin blades of leaves whisper within mild winds of spring, bringing a chill to brims of sweat.
Vantzou’s Multi Natural blossoms, bellowing like resonating cups: we all hear gasps and stuttering lethargy.
In under two minutes, Vantzou’s vision of “Wild Beast Research” becomes a new phase of evolution; it’s not what we expected. Finally: aether. —C Monster
Purchase Multi Natural at Bandcamp.
Jackie Lynn - “Traveler’s Code of Conduct” (Drag City)
Haley Fohr holds out a divine cup of wisdom to those walking shadowy paths on “Traveler’s Code of Conduct,” from Jacqueline, her second outing as titular road-worn diva Jackie Lynn. Based around a hypnotic guitar line and lightly synthesized sounds that stretch and underpin her regal voice with galactic splendor, Fohr recites rules for safe passage through landscapes both emotional and real, which are of course one and the same in the heart of the lonely traveler. “The sun is your friend,” she warns. “But the moon is your guide.” Like all of the tremendous Jacqueline, it’s hard to know what to deem this song genre-wise, though it has elements of jazz, folk, drone, and a streak of soft psychedelia in its mesmerizing patterns. But sonic perplexity is appropriate for a song that itself is about traversing the in-between spaces. “The moon is my incubator,” Fohr repeats as the song comes to a close, her final instruction for all lost souls to find a sort of comfort in the unknowing, with which will come an undimmed faith that what is clouded by the dark is simply a new dawn in the process of being born. —Mariana Timony
Purchase Jacqueline at Bandcamp.
Polo G - “Wishing for a Hero (feat. BJ the Chicago Kid)” (Columbia)
The piano sample on “Changes” speaks for itself—it’s fucking beautiful, and never, ever gets old. Polo G’s decision to flip it on “Wishing for a Hero” might seem bold, even sacrilegious, given how iconic “Changes” is; but this sample is different from the rest. It originated with a 1986 song by Bruce Hornsby and the Range called “The Way It Is,” a well-intentioned but mostly vanilla and hilariously ’80s song about racism and the civil rights movement. That piano part though… even hearing it in this white-ified and dated context is mindblowing; it’s a once in a lifetime kind of thing, instantly gorgeous and eternal. In its latest form, in 2020, the sample has only become more potent, at once weightier—exhausted, straining against the same killer cops, the same murderous state, the one that made 2Pac ask, “Should I blast myself?”—and lighter, untethered from 1998 and floating above and amidst the wreckage of history.
On top of that, in 2020 the sample is itself an ode, an elegy, to 2Pac, who Polo G describes as “a gangster and a revolutionist,” an elder. This is what happens when a sample is handled with care and talent: the associations and emotions pile up, layer, multiply, move with increasing force and momentum—1986 to 1998 to 2020—traveling through time even after a link in the chain has passed. The key is in the chorus: Hornsby wrote (as a ‘character’ in the narrative of his song), “That’s just the way it is / Some things will never change”; 2Pac agreed, but also added, “That's just the way it is / Things will never be the same.” That pairing, that adjustment, is what makes “Changes” so stunning, a seeming contradiction that’s really an opening, not at all a call to give up and accept the status quo—“Things will never be the same.”
Polo G takes it back to the ‘original’: he only says, “Some things will never change.” It’s hard to blame him; just a few days after he dropped the video for “Wishing for a Hero,” George Floyd was murdered. The burning of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis was different—things will never be the same—but George’s murder—and the murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Oluwatoyin Salau, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Riah Milton, Rayshard Brooks…—was more of the same bullshit, just like 2Pac’s “penitentiary's packed” and “war on the streets and the war in the Middle East.” But the sample, the eternal sample, allows for multiple simultaneous experiences to unfold at once; when Polo G and BJ the Chicago Kid say, “Some things will never change,” I also hear 2Pac saying, “Things will never be the same”—all speak together, there is no contradiction, just a force moving with the weight of decades.
Noz made a critical point about the discourse on ‘protest music’ during this uprising: while Spotify statistics showed an uptick in streams for “This Is America,” “Alright,” “Fuck the Police” (N.W.A., not Boosie Badazz or YG), people on the ground were hearing Pop Smoke, Chief Keef, Nipsey Hussle. “Changes,” and “Wishing for a Hero,” are undoubtedly a kind of ‘conscious rap’ that might place them in the former category—there’s no “gorilla in the fucking coupe” here. But, though I haven’t heard “Wishing for a Hero” at a protest (and definitely not “This Is America”), I have heard “Changes”—and the reactions I’ve seen make me believe it’s simply in its own category. Sure, you could call it cheesy, because it kind of is, but how many other songs make you want to laugh, cry, and burn shit down all at once?
Polo G carries the legacy of “Changes” into the next generation. On the one hand, I hope no future artist will have to make another “Changes,” another “Wishing for a Hero”—I hope the struggle for Black liberation will succeed in our lifetime and that a whole, unheard sound and art can emerge, blossom, on America’s tombstone; on the other hand, the struggle continues, and if, in another twenty-two years, killer cops are still rampaging, prisons still packed, I hope another artist as talented as Polo G will pick up the mantle and keep the ghost alive. “Things will never be the same” = “ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE!” —Sunik Kim
LaToya Kent x LeRoi Da Moor - “And Its a Promise” (Cleveland Tapes)
RA Washington AKA LeRoi Da Moor and LaToya Kent are two of the primary songwriters in Cleveland’s Mourning [A] BLKstar. On “And Its A Promise,” they strip the MAB template to a skeleton—where there may have been trombone, trumpet, live drums and multiple harmonies, Kent and Washington settle for voice and a lurching, dusty beat featuring a repeating piano strike and omnipresent white noise. The listener is immediately dropped into a tense relationship, detailing a couple “stumbling through bramble, trying to catch a fix.” Kent begins, “You want to play in the garden. You think you’ve played your fare. I think you don’t play fair. I think you don’t play.” The chorus, which states, “We fixate on a future and it’s a promise” is open-ended: addiction plays the spectre, hovering atop the song’s words, but it’s unclear whether it’s about drug use, an abusive co-dependent, or the finicky and mercurial artistic process. As is the case for much of MAB’s oeuvre, Kent & Washington allow the listener to draw their own conclusion, but will leave the chorus rolling through your head for days. —Jordan Reyes
Purchase Dakini at Bandcamp.
Ashtray Navigations - “Reg Presley Singing” (VHF)
Ashtray Navigations make a hard-to-describe racket that straddles transcendent raga-influenced drone, messy DIY noise and massively fried psychedelic free-rock. Some albums lean more to one direction than another, but the overall atmosphere tends to be a shatteringly ecstatic, altered-state howl. “Reg Presley Singing” appears on the Greatest Imaginary Hits box set, a massive career-spanning four-CD + LP survey of Ashtray Navigations’s 27 years of existence. Each of the set’s four CDs is compiled by a different fan/friend of the group, pulling tracks from AshNav’s voluminous back-catalog of cassettes, vinyl and CDRs… but given the daunting size and generally high quality of their discography, an entirely different four discs of “greatest hits” might have been compiled and would have been as good.
The LP, however, is a brand new album recorded at a studio, and it’s absurdly good as well… which makes sense, since Ashtray haven’t stopped recording in all of their nearly-three-decades of existence. It’s reasonable that these constant explorers would keep on refining what they do and get better and better with experience. For those who haven’t necessarily trawled the noise sub-sub-sub-underground and may be coming to Ashtray Navigations for the first time in 2020, “Reg Presley Singing,” the opening track on the LP, is as solid and exciting a place to begin as any. Indicative of the new album’s tone, it’s more rock than noise. The song starts with some deceptively lulling music-box-like chimes, a gently meditative tone to get you comfortable. After a minute, some feedback peels away from the introduction and there’s a hint of something darker to come… and after a couple of minutes, it sure does. “Reg…” transforms into an utterly blistering psych rock stomp. The chiming intro sticks around long enough to ground the song as the piece becomes a mantra led by a scorchingly acidic Blue Cheer-esque guitar solo. It doesn’t build towards a climax, it just establishes an atmosphere are lets you take a good, long soak in it: beautiful, heavy and joyful. —Howard Stelzer
Purchase Greatest Imaginary Hits at Bandcamp.
iT Boy - “Bake-kujira” (New Amsterdam Records)
iT Boy—the solo project of Brooklyn-based electronic artist and multi-instrumentalist Theo Baer—presents music that balances deeply personal narratives with dreamy, ambient aesthetics. His recently released EP, The Nail House, is both subdued and explosive, incorporating his artistic journey and personal hardships (especially with relation to the insidious reality of gentrification) into the foundation of the sounds he makes.
“Bake-kujira,” the final track on the EP, stands out for its spellbinding embodiment of Baer’s genre-blending musical philosophy. The piece intertwines ethereal synths with muted trumpets, forming rich textures and full-bodied harmonies. It’s never stagnant, consistently layering new sounds on top of each other that drive a forward motion through the hazy universe he’s created. There’s a deceptive unrest in the music, though: the harmonious, almost celebratory melodies from the beginning of the song eventually give way to agitation. The final moments of the piece provide a newfound intrigue, as pummeling rhythms fade into a haunting last sentiment: the sound of waves crashing against the shoreline. Perhaps this ending is symbolic of the bake-kujira, a ghostly whale skeleton in Japanese mythology that’s said to bring about a curse. What’s certain, however, is the fact that within the sublime world of resonant, airy electronics on “Bake-kujira,” uncertainty is inseparable from elation, reflected by ever-present tension that lies just beneath delicate melodies. —Vanessa Ague
Purchase The Nail House at Bandcamp.
4s4ki - “NEXUS (feat. rinahamu)” (SAD15mg)
“Nexus” seeing release during quarantine was an incredible happy accident. 4s4ki has been making this type of depressive music since 2018 when she first started out as Asaki, blending rap, bedroom hip-hop and internet-bred bass music into a singular style. The single’s woeful hook — “you wanna see your friends / I wanna see my friends” — isn’t a surprise at all coming from her; it could’ve been attached to any of her songs no matter when it dropped. And yet it ended up perfectly expressing the mood of the most surreal time of our lives when we were cooped up in our homes, wondering exactly when we can be reunited with our loved ones. Producer Kotonohouse, too, taps into an escapist state of mind with a starry, bashful yet intricate beat reserved more for the world of daydreams, or maybe a distant space in the internet where you flee to seek emotional refuge. 4s4ki keeps on searching for a place to hide: from a droning listlessness, as well as from ghosts of her relationships past. But amid this dreadful, uncertain time, she manages to leave behind a pair of comforting lyrics: “I don’t know the answer, but this is good for now.” —Ryo Miyauchi
Stream Your Dreamland at one of the available streaming services.
Ntu - “Konke” (Abu Recordings)
If the three months of 2020’s “Q2” have been defined by anything, it has been a lack of confidence: in ourselves, in others, in our systems and infrastructure, in just about anything. “Konke” is the closing track off of Perfect Blue—the debut EP from Brooklyn via Virginia producer Ntu (Nala Duma)—and it’s an expression of youthful confidence, a warm reassurance that has given me a space for reprieve from each day’s new shitstorm.
Written in collaboration with Jessica Howard—who sings the song’s final verse and chorus—and soaked in vocal tones and styles of late-90s and 2000s R&B, the lyrics of “Konke” comfort and offer strength for world and internal reconstruction. It’s an unpredictable shifting represented by the buzz and snap of the sound-design, reminiscent of Lotic, FKA Twigs, and Arca.
I see my younger self sitting in a parked car in a church parking lot, watching the sun disappear behind mountains yet again, deeply unsure of how many days realistically followed. “Konke” is an extension of a hand and a smile on the other end. —Evan Welsh
Purchase Perfect Blue at Bandcamp.
KeiyaA - “F.w.u.” (Forever Recordings)
“F.w.u.” announces itself booming and stuttering through a heavy sample and a hard cut. A silence about the sample’s length—a breath—follows before the sample sounds again, this time giving way to a soundbyte: a cleverly spliced clip from Paula Moss’s reading of Ntozake Shange’s “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” from the 1976 choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (a work revisited multiple times throughout KeiyaA’s brilliant Forever, Ya Girl).
Co-producing with dj blackpower (an alias of rapper/producer MIKE), KeiyaA builds on Shange’s text with her splice. The source material carries a demand to receive reparative justice from “a man whose ego walked round like Rodan’s shadow,” an insistence to not be violated: “i want my stuff back / my rhythms & my voice / open my mouth / & let me talk ya outta / throwin my shit in the sewar.” Under KeiyaA’s care it becomes a call to prayer, an arrival, an allowance of oneself to take up space and be assertive: “open my mouth and let me talk my shit.”
The track takes off, pumping, lopsided with a crooked beat. It sits beyond the grid, grooving, flowing, and pushing at once. KeiyaA’s voice dances atop, toying in freeform, reciting a series of motifs before finding the words that stick: “No matter what u do, please don't pass my spliff around the room / If you fwm u gonna always send that shit right byke to me.” To take a hit is to breathe deep rays of relation, to associate and link up. Beyond property and value, KeiyaA demands respect, virtue, and consent. (Shange: “I’ve got to have me in my pocket.”) A wandering spliff is a chain of betrayal. Likewise, KeiyaA’s music, in all its gorgeousness and challenge, reminds us that if we are to engage with it we must understand that we enter a pact. As listeners we open her mouth, let her talk her shit. —Leah B. Levinson
Purchase Forever, Ya Girl at Bandcamp.
Machine Girl - “Cyan Hardcore” (self-released)
Matt Stephenson’s output of loosies is truly astonishing. Every few months there is a new treasure trove of hits from his (C:) drive, punctuated by a quote like “Well I guess I had these lying around.” It reminds me of how, when I housed him and drummer Sean Kelly after a show in Cleveland, he was still producing in someone else’s home with little a care. He’s a titanic songmaker, and on “Cyan Hardcore,” the rapid breakbeats found on Gemini and MG DEMO DISC are unleashed. It’s an invigorating track, synesthetic in its tones and unrelenting grooves, a surging dance floor firestarter enveloped in aquatic expressions. While indebted to such giants as Alec Empire, Soichi Terada, and Jun Chikuma, Stephenson puts his own chaotic spin into the mix, giving us something for the freaks only. “Club-kid video-game nightmare” isn’t a genre that can be applied to anyone in the world—except Machine Girl. —Eli Schoop
Purchase RePorpoised Phantasies at Bandcamp.
Anderson .Paak - “Lockdown” (Aftermath)
Since his breakthrough via Dr. Dre’s Compton, the most prevalent thing that has been on Anderson .Paak’s mind is sex: his song called “Silicon Valley” sure ain’t about San Francisco, and, well, just guess why he wants tinted windows on his car. Surprise single “Lockdown” shows a different side of him, because how can anyone think about sex during a time of COVID, and how can anyone think about the pandemic during a time of protest? “Sicker than the COVID how they did him on the ground / Speaking of the COVID, is it still going around?” The official music video (a.k.a. the version not on Spotify) features Jay Rock, the most gangster rapper from the Black Hippy crew, and his verse might be his most profound one yet for the same reason that .Paak stopped singing about sex here: “And then you go on your jog / Then your color might get you took.” What always strikes me is .Paak’s charred voice; its rough around the edges, like this 34-year old who sounds like he’s 25 has seen too much, and based on the lines “Cause they throw away black lives like paper towels / Plus unemployment rate, what, 40 million now?”, maybe he has. And damn has he always sounded good when backed by a strong groove. —Marshall Gu
E-40 - “Give Me 6” (Heavy on the Grind Entertainment)
I’ve been networking in virtual meetings all day
If you’ve heard E-40 before, your mind can already hear the above line in his voice. He has a fast, rubbery flow full of humor and attitude that can speed up and slow down on a dime, and he’s always unafraid to bend the shapes and syllables of his lyrics to fit certain rhythms. Instantly recognizable, often imitated but never once duplicated, E-40’s style at this point is pure confidence, able to take any subject (in this case, standing six feet apart during quarantine) and wring a few verses out of it.
“Give Me 6” is all E-40 the entertainer: fast, funny, and funky as hell. Silly wordplay (“I can look a human in the eye like a stye and tell right away that he a no-good guy”) is put right up against lines so straightforward and disarmingly honest (“It’s hard to trust the people that you trust”) that you almost can’t hear them the first time around. His style may be what gets the attention, but layering in these nuggets of emotional vulnerability and truth is what truly separates his rap from weak imitators.
When we think of rappers, we generally only think of those most current, those who not only have their creative juices flowing but haven’t let themselves stagnate stylistically. E-40 isn’t current, but is there any other rapper who could make a quarantine gimmick rap 32 years into his career and make it into one of the best pop songs of the year? I doubt it. —Samuel McLemore
Naeem - “Woo Woo Woo (feat. Amanda Blank & Micah James)” (37d03d)
The return of Naeem Juwan (fka Spank Rock) is one of 2020’s most welcome surprises. While the Baltimore-born musician’s new album Startisha may feel like a reinvention thanks to its tender love songs and politically motivated lyrics based on personal experiences, it also delivers this deliriously sexed-up party jam. The unmistakably raspy voice of Amanda Blank should be familiar to anyone who’s been following Spank Rock since the days of “Bump,” while Micah James’s smooth flow provides a charismatic counterpart. The song’s physically distanced video shows all three artists in their bedrooms, trading off verses like a competition to prove which one is the horniest. In my interview for Xtra Magazine, Juwan shared how much he enjoyed making the song, too: “I love the idea of having three different voices on the track and no real hook, just us passing the mic. It felt like early cypher days in West Philly smoking blunts—like I was in Digable Planets or the Native Tongues collective.” —Jesse Locke
Purchase Startisha at Bandcamp.
BLACKHANDPATH - “Internet Juche” (self-released)
As a naïve, impressionable young lad, one of my first moments of enlightenment in regards to noisy hip-hop was when I heard Techno Animal’s “Cruise Control,” the opening cut on 2001’s The Brotherhood of the Bomb. The monstrous track features blazing, high-energy bars from legendary Chicago group Rubberoom and heavyweight factory-metal beats that rearranged my eardrums forever. Ever since I fell in love with that song I’ve been looking for something that matches it in both energy and abrasion, a void that was amply fulfilled when I found BLACKHANDPATH’s 2016 record Egregore, specifically the crushingly melodic “Theoxx.” Four years later the formidable Richmond duo have returned with their third full-length, These N****s is at it Again, along with its opener “Internet Juche,” a worthy addition to the (personally) esteemed ranks of the aforementioned tracks.
It begins with a delirious, confused mess of samples and an immediate beatswitch before Young Kozy lands his first slamming syllable, accentuated with the industrial-strength hit of Bileblaster’s beat crashing into place. Every second of the song explodes with powerful, invigorating electricity, even when Kozy’s furious flows aren’t there—because they cut out for an impossibly infectious instrumental break, complete with bone-smashing bass hits and catchy choir sample. I dare say they even outdo Death Grips in the chopped-up adlib department (you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about). The track runs less than three minutes, but it feels even shorter because it’s so all-consuming; I really can’t listen to it without going all in, if you know what I mean. The remainder of These N****s is at it Again is also killer, but there’s something truly remarkable and singular about the energy of “Internet Juche.” —Jack Davidson
Purchase These N****s is at it Again at Bandcamp.
Bob Dylan - “I Contain Multitudes” (Columbia)
There are many sides of Bob Dylan through his now close to 60-year career. He’s a political protestor turned apolitical. He’s a folkstar turned rockstar turned country crooner. He’s a converted Christian turned pro-Zionist, and then more simply, a believer. He’s a beat poet, a dad rocker, an Alicia Keys chaser, a Nobel laureate. So when his newest album of original material in almost a decade starts with a song called “I Contain Multitudes,” it’s as great a summation as he could’ve possibly imagined in three words. And the song adds a bunch more sides to his resume: he’s a painter, a heat-packer, and he’s “just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones / And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.” Against dreamy washes of acoustic guitar, Dylan barely sings these words at all. Close to 80 years old now, he’s aware of his limitations and adopts a gruffier, gothier voice. The effect is that “I Contain Multitudes” plays like a man looking back on everything he’s accomplished, especially when he goes “What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” It’s as loud an opener as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was, except it’s quiet. But that’s to be expected: he contains multitudes, after all. —Marshall Gu
Purchase Rough and Rowdy Ways at the Bob Dylan webstore.
Hinds - “Good Bad Times” (Mom + Pop)
Ana Perote starts “Good Bad Times” in a smoky drawl, telling us “It’s a good day / with my pretty boy on my arm / Like in the movies.” By the end of the song, though, it seems to me that the pretty boy in question is kind of a shithead. He turns “good times into bad times” when he isn’t allowed to fuck, and Carlotta Cosials and Ana’s voices are blanketed in smoke when they sing-shout “every time you talk to me / Siento que tengo dueño” (“I feel like I have an owner”).
This song, layered in twinkle, bass, and gauzy voices gives me the anxious feeling of being at a party where I don’t know anyone. It reminds me of this memory: I’m standing on top of a dark staircase in my friend Olivia’s house, but she has fairy lights that snake around the banister. When I go downstairs, there’s an ugly, giant, black pleather couch, and it's stacked with underclassmen getting drunk on their first mixed drink. There’s a knot in my chest, and I can’t tell if I'm judging or being judged. Of course, for many young girls, there will come a time where she attends a party and is uncomfortable. Some types of party discomfort are more serious than others, but general party discomfort may surround the following questions: Am I good enough to be here? Am I too good to be here? Do they like me? Do I like them?
Party anxiety traps you in a dirty, sticky spot, one where you’re forced to reconcile your need for love and your need to be cool. But this song feels full of self-conscious contradictions—backstroking in dreamy guitar and glowy synth as Ana says, knowingly, “maybe I’m no longer as nice as you think.” It makes me wonder if parties are too complicated for anything as simple as love or superiority. You love having the pretty boy stand with you, but you hate how he treats you. You love being at the party, but you’re afraid of everyone there. Your beautiful boy stops having sex with you, but you never planned on being nice to him for long. All you ever really get to keep with you forever is the moment at the top of the stairs, wondering if it’s better to go down or go home. —Ashley Bardhan
Purchase The Prettiest Curse at Bandcamp.
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist - “God is Perfect” (ESGN / ALC / Empire)
When he’s not throwing down the gauntlet on DJ Akademiks, Freddie Gibbs is pushing out modern day classics like Freddie or his Madlib collaborations Piñata and Bandana. Alfredo, his new album with The Alchemist is another home run. Cinematic and soulful, the sounds on Alfredo are more Wiseguys and Travis Bickle than earlier outings. “God is Perfect” revolves around a subdued piano line and gentle percussion as Gibbs considers his earlier life of crime, drugs and the division of gang territories, a lot of which is described in this thrilling Hypebeast article. He sets the scene from the outset: “I didn’t want to speak on this shit but it’s really been racking my brain now / ’Cause really I fuck with this rap, but my n****s still selling cocaine now / The crackers they got enough on us to go start a motherfucking case now / A n**** get hit with the R.I.C.O., they coming, they snatching the gang now.” As Gibbs relays his violent past, Alchemist’s airy piano—eerily reminiscent of the Halloween theme—provides a sinister tension to the words. Some of the most visceral passages muse on being shot at by rivals: “N****s shot at me and miss with the whole damn clip / Yeah the bitch couldn’t aim that shit.” In classic Gibbs fashion, even when he’s just survived a shooting, he’s still talking shit. —Jordan Reyes
Stream Alfredo at one of the available streaming services.
Chief Keef - “Late 4 Dinner (feat. Tadoe)” (self-released)
“Citgo” is one of the greatest songs of all time—“Late 4 Dinner” is a kind of “Citgo 2,” vapor in song form, an eight-minute MIDI string elegy drifting into infinity. Chief Keef’s best songs—“Awesome,” “Faneto,” “Citgo,” among countless others—work almost counterintuitively; the beats are low in the mix, the Runescape synths are flat and bleary, the kicks struggle to punch through the dense, imploding cloud of adlibs, cash registers, gunshots and toilet flushes. Versus a minimal, perfectly-tuned sound like that of, say, Future, Chief Keef works instinctively, freely, seeing every element of your typical drill track as totally mutable, pure sounds on an equal playing field rather than rigid categories like beat, lead, vocal. Through it all, he always writes hooks, the vocals are always key, he never forgets melody and rhythm—the basics. And the vocals are what make “Late 4 Dinner” so astonishing: this is basically an AutoTune choir, intricately layered and textured, at once blooming and decaying—I could listen to this on loop forever. —Sunik Kim
Stream Extra GLO at YouTube.
Axel Dörner - “1. ... .... 14.43” (self-released)
COVID-19 has been a surprisingly fertile time for avant-trumpeter Axel Dörner. Not only has he polished off and released a few interesting bits from his archives, he’s released seven (and counting) solo albums recorded entirely during the crisis. Disversicht was the first of these and “14:43,” its opening track, serves as a reminder of what Dörner and his trumpet are all about.
Ever since Louis Armstrong pulled a 20-chorus long solo out of Poor Little Rich Girl, the defining mark of the great jazz artist has been their solo performances, whether in a group or not. As the decades wore on and Braxton, Lacy, Parker, Abe, and others defined and redefined what a solo album from a horn player could sound like, what has never changed is the importance placed on the solo. Not only is it what the audience comes to see, it’s a boundless springboard for creativity, the highest form an improvising musician can reach for, what every musician wants for themselves: a bit of the spotlight, alone.
If you’ve started listening to “14:43,” it might seem strange that I’m waxing philosophical about classic jazz solos when the music has seemingly more in common with the likes of Keith Rowe than Lee Morgan. But listen more carefully, it’s all there. The musical vocabulary may be made up of spurts and hisses instead of clean notes—silence and dysrhythmia instead of swinging rhythms—but the lineage is clear. Make no mistake, this is Hot Jazz in the 21st century. —Samuel McLemore
Purchase Disversicht at Bandcamp.
bod [包家巷] - “Dedicated to Beerwizard (a memory of a different self is a reminder of repeatable mistakes)” (YEAR0001)
The synthetic burst: an attempt at connection takes only a second, the settling of its aftermath needs more time. After “Dedicated to Beerwizard (a memory of a different self is a reminder of repeatable mistakes)” introduces itself with a bright flash, an unsure ambiance seeps in with the gentle textures of warm, organic keys and drifting artificial strings. It establishes an environment that reconciles with the consequences of its initial moments. Whether or not that momentary transmission reaches its intended destination, communication is still strained, and overcoming the landscape of understanding is still an impossibly difficult task.
On Music for Self Esteem, Nick Zhu’s melancholic, spacious, neo-classical compositions are interspersed with intense noise and jittery electronics. Over 37 tracks, Zhu wrestles with communication between themselves and their art, between themselves and listeners, between listeners and the art itself, with all three constantly collapsing into and folding over one another as the album’s metatextual portions—via song titles and external readings—chip away and make reference to any artifice in one’s interaction with the music and themselves.
“Beerwizard” is the best encapsulation of the album’s thesis, or at least is the song that spoke strongest to me in that regard, mixing most of the key musical tenets of Music for Self Esteem and knowing exactly how much space each requires to create the greatest effect. In the final third of the song, Zhu’s voice, heavily AutoTuned and delayed, grasps at phrases of repeated failings: an acknowledgment and knowing gesture toward the deep and daunting challenge of interrogating one’s self and reaching out to others through the same artistic expression. —Evan Welsh
Stream Music for Self Esteem at SoundCloud.
Sparks - “Lawnmower” (BMG)
Think of a rock band that’s been around since the 1960s and is still making music today. Take a minute… who’ve you got? The Rolling Stones? Maybe the Beach Boys, I guess… the Residents, though since Hardy Fox passed it’s just the singer and some ringers, so I dunno if they count… now, how many of those bands continued to make vital music in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s? How many made music that was just as good in later decades as what they produced in their prime? Lemme put it another way: when was the last time you or anyone you knew ran out to buy the new Rolling Stones album? Right. Which brings us to Sparks, aka brothers Ron and Russell Mael.
Sparks were contemporaries of the Doors in the LA rock scene of the late ’60s and have produced a steady stream of albums ever since with just a brief pause in the late ’80s/early ’90s after they attempted some commercial pop that didn’t fare too well. But ever since they came back in the mid-’90s, every single album has been terrific. Improbable, I know, but true. And their latest, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, is absolutely fantastic. Sure, it was made by two guys who are each more than 70 years old… by all rights, they could have stopped making music by now, rested on their considerable laurels, and enjoyed the California sunshine in happy retirement. I was dubious at first. I picked up the album and gave it a cursory listen… and remember remarking to a friend: “Oh dear, there’s a song on the new Sparks album called ‘Lawnmower.’ It’s a song about a lawnmower.” The friend’s enthusiastic reply was that “Lawnmower” was the best song on an album full of great songs. Seriously? I dove back in with a less skeptical ear, and what do you know, my friend was right. The song became lodged into my head, so catchy and fun, a quality that all classic pop ought to aspire to.
Sparks songs tend to be jokes. They have punch lines, or at least comic conceits. The typical Sparks target is toxic masculinity and sexuality, arrogance and pretense and artifice. Sparks lyrics are like a conspicuously funnier and easier to understand Steely Dan. “Lawnmower” is no exception; it’s told from the perspective of a guy so in love with his lawnmower that his girlfriend forces him to choose between her and the lawnmower; he chooses the lawnmower, so she leaves him. The narrator waxes about how great his lawn will look, but isn’t interested in the human relationship he already has… a relationship that he describes by the place his girlfriend is from (“Andover”) and the type of vehicle she drives (a “Land Rover”). It’s objectively hilarious that Russell Mael rhymes “lawnmower” with “Andover” and “Land Rover,” and incisive that he shifts so rapidly from describing how he’s being dumped and knowing exactly why to again waxing about how his lawn is going to be a “showstopper” (another word that Mael tries to rhyme with “lawnmower”). Sparks get lots of comic mileage out of forced rhymes, or from rhyming a word with itself to demonstrate the limited worldview of a song’s narrator, and he does that to charming effect here. The music is fascinating also. It’s structured as repeating motifs that build on one another. Loops of wordless “la la la” cut in and out to add accenting layers to the unchanging melody, but the monotony reflects the narrator’s self-regard and small world centered entirely on surface appearance. —Howard Stelzer
Purchase A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip at Bandcamp.
Macula Dog - “Breezy” (Wharf Cat)
“Breezy” oscillates with only the faintest suggestion of harmony keeping it afloat. A voice characteristically reminiscent of The Residents delivers an unintelligible sermon as though the words are gargled through a pint of blood. Macula Dog exploits the sort of sounds that are marginal on Devo records—the sequenced squeaks that form the lopsided refrain of “Mechanical Man,” the panned whammy cadenza featured in “Too Much Paranoias,” the whiny siren and distended laughter that tinges “Peek A Boo”—, building entire structures from these malformed frequencies. On “Breezy,” it comes to fruition, fresh, synthetic, and tightly packed, fitting the duo’s M.O. into a sub-3-minute pop song. The recording provides a gorgeous view of these specimen, twisted phantoms hovering over a beat, arriving from the wasteland to haunt us with their song. —Leah B. Levinson
Purchase Breezy at Bandcamp.
Tisakorean - “Bate Onna Bo” (Ultra)
Okay so let’s assuage the idea that Tisakorean’s music would not have existed without the Myspace era. This might be true. However, I highly doubt there were Myspace rappers that were this inventive; being unnaturally attuned to dance-rap, Tisakorean crafts three separate songs here in a four-minute span, all working within their own contained sound, all within the highly selective TikTok ecosystem. This is more impressive considering he has no regard for any sort of mainstream consumption; he’s a unique product of his own universe, unbothered by trends or fads. The dance triptych begins with bouncy, swaying bass, continues into a minimalist boom-clap a la Hurricane Chris or Huey (RIP), and ends with Tisa spitting doubletime over piano keys (just in case you forgot this man can really rap). “Bate Onna Bo” easily slots into his oeuvre as a buffet of sorts, giving listeners the full range of Tisakorean brilliance. —Eli Schoop
Lil Uzi Vert - “Wassup (feat. Future)” (Atlantic)
Hi! First exposure to “Wassup” by Lil Uzi Vert and Future was on Friday the 13th (of March!) when LUV vs. The World 2 dropped. Freaky Friday! Everybody went home for good. Nobody was doing the “Wassup” dance challenge but the entire world is now logged onto video chat.
Who knew “Wassup,” an afterthought feature-track off a double-LP, would hit so hard two months later as a music video. The only thing we have now is “Wassup.” Login:
C Monster: Wassup?
Joshua Minsoo Kim: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Behold the entire roster of reptilian humanoids in the video for “Wassup.” Using dark-web, anti-facial recognition software, Lil Uzi “Linda Perry” Vert talks HAARP conspiracy and stocks with Future’s face on one-hundred-thousand bubbles. There wasn’t a “Wassup” dance challenge.
Lil Uzi Vert and Future predicted our last four months of social famine. We’ve been facing our portals this entire time, some of us even cover them up. A “Wassup” dance challenge didn’t need to happen, we’re all repeating it anyway: “Wassup”… “Wassup”… “Wassup”… —C Monster
Stream Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2 at SoundCloud.
Still from Nostos: The Return (Franco Piavoli, 1989)
Thank you for reading the twenty-first issue of Tone Glow. Please enjoy the photo above of the horse.
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