By JD Brant // Contributing Writing By Saliek Ruffin
Hip hop has come a long way since the OG days of “Rapper’s Delight.” The track was the first hip hop song to reach Billboard’s Top 40 at a time when music by young black musicians was easily misunderstood. Now, almost 40 years later, hip hop still dominates Billboard charts. Streaming numbers have nudged the genre, yet again, into familiar hybrid pop/rock territory (Does anyone remember Blondie’s “Rapture”? That’s where it all started).
At its core, hip hop is a political movement, and contemporary artists’ attempts to smash the status quo offers glimmers of hope for Gen Zers, millennials, and other lost generations. Here we’ve compiled a list of standout artists who’ve emerged victorious during the COVID-19 pandemic and have taken on social justice causes as influencers in the music industry. We will post one new artist a week throughout the summer.
Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson is her government name. Her stage name, articulated “her,” is an abbreviation for Having Everything Revealed. The Filipino/African-American vocalist and musician rose to prominence at the height of the pandemic, and has been soaring ever since.
After initially releasing music under her government name, Wilson reappeared in 2016 with the H.E.R. persona, delivering her introduction EP H.E.R. Volume 1. She at that point delivered resulting EPs H.E.R. Volume 2 (2017), The B Sides (2017), I Used to Know Her: The Prelude (2018) and I Used to Know Her: Part 2 (2018).
2020 was the year of H.E.R. She was designated for five honors at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year for her album, I Used to Know Her, and Song of the Year for “Hard Place.” In September, she sang Prince’s tune “Nothing Compares 2 U,” for the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, and during the pre-game celebrations for Super Bowl LV, H.E.R. performed “America the Beautiful” while playing guitar.
What makes H.E.R. a beautiful soul is her passion for activism. Laced throughout her discography are reflections of her beliefs. “I Can’t Breathe” was the singer’s premiere social justice song, an emphatic statement on the current global policing crisis. She also contributed a song to the soundtrack of Judas and the Black Messiah titled, “Fight For You,” last August.
“It is really surprising to see his name in giant letters above an entire list of Black artists. Very strange approach especially during this time when people are being more mindful about their bullshit?” — Facebook commenter and music journalist Tia Brown expresses an attitude many Twitter commenters share about the Roc Nation MADE IN AMERICA tour announcement.
This week Roc Nation announced that a “new generation of musical greats” would headline the 10th annual MADE IN AMERICA tour. The only problem is this: Justin Bieber, one of the headliners, is from Canada. Not only that, but Bieber joins several artists who, over the course of their careers, have taken on aspects of Black identity (i.e., blackcents, physical appearance changes) to sell music. Considering today’s racially divided culture, this marketing move comes across insensitive.
A fellow music journalist from Buffalo, NY commented on Facebook the following:
“It is really surprising to see his name in giant letters above an entire list of Black artists. Very strange approach especially during this time when people are being more mindful about their bullshit?”
Several music fans on Twitter posted their own interpretations of the marketing move. One fan wrote, “Here we go with male artists being the headliners over more talented female artists again.”
Another fan expressed their disappointment in talent scouting, lamenting, “Man some of the line ups been bad but this is prob the weakest I’ve seen. You’d figure artists would line up to play shows now that covid in rear view mirror.”
The tour announcement was a huge disappointment not only because of its horrible timing but because it follows the predictable fool-proof patterns the music industry is so accustomed to abusing: marketing white people as the leaders of historically black-led movements. We know that placing Justin Bieber at the top of the bill makes sense economically. But also, it doesn’t. What really doesn’t make sense is the flagrant disregard for the changing priorities that have shifted the cultural dynamic of America over the pandemic. It’s almost a slap in the face to the people who stream Roc Nation artists, pay for Roc Nation merch, and attend Roc Nation shows.
Bieber is one of several artists who have become the center of cultural debates focused on borrowed Black identities in music, and whether the creative choices artists make are appreciation or cultural appropriation. Ariana Grande is guilty of taking on “blackcent” in her music, Qveen Herby has visibly changed her appearance over the course of her career and has been on the receiving end of mixed commentary for her aesthetic choices in videos such as “Sade in the 90s.” Even Justin Timberlake began his solo career idolizing the trendy and profitable careers of Black R&B singers (and to this day continues to idolize aspects of Black culture).
The problem with heralding singers that straddle the line between “culture vulture” and art appreciator as poster children for large profitable “black-owned” tours is that it negates the work Black artists with fewer Twitter followers and streaming numbers have done to make it to this point. This type of marketing sends a harmful message to young musicians, too. Putting Justin Bieber at the top of this bill tells these younger fans that to make it big, you need to ride the coattails of White America. You need to be a few shades lighter, a little more ambiguous, a little more people-pleasing. In other words, the formula isn’t broken. The formula is normal.
As much as performers must cater to a persona, digitization has forced music streamers to reassess their purchasing behavior, especially during periods of massive economic stress (i.e., during a pandemic). Music tastes have also changed, reflecting a more formidable and optimistically “woke” public interested in promoting authenticity. “Normal” doesn’t work anymore. Music fans want realness, period, especially when they’re choosing to spend their hard-earned dollars in a competitive entertainment market stealing jobs away from Black and Brown performers. Did we forget that, at one point in America, Black musicians couldn’t find work because of white people in authority?
That’s not to say that white people can’t appreciate hip-hop culture or become influential parts of the movement. What fans care about, however, are the success stories of artists choosing ethical dollars over exposure bucks. Fans want to know that the Justin Timberlakes and Justin Biebers of the world aren’t latching onto Black culture to stay relevant, but because they care about advancing the movement forward (i.e., progress). They want to know their hearts are in the right place. Bieber’s survival in hip hop is symptomatic of a larger shift in music trends: You no longer need a “come up” story to be successful. As someone who has openly admitted to benefiting from Black culture, vowing to do the work to fight racial injustice, this is the one tour Bieber could’ve sat out.
Zimbabwe-based songwriter So Kindly first emerged in 2017 with his debut EP “Warmest Place,” which earned him praise for his vulnerable storytelling and warm arrangements. On May 28, he made his triumphant return to the music scene with the release of his latest single, “The River,” where he sings about the distinctly human problem of being faced with a tough decision in love and the accompanying emotional fallout that follows. The track showcases So Kindly’s earnestly charming vocals and innovative sound, which blends electronic and indie rock influences into an effortless and inviting package.
“Down by the river I lay/It all in line for the truth,” he repeats in the refrain. He sings each lyric with his whole soul and brings easy energy to the melody, which sits nicely against bright guitar passages. The track remains steady and then comes to an abrupt end, which parallels the lyrics’ themes of accepting the unknown and placing trust in ourselves, even in the face of uncertainty.
“This track is about that decision-making process internally and emotionally,” he said about the song’s message. “Sometimes we have to cut ourselves some slack and accept that we are not always in control of the way things pan out.”
So Kindly has big plans for 2021, including a return to live performances and a new set of songs. Listen to “The River” here and watch the lyric video produced by Obscura Films below:
LHĒON is a Neo-Soul singer from Melbourne, Australia who floats like a butterfly and sings like a bee: her May release, Full Disclosure Pt. II, is anything but boring. The EP is her follow-up to Pt. I, released in March. Eloquent Mag asked the singer about the project in full, her inspirations, and more below:
Q: Sonically, what were you going for on Full Disclosure Pt. II? Love the musical embellishments and rich tones in the instrumentation so much!
A: Thank you so much! I believe in this song’s first incarnations, it was more of a ballad and at some point also a rock vibe! When my producer Lee started re-working it for my project, he knew that it would work really well if we put that Motown drive, and spin to it. The grittiness of the drums as well as the vocals. With some really rhythmic horns and the bold organ sound…since I absolutely live for the old-school Soul music from the 60s, it was a match MADE.
Q: How do you think Full Disclosure Pt. I compares to Pt. II artistically/sonically?
A:Pt I has a modern flair, neo-soul, R&B with jazz and electronic twists, a concoction of all those genres with a pop flow. Pt. I was looking forward to my newer influences. I was able to experiment a lot with the harmonics by bringing together genres that might not necessarily be meshing together naturally and making them do that. Pt II is more “looking back” and paying homage to the music I grew up on, the old school Soul and Motown with big horn parts, heavy driving drums and infectious hooks. I got to really spread my wings within my voice and my producer pushed me, in a good way, to really go for it with these songs, no holding back and baring it all.
Q:What was the inspiration behind the track “I Hate The Way That I Love You” on Pt. II and what was recording the track like for you?
A: A relationship gone wrong. Where you put all of yourself yet getting little to nothing back. You’re committing fully because you love this person with every inch of your being but they are not capable of loving you back. Somehow you can’t leave, although you know that’s what you probably should be doing. It was incredibly cathartic recording this song because I had to channel sadness and anger I hadn’t done previously. It was one of the first times I felt I completely let it all go and just went for it…and in the last couple of choruses, I think you hear the actual desperation I felt, because the story and the lyrics really got to me.
Q: Who are your musical influences?
A: This is always hard to answer since it’s ever-evolving for me! Here are some of them: Aretha Franklin, Jill Scott, Joss Stone, Adele, Emily King, Sara Bareilles, NAO, Emeli Sandé, Frank Ocean, Eryn Allen Kane, BANKS, Melody Gardot and more!
Q: Any up-and-coming bands or singer-songwriters you love right now?
A: You should definitely check out SKŸE, he has such a beautiful way of expressing himself with his voice, lyricism and melodies. I’m in awe of him. I also think you should check out Grace May is another beautiful artists. Very soulful and warmth, when I listen to her songs I feel almost embraced. Lastly, check out Cosima Olu. She is from Sweden. I’m always excited to rep great musicians from my home country. She creates music that’s so so fresh and incredibly unique. I’m mesmerized by her voice and songs, and she produces a lot of it (if not all of it) herself!
Listen to Full Disclosure Pt. II now and tell us what you think in the comments:
“…And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”
~ Nietchze, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146
this somnolent night
we sleep with doors open
when the void stares back
we do not stir
our body as solus
our shadow – the empire
our hearts – the color
W.D.H.: “This poem was written May 10, 2020 for Ahmaud Arbery.”
rites of empire
language for hire
and a little blue flag
still things, still lives
waiting to rise
ever seen before
W.D.H.: “Prior to the Statue of Liberty in 1886, the image of the goddess Columbia was widely recognized as the female personification of the United States. This female statue sits atop the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building and her imagery appears in the poetry of Phylis Wheatley. Like the Capitol building were current legislation is made, The Statue of Freedom was cast by enslaved men.
Bio: Wayne David Hubbard is an author and educator. His work appeared in Button Poetry and The Wild Word magazine. His first book Mobius: Meditations on Home was published in 2020. He lives in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Find him online at waynedavidhubbard.com
Collecting each moment like it could gleam off the titrates of my once-too-there
The collarbones drive you away,
The collarbones caved inwards until you, at last, completely
At least I have a garland of rare,
As I’m shouting at the black hole that is depression, or a set of dampened stairs.
Slicked shouting at the stars to marry me – stone cold soberly,
Notes tinged with once almost vertical sunsets,
The depths of whom eclipsed me.
At least I resemble a ruby
Born after a Hart concert on a humid, upstate, NY
Night, with so much ruby, spread around like overused tinsel:
Red on lipsticked, pock-marked mouths,
Red thin welts I give in the last days as my mother bloomed like a pumpkin or a peach.
Red is a ruby, the concert was Hart which would be remiss to not think of cutout hearts in elementary schools, littering the floor with promise.
Hart sang the song that would unearth me.
Mark me like a trail of blood cascading into the summer-heated grass completely…
Turning the wildflowers: gasping, ruby,
They Called You Waif: A Letter
Dear Former Self,
Just because you have no money and you brush your teeth with your fingertips, doesn’t mean that people with a house are right.
Dear Former Self,
I wonder if we’ll ever feel truly loved again.
Dear Former Self,
A controlling friendship, a controlling foster/host family, a controlling family who lets you stay is not a family at all.
Dear Former Self,
You should have known when they called you ‘waif’ over and over again, like pennies in a deserted lake.
Like the day you forgot to dust and went to sleep, and they texted you to do it at 8 at night, or how when you said you had an eating disorder, they said you were dishonest and
Dear Former Self,
It’s okay to be grateful for how these unhelpful houses led you to a better life, even though you defog your own mirror and still remember being in all of their bathrooms, keeping your toothbrush in your room, not in the holder with the others. You knew they didn’t want your stuff near theirs, you share a house but not places like that — it’s just too much.
Dear Former Self, Remember that you never entered houses to mystify them. You entered fearful and afraid from your mom telling you you were a barbarian and you had educational degrees to finish and were afraid and people loved you at first, then sometimes changed their minds. But that doesn’t mean a thing about you. The changing of the minds is independent of your unstable graphing of your line.
Dear Former Self,
It’s okay to remember things about each of the eight houses like looking at museums you still would visit if they were open. Tasting macaroons for the first time, or beef on weck, which you did not like but everyone else had seconds of, laden on paper plates you found for her in the basement while she baked. Or dogs that grew to love you or looking at lamb butter on Easter or Lamb Cakes in some families instead, where the Mom spent hours constructing a sheep out of white frosting and it’s okay to wish you could go back there. It’s okay to curl into a ball when you realize you no longer fit. That now you prefer to grab your ankles when you compress, instead of your bones.
Dear Former Self:
They loved you but they didn’t know how. The shadow repeats behind the wild blame: we loved you but you weren’t ours to fix, even though, even though, isn’t that the reason everyone took you in?
To get some praise for fixing. People love fixing broken people, as if they were bent moth wings, or a spade that needs polishing, or a table setting that’s almost right,
Except you need to find the extra leaf for the table to sit right.
You are not an extra leaf: you’re a fig tree. You are not meant to beg for scraps of acceptance from peoples’ sons and daughters, you are meant to be loved upon wiping your feet upon the mat that says ‘welcome home’ in frayed logic. When you think of her, you can still cry, forever, and that will still be okay.
My cat has three legs but her instinct is to knead the bed with both, you still see her stump move like it’s pressing down on my thighs to show she loves me. She will always be broken, but she continues to love. There’s nothing wrong with how she tries to fit in, whole, like all the others. Even with less weight, she fits perfectly between my feet, when she falls asleep at night., like she’s meant to belong there
I went to a funeral of my friend
I had been fighting with, riding shotgun
with my abusive mother, finally.
She picked her neck and looked at me
To remind me that even with my pancake makeup
I still had stress acne. Her blue iris just quivered and stared
At the one on my chin, hidden yet blooming,
Then continued to drive.
I went to a funeral of my best friend and my abusive mother hung near the fake grapes hanging down in vines like vices over the
Light wood slatted awning
That seemed light but would not break.
Watching us friends slow dance to hip hop music,
Arms slowly draped across one another
Lightly crying, in pear shaped pools to songs my Mom didn’t even know I was listening to.
I went to my first funeral and my abusive mom veered through traffic.
and , for once, I fell asleep
Dogged, humbled for her fool-
I wore a tight, pretty black blouse
Straightened my hair with a hissing iron that curled smoke like the ashes of Hope’s once warm body and
All I repeat in my head at my dead friend’s funeral is a mindnumbing I’m sorry,
Over and over again,
As my abusive mother hovers behind me
As I flutter my eyes closed
Saying my goodbyes
To her father.
Wondering if my Mom, behind me,
Is saying sorry to me
As I stand in front of you
For what I did with you.
Bio: Leslie Cairns is an MA graduate from SUNY Fredonia and pursuing Sociology at CU Denver as a graduate student. She has published largely microfiction, as well as one act plays. She is currently a Denver Poetry Fellow at Denver Lighthouse Writers, under the mentorship program of Carolina Ebeid. You can find her work at Green Buffalo Productions (plays) and Flash Fiction Friday (microfiction). Her chapbook is coming out under Denver Lighthouse in July, 2021.
The Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, NY was the portal to the rest of the world for working-class musicians in the early 1920s. A renewed interest in the club is paving the way for jazz redux.
By Jessica Brant
Buffalo, NY is a city that rumbles with age-old tradition, and because of this, progress sometimes comes at a cost. Even so, there exist enclaves of younger, ungrudging supporters, those who honor the older traditions in art Buffalo is famous for. This ecosystem of young rubbing off on old, old rubbing off on young, has contributed to the creation of a new identity for the city of Good Neighbors, or a rebirth.
This identity includes a renewed interest in jazz. At one point, Buffalo was a playground for giants—renowned jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., conductor of smooth jazz, and Buffalo Music Hall of Fame inductee; pianist and professor Al Tinney, member of The Jive Bombers and ardent supporter of the arts; and George Scott, pioneer of Buffalo big band culture and music educator. Besides the love of jazz, these genre visionaries had one thing in common: they began their careers at the Colored Musicians Club on 145 Broadway, breaking through segregation to reach esteemed heights.
Footage courtesy of WIVB
Every artistic movement has a struggle to reckon with, and in Buffalo, struggle is no different. Buffalo remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, along with Detroit, New Orleans, and Milwaukee, to name a few. It’s never a rare sight to walk down a street on the West Side of Buffalo—for example, Massachusetts Avenue—and see, quite literally, a night and day portrayal of the city. On one side, restored homes dressed in fresh coats of paint, new balustrades on balconies, new handrails on porches, and pretty gardens, and on the other, a population in turmoil; dilapidated two-story homes split into apartment complexes, ravaged by gang fights and rent spikes. In many people’s popular opinions (ask a Buffalonian), gentrifying an area is like putting a new Band-Aid on an old problem; wounds are buried for the time being, but they never really go away.
In 1917, black jazz musicians in Buffalo turned to their community to solve problems during an economically stressful period. Local 43, the all-white Buffalo musicians union, prohibited black members from joining, so these musicians formed their own union, Local 533. A social club, the Colored Musicians Club, flourished soon after. In the 50s, the CMC gained autonomy through their purchasing powers, separate from the white union, and remained a separate entity despite desegregation mandates. Today, the CMC is uniquely one-in-a-million, gaining landmark notoriety in 1979. In 2018, the club was finally listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Footage courtesy of WGRZ
Jazz would not be what it is today without the hustle and sweat of stage performers’ past; gigging and jamming were how musicians practiced and communicated with each other, swapping secrets, pushing each other to be better. For your average gigging musician in Buffalo, the club was a portal to the rest of the jazz world. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane all famously walked through the doors at 145 Broadway. The club was the ears and eyes of the world, on a national and international scale. People here didn’t know color; they just knew whether or not you could lay down some jive.
Trends in jazz hit ears here first. New styles and new ways of playing passed in and out of town. Here, big band sound had a heyday. “When I was young, I dug Grover (Washington Jr.). I dug the young guys, because they were speaking my language. There were people that were a little resistant to it (the sound we were trying to create), but later on as the George Scott Band was getting more gigs, it finally hit home with people (in Buffalo),” said George Scott, director of the Colored Musicians Club and bandleader of the George Scott Band. In keeping within the boundaries of the artform, innovators like George Scott and Grover Washington Jr. created something bigger, unchecking jazz from its default box as a snarky subgenre and placing it into an accessible groove.
Then there are those musicians, like jazz pianist Ed Chilungu, who have blended the genre with other traditionally “antiquated” styles of playing, like classical, and more ubiquitous styles, like gospel. Ed, a music performance graduate of SUNY Purchase and student of bebop’s founding father, Al Tinney, is a younger musician who has put his time in at the CMC, forming friendships with jazz drummer Darryl Washington (Grover Washington’s brother, who still lives in Buffalo) and George Scott. “In playing my solo improvisations, I try to approach it like…a combining of styles…classical harmonies, jazz, and melodic flourishes, with contemporary gospel and Christian music,” he said of his blend. “The notes, the melodies…they’re subconsciously in my being.”
Despite cuts to music and arts education and a refusal to renew music teaching contracts in schools, jazz and its offshoots are still clinging to the zeitgeist in the city of Good Neighbors; George Scott stills gigs, and eight other big bands in Buffalo join him. He’s also orchestrating plans for a youth big band program for students suffering from these cutbacks, as chairman of the Michigan Street Corridor. But worry not, a strong-willed Scott told this writer. His mission is, and always was, crystal clear: put authenticity back into the art. “Some of the best music teachers don’t get renewed contracts (in Buffalo), and sometimes schools will hire somebody who lacks the real musical knowledge to teach,” he said. “I’m working to get that young musician exposed to jazz music.”
Do you have song suggestions for the playlist or memories of the club you’d like to share? Email email@example.com.
Architectural firms are sharing renewed interest in Buffalo’s artistic past. Stieglitz Snyder Architecture proposed a $2 million renovation project that would dramatically change the look and feel of the land at the corner of Michigan and Broadway. According to the plan, now approved by the Historic Preservation Board, expanded parking, an extension to the south side of the building, and a first-floor reception space would be added to the CMC. Green rooms and meeting spaces would be added to the second floor performance space, which is also expected to receive new additions. This is a big deal for the venue, once host to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Project directors and fans of the club are projecting more legendary acts will follow in the coming years.
Editor’s Note: This music essay was submitted as a requirement for the NYU Music Industry Essentials certificate program.
Foreign hip hop fans are in luck: Benjamin Elias and Soul Special released their first official collaboration titled Reflections off their record label, Mad Talk, out of Tel Aviv, Israel. Benjamin Elias, born in Denver Colorado but relocating to Israel at the age of 13, and
Soul Special, an Israeli artist and producer who left high school and went on to graduate from the Rimon school of music, add multiple layers of unique perspective and experience to their latest undertaking.
The track was mixed by Brendan Ferry, a grammy-nominated mix engineer who has worked with YBN Cordae, Lil Baby, Meek Mill and many others. Ben, Soul, and Brendan’s teamwork has paid off for this listener. A reverberated piano riff, dreamy chorus, and a deep sub bass meet each other at first listen. When the first verse begins, we’re treated to the talents of a competent emcee. Benjamin Elias’ rides the flow flawlessly.
Every element in the production complements each other. Rapid-fire but concise lyrics fit perfectly, suggesting a chaotic but introspective inner monologue over the production’s dark and dreamy sound. “Had the world in my pocket and I dropped it out of fear,” one of the opening lines is rapped. “I was raised to be a prophet, didn’t have no profit.” This rush of lyrical intensity rises along with the pulsating elements that are gently introduced to the mix, building tension and then comfort in the form of harmonizing in the back end of the track, creating the perfect storm.
If you’re a fan of thought-provoking hip hop music, this single is for you. I am looking forward to listening to the full-length EP.
As an ally in the struggle for equality and against discrimination and bigotry in all forms, perhaps the most beneficial thing I can do is listen and learn from the struggles of others. I Wouldn’t Trade Being Black For Anything(produced by UrBan Nerd Beats) from Tha Capital G (out of Boston, see also Giddy) is a great piece of listening for other non-black allies who could do well to sit down and pay attention to someone with lived experience.
“If The Police Kill Me” handles the disturbing truth of the precarious nature of survival unique to the black experience. With that said, the vocal delivery (especially early on in the track) lacks a touch of the visceral, vitriolic outrage which is an appropriate by-product of the savage reality of police violence against black people. It’s understandable that the softer melodic approach could be said to encapsulate the weariness of spirit, the subdued comprehension of every moment having a drastically higher chance of being your last, solely for the hue of your epidermis (whether in your bed sleeping like Fred Hampton or driving with hyper-vigilance about your blinkers with Sandra Bland in mind), but it’s just a different direction than seems suiting to the topic. “We are living in a war zone” is a powerful opening which could do well to be followed up with more militancy. Although, the smooth R&B accompaniments (complete with sexy bass walks and dreamy organ work) do lend themselves nicely to the vocal approach, especially the catchy thought-provoking hooks.
“White Supremacy Is The Enemy” (apart from being a demonstrable fact throughout history) carries the same sexy bass style forward, laced with strong sampled quotes (an appreciable motif throughout the EP). The deep and rightful appreciation of blackness contrasted with the anger of attempts to usurp black aspects hits exactly where it needs when the lyrical content tickles the ears alongside the timbre of tambourines, leaving perfect room for the samples to speak their own peace. The song evokes reminders of the myths of white history and the historical eugenicist paradigm of superhuman/demonism. The layered vocal of the chorus really helps to underscore the message, couched in samples denouncing white-washing history (solid foreshadow, “The whole concept of whiteness…was a trick”) and sardonic verse (“Don’t forget the tan, of course black woman slang/They copy everything except being slain”).
“Jesus Was A Black Man With Dreads” immediately struck me because in my youth I had this argument so many times while a student at a white Catholic school. Again, we see the recurring theme of perfectly selected quotes dropping truth bombs, while the smoothness in the bass and dreamy organ/vibraphone tones carry us through. Normally the continuation of the musical aspects would bother this listener, striving to be constantly drawn in by difference; however it’s exactly what this project needs (the four tracks maintain cohesion without wreaking of boredom). The lyrics also need all the room they can (and do) get.
In the track “Black Women,” we finally hear the raw vitriol aforementioned juxtaposed with the voice of Sandra Bland, evoking a smokey R&B vibe from the piano and other melodic elements. The lyrical flow in the verses speak to the truth of the lyrical content itself, an appreciation that honors the muse. Misogyny as a whole is a colossal and persistent issue, yet within this track, it’s well-mentioned how it impacts black women (and those of the LGBTQI2+ community). In far too real of a way, this track is like an ode to many ghosts, those whose names we know and those we don’t, the velvety chorus like a hand caressing a loved one about to be interred.
Though I personally may have gone creatively in different directions here or there, the EP is an addictive masterpiece: lyrically sublime, spirit-shaking advocacy, intertwined with deliciously smooth melodies. This is a work which Tha Capital G should be proud of, and I strongly recommend this as listening to allies in the seemingly endless struggle against systemic, structural racism and implicit, unquestioned biases.
Forrest, also known as sleeplessinflatland, is an abstract visual artist and beatmaker from Norman, Oklahoma. In their latest project, Precious Cargo, they pay homage to their family and friends who they once referred to as precious cargo. In this exclusive interview with Eloquent Mag, Forrest delves into their past, present, and future; talking all about their music and career.
From releasing music during the COVID-19 pandemic, to giving advice for aspiring artists, Forrest truly believes in the power of artistry. Having a somewhat conventional upbringing, Forrest finds solace in their art and is able to use it to inspire others across the globe. Primarily using Bandcamp to release their music, Forrest is able to create from anywhere and continue to grow in their art.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got started in your career.
A: Well, goodness… how does one reflect on themselves and then refract it to the unseen eye. All I’ve known is the impulses and stimuli this system of sinew provides. I live a semi-charmed kind of life, eyes half-opened, moments and lights flashing past my body. Pretentiousness aside, I adore waxing nonsensical, but in brief bursts of comedic relief between bouts of intense work periods. I enjoy working and creating, something I’ve done since I was a young child. I wanted to be a marine biologist for the longest time. One of my very first works was a painting of a giant squid, imitating the highly exaggerated, but cool old wood prints one would see in early records of the lovely creature. I lived in a world of wonder and fascination, where the grasshoppers were as big as my little arms, zipping out of the grass taller than me and grandma’s trailer, a yellow double-wide surprise where the world had left the edge of existence.
Fast forward a decade and a half later, and once again my hair was long, in braids, my mood happy, in spite of poverty and homelessness. I didn’t see it like that, I was able to create at a moment’s notice, drawing and creating to pave my way. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to get a day job through a friend and was finally able to move off the streets, using the job to fund my art and support myself for almost a decade, before purchasing driving lessons, attending broadcasting school, phasing myself out as I was doing any and all production work I could get, paying or non. At one time, my week would consist of anything from running a shift at Long John’s in the morning, PA/DJ for a local high school’s basketball and wrestling squads in the evening, then the next day I was a roadie and stage hand for a local dj company. Eventually, I was simultaneously working at a local country radio-station as a board operator/ in studio producer for their football coverage on Saturdays, along with assisting my team in general management of the old shop I had been helping to run through the years as I phased out, working still at the dj/ live production company, on top of helping out with various productions with my mentor turned friend from the broadcasting school, Brad Reed. Time passed and I found myself on the promotions staff for the local radio stations, setting up radio remotes across the state, and operating as an audio technician or engineer for live radio remotes and shows. I did that until falling ill earlier this year and am still recovering.
Q: We are excited for your new project Precious Cargo. Can you tell us a little more about it?
Editor’s Note: Precious Cargo was released in 2020, the time of this interview.
A: Thank you! Precious Cargo has been in the works for a few years since I wrapped up it’s predecessor, Loose Change, a collaboration with fellow Normanite, Narono, that’s heavy on the boombap but with experimental and ambient flavors.
Precious Cargo is a progression from Loose Change in name and concept.
Loose Change was a joke between Narono and myself, the project theme being a trip to the laundromat, that these tracks were the loose change or tokens for the trip to the laundromat, or an experience of the trip.
Precious Cargo was born as a comment I had made to an old friend, referring to them and their family as “precious cargo.” I remembered this, and it stuck with me as a natural progression. With this next project, I wanted to make progress and learn to love myself, to value myself as much as I valued others, and to show it through this audio, writing much of it over the course of a couple years while on the road, or doing what needed to be done.
Q: In the new world of COVID, the internet is being utilized by musicians very differently. Many indie artists have been speaking out against big names like Spotify, in favor of places like BandCamp. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I release almost exclusively on Bandcamp. Especially with works, such as Precious Cargo, copyright laws will not allow for this work to exist on platforms, such as Spotify, especially in its current form. I hardly use Spotify, if I’m being entirely candid. I’ve been doing this since before I began sleeplessinflatland in 2014, before I really started sharing on the internet, and I would likely be doing this in some form or fashion without it. But to say I would be where I am without it is misleading, because I can’t even begin to imagine where I would be without it, in terms of its effects on my tastes or in terms of the sheer amount of resources available online.
Looking at these payolalike items that Spotify is currently doing, I already don’t pay for a subscription, so the chances of me shelling out cash out of my pocket or setting up a budget for that seems impractical. It’s not to say I wouldn’t put my music up there, should it be appropriate, because frankly, as artists or like with any other item, you have to go where the people are… Honestly, with me only having released for such a short time, I feel open to how I can really present the experience of my work or art, even if it’s only induced by a simple crappy graphic, some choice sarcasm and jokes, then the audio. So, with this spur of release here in 2020, it’s kind of the time to try and bust out of your shells, or to buck a so-called norm.
Q: Are there any other resources, similar to Bandcamp, that could be helpful for other indie musicians?
A: So many; in my opinion, it comes down to what you’re wanting
and how much you want to do. You name the platform, there’s a community presence there, it’s just up to you to find it. Youtube is how I learned to produce (and learn tricks still), and Twitter is wonderful for networking. If there’s a platform, I’d highly suggest setting up a profile on it, whatever it is, and beginning to get to know the people there that have similar interests or goals like yourself.
For instance, myself, when I was DJ-ing and employed by that DJ company, coming from an electronic, leftfield, and instrumental hip-hop background, I would find myself running into obstacles, especially maintaining a quality live production, especially with track selection. Eventually, I found out about Tunebat and with time, I was learning with experience. I find voicing my desires or needs, especially on Twitter, seems to show great results, whatever it is, just being open has yielded wonderful results.
Q: What are some other tools and platforms you are using to sell and promote other musicians in your community?
A: Personally, humor, openness, and some organization are my three go-to’s when it comes to promotions. It’s amazing the amount of times being objective and shamelessly happy about the music I do like, and supporting it however I can, will simply present an opportunity.
Self-made videos, good and bad, definitely help, whether it’s a beat video or me turning around the camera on myself.
Lists are highly recommended on Twitter, especially to prevent the endless scrolling and resulting wasted time.
Of course, if you’re not consistent or actively interacting with other members in your community, these other items are rather hard to put into play.
I have profiles setup on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter , Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and likely others that slip my mind, but in order to tie it all together, I suggest using items like a link tree to help get the most out of a single link space.
One thing I’ve done, off and on throughout the years, is I host a segment or show I started while in school, where I would highlight friend’s music, and I always really loved doing that, so it’s something I’m definitely looking at getting back up and running.
Other items include, doing my amateur design or graphics work in a variety of styles inspired by or directly influenced by their own works, such as filming myself spray-painting as I listen, remixing someone’s audio, or sometimes just a simple stagnant image I drew, painted, photographed, along with a meaningful caption supporting them, sometimes something funny to grab a viewers attention, or even downright absurd, depending on the mood.
Q: What is something that you have overcome to get to where you are now?
A: There’s a lot I could pick from. I was homeless for several years before getting a job at the age of 19. I’ve had COVID twice this year, I was born with holes in one of my lungs. I take the philosophy of life is pain. But… My favorite is that of riding my bicycle daily on an intercity route to an old partner’s house, just pedaling along, headphones blaring, on the side of the highway.
Q: What is your favorite part of what you do?
A: When I put those headphones to check what I’ve been working weeks on and it sounds like it did before I got sick this year.
Q: What is your favorite thing you’ve worked on thus far in your career?
A: Honestly… feeding my town for almost a decade at my old shop. I may have been human, an alcoholic, and slept in often, but once I woke up and helped to open the shop… I really came to love it.
It wasn’t just me though at all. There were so many people that helped.
Now if we’re talking visual arts, it’s probably this old two-dimensional wall art installation I had in an old studio apartment of the lady getting electroshock therapy in Requiem for a Dream, that had layers I could take off that would change its appearance to suit my mood.
A close second was a series I referred to as fractal pornography that is self explanatory. But when it comes to my audio pieces, I have to say it would likely be the track “Sister,” which actually samples my little sister and her high school choir in their last concert.
Q: What inspired you to start on your music journey? How have you used that inspiration throughout your career?
A: I was listening to tunes and party rocking quite terribly during my off time when I was first a general manager. We were no good. So I kept going.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone struggling to take the plunge into indie music?
A: Just do you, don’t worry about what folks say, be objective.
Ellenswood is a strange place. Look for it on a map, start in Scotland. Zoom in on West Fife. Zoom in much closer, and you’ll find it in the mind of Wurrd Jenkins (of Shadow People fame and whose comics appear in 100 percent Biodegradable, Something Wicked, Octal & Slice). I know, a little different to mention the comic credits for the lyricist of an experimental hip hop EP, but vital to the concept of the project itself.
Wurrd partnered with fellow Scots Kyle Meldrum (of Sunny Saltcoats) and Nunny Boy (of Ayrshire), who together form Voldo, as well as expat Scot Pineconesweetstones, now residing in Ilsan, Korea, to bring to life an idea fermented from his comic book writing days. For those who are unaware, this is already a heavy-hitting team, for example, you may recognize Nunny Boy from the group All Time High among other collabs and projects, including remixes of Rosie Gaines, Wendy James, and The Lovely Eggs (selected by Annie Nightingale to be featured on BBC Radio 1).
The exquisite production of Pineconesweetstones as mastered by Nunny offers rich, colorful layers of thoughtful substrata over which Wurrd’s words easily and skillfully tell an enchanting story. Perfectly offset by the smooth flowing melodic hooks of Kyle Meldrum, each song takes you to the same strange town, from a different moment and point of view, with unfaltering prowess in invoking the imagery of slippery cobblestone and askance villager glances initially conceived of ironically during a decade hiatus from music. Each member referred to their role as a breath of fresh air, and the synergy of every component within this musical trifecta provides the same fresh air for the listener on this spellbound journey.
Ellenswood is a perfect example of how you don’t have to be completely off the wall to be experimental, but utilize creativity, multimedia inclinations (just ask painter, wood/metal worker, sculptor, and musician Kyle Meldrum), and interpersonal connections to create something bigger and better. It is also a perfect microcosm of artists helping each other reinforce their love of the craft, and also in this, a snapshot of 2020, working together across thousands of miles to keep the fire lit. Anyone who really appreciates originality in hip hop would be remiss to not include this in their collection.
Physical activity doesn’t have to feel like a chore. Get up and move around!
By JD Brant
If you’re anything like me, then you’re not the biggest fan of workout videos—YouTube tutorials included. Nothing beats the experience of live instruction in a group setting, music pulsating, bodies gyrating, and everybody’s having a jolly good time. While many gyms are reopening under COVID restrictions across the country, my social media tells a cautionary tale: Many people are expressing their concern over returning to their fitness routines under the restrictions. This is a perfectly fine emotion to feel, know why? You can work out anywhere. Know what else? You can have fun doing it.
Instead of going the traditional route of posting websites of workout videos for you to follow at home, I thought I’d share some of my COVID workout tips for beating the bulge without a traditional gym membership. If it’s been a while since you’ve done any sort of exercise, worry not. These tips work well for people who want to ease back into the groove of things and for people who are sticklers for routine.
Walk Where There’s Resistance
We consume more calories in the winter to keep our bodies warm. According to the American Journal of Human Biology, we also expend more energy when we exercise in the cold, thus burning more calories. That’s why walking in snow can provide just enough of a challenge for your body without overwhelming your muscles. Try finding a sidewalk or bike path with as little as three inches of snow to tread in. A little resistance will fire up your calves, heels, glutes, and more. I’ve been wearing a fit bit and tracking my progress. I shoot for a three-mile walk every morning, and when there’s little snow on the ground, I throw on a pair of beat-up boots and trudge through the muddy wilderness. The same effect, albeit a bit messier, but so worth it.
Play With Your Cat
This tip might sound pretty basic, and maybe it is, but playing games with your pet has added health benefits for both you and your kitty cat. I recently purchased a laser pointer for my cat to chase around. The key is to ensure that your cat “catches the prize” at the end of the game. With no end goal, your cat can begin feeling anxious and frustrated over not being able to catch the light. Many pet health blogs suggest leaving treats around the room and aiming your laser point at those instead of a random spot on the wall or floor. As weird as it sounds, I’ve found that chasing my cat back and forth along with the laser pointer has given me a stronger sense of camaraderie with my kitty. Short bursts of activity help keep my cat and me on our toes. I did this for ten to fifteen minutes a day when I worked remotely and had time to play with her. I always end our rounds with a treat for her to gobble up, too.
Create Workout Challenges At Home
If you’re spending more time at home amid looming COVID restrictions, why not spice it up? Heat your kitchen with your cooking skills and your boss dance moves. There’s a reason Zumba classes are popular—dancing feels less of a “chore” activity than traditional weight lifting and cardio classes. Dancing promotes the production of endorphins in the body. Marry that with another endorphin-boosting activity, cooking a scrumptious meal, and you’re in for a euphoric experience. While your asparagus is roasting, blast Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body” and see how many squats you can do in under two minutes. Sitting in front of the TV, watching a nightly news segment? Find out how many lunges you can do before they break for commercial. Disguise activity into your ordinary routine to make it feel more normal for you. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, I felt overwhelmed at the thought of going 45 minutes or an hour into straight aerobic activity. That’s why I’ve started to break that time up into ten-minute intervals during the day. It’s more realistic and feels much more manageable.
Become a Mover for Hire
It’s a well-known fact that fewer people move in the winter, but it’s the best time to move; moving companies charge 20-30% less for their services. Another workout suggestion: If you genuinely don’t care about making much money, join your neighborhood’s Nextdoor group and ask around to see who needs help moving for free. I live on a street pebbled with apartment complexes, and neighbors often help each other haul their furniture and belongings out in a pinch. Nextdoor is a beautiful way of fostering relationships with the people on your street without being intrusive. Be careful to plan out the day and time of the move and how long it will take to haul out more oversized belongings with your neighbor. This activity not only promotes physical health and fitness but you’re also nourishing your social wellness, too.
Self-care includes mental AND physical health. Exercise is proven to alleviate anxiety, depression, and more. Good exercise also doesn’t have to feel tedious or annoying. Spice up your routine and see what happens. Now, get to stepping!
Detroit crooner Anna Burch has released a spectacular holiday single for us all, “Your Heart May Be Heavy,” a delicate and glowing seasonal tiding that belongs in the scene of an old-timey romantic movie (or a modern-day Netflix version, maybe Dash & Lily), one where the couple takes a walk through Central Park and indulges in an innocent kiss under shimmering orbs. The single is the pause some of us are in need of, especially to ward off the ghosts of 2020’s past and remember simpler times.
2020 has been quite the year, but what many can agree on is that it’s put our priorities in check and made us more present and appreciative of the people and things we can enjoy in the now. Anna’s dreamy vocals are the pillow to our weary heads as 2020 comes to a close, and none of us want to look back. So put on your snow boots, pour some hot cocoa, and pull out your toboggan. 2021 is going to be one wild ride.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Being Single at 30. Here’s Why.
By JD Brant
The first time I was aware that my status as a single woman made people uncomfortable was on a business trip to Boston a year and a half ago. We were nearing the end of our trip and waiting for our return flight home. The gaggle of girls I was traveling with sped up in front of the new hires (there were three of us), and headed for the gift shop at the other end of the airport. One of the lead sales people turned around, and with an agitated snarl, like a cat whose tail just got stepped on, said, “We’re stopping at the gift shop for a minute, because [dramatic pause]…we have husbands and children.” They skipped along their merry way, leaving the team of new people in their dust.
The insult was clearly hurled at me. I was the only single person in the new hire group. It stung. It stung when they rejoined the group later on in the seating area. It stung when we boarded the plane. It stung while I tried to nap on the plane, and couldn’t let go of that mini dagger (I first thought maybe I misinterpreted her comment, but after ruminating on it for a while, I realized that I was pretty accurate in my assumption) hurled at me with calculation. I was a threat—not because I did my job sufficiently, or because I refused to stay up and party in our hotel room (I can’t say the same for the sales team). It was because I was single, and they weren’t.
There’s this stigma that, once a woman hits a certain age, her eggs shrivel and her tits sag. I mean, biologically speaking, that’s true, but being single after 30 doesn’t mean you have to curl up in a ball and die, for real. If you ask me, life begins at 30 (I’ve picked up so many new interests, it’s exciting). Some studies call this unwed and childless state a marker of social infertility, and the trend exists in both womxn and men, for different reasons. Speaking from the womxn’s perspective, I can attest to two narrowly-defined stereotypes we are pegged as over the course of our singledom: the “Long Island Lolita” and the “Cat Lady.”
When I’m introduced to married or shacked-up couples, it’s either one of the two, with the man in the relationship asking me if I carry a lint roller everywhere I go (my neighbor’s boyfriend had assumed that because I was single, that I should probably adopt five cats, since I have all that time to spare outside of all my other responsibilities, don’t cha know) and the womxn in the relationship assuming that Rent-a-Mistress sent me (wherever that is, is it a real place? Not sure). These are two extremely dangerous and idiotic stereotypes that hinder womxn from flourishing during a period of well-deserved (and well-earned) self-growth.
In a world where anxiety and internalized demons often nudge us toward codependency, singledom can also be perceived as uncompromised allegiance to the security of, and faith in, oneself. The more time you spend alone, the more time you have to wrestle with past insecurities, relationship flops, and general inquiries of the soul. This makes a person more steadfast in cultivating the life they truly want to share with another individual, a life of focused resilience.
When both people do this unglamorous but necessary legwork, it makes the relationship healthier in the long run. In doing my own introspective dirty work, I’ve been able to break the horrible habit of romanticizing partners before I actually get to know them past the “mystique” of casual exchanges. This is because I am fiercely independent, capable of loving strongly because I’ve been single for so long. But this is also the number one thing I believe so many adults continue to do while playing the dating game. They tabulate ideals and expectations in a pseudo match that may create resentment in their partner down the road, or, they offer up their love to the wrong person completely, without question. For the people who’ve done both, staying single makes sense.
If you’re 30 and single, it can mean that you’ve investigated yourself. It means you’re not interested in rushing into a situation that could cause anxiety, guilt, or resentment before you’re ready to. It means you’ve developed a love for things outside of a singular idea of love and an idealized concept of romance. More people are choosing to stay single longer, and so I feel that the media should simply back off of casting womxn and men into the “young, single, and sexy” spotlight; even with showers of compliments, there’s an inherent societal pressure thrust upon us to perform for friends, for family, for co-workers. Womxn like Mindy Kaling, an actress who manages to dodge the “hard-ass” career woman stereotype, shouldn’t be interrogated about what it’s like to be a single mother. Neither should feminist allies like Michael B. Jordan. From a journalist’s perspective, we should stop asking our few 21st-century “modern womxn” icons how it feels to be single and just let them live as single people. It’s not a deficiency. Singledom is a lifestyle, a healthy choice for healthy people.
Nashville’s got soul, and a helluva lot of it. I previously wrote about a handful of womxn-identifying musicians taking New Nashville by storm, and I’m continuing the love with an album drop from a soul singer whose pipes are the source of much envy. MELD (government name, Melanie Dewey) recently performed songs off of her August debut, Words of the Water, live from the iconic Music Marathon Works in Nashville.
During her live set, the ocean spilled from the movement of interpretive dancers and poetry from soul strummers Katie Buxton, Amber Lily, and company. MELD donated money raised to The Ocean Cleanup, and it’s not the first time she’s used her platform for environmental activism.
A born-again Janis Joplin and a true jambander at heart, MELD has rocked out with Zoogma, Brothers Past, and her band’s played at The Mothership Festival In Taos, New Mexico, and Sonic Bloom in Colorado. She’s done all of this while raising money for charities like OceanAid, Coalition For Clean Air, and Urban Green Lab, making every droplet count.
On Words of the Water, MELD climbs into subtle and gentle falsetto patterns on “Colors” that are more aligned with Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” than Ariana’s “Oh Santa!” (although Mariah and Ariana hit a high note with their whistle register, for sure). On “Freedom,” the listener is offered melodic grooves and tinctures of color and flame, or maybe Sound & Color, as progressive jazz rockers Alabama Shakes would have it. The track is exceptionally climactic, and a cliffhanger ending swells with the magic of a sunset rising above crashing waves.
Words of the Water certainly isn’t MELD’s first swing out of the park. Her 2017 album H.U.R.T. is smoldering with instant classics. “Leaving You Out” (the out-of-this-world remix I’m speaking of is here) is a radio bop with club appeal. At a heart-racing BPM and silky-smooth orchestration, the song’s mastering (by Anthony Thogmartin of Papadosio) is on the same level of quality as the producing chops backing Nashville megastars. Projects like Meghan Trainor’s Treat Myself, which splits discography credits among thirteen different producers, has a similar sonic bite.
On a personal note, MELD’s father passed away of cancer this summer, but before that time came, she was able to mobilize her social media forces and catch the attention of former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and Dead & Company member John Mayer. Both members gave her father, a loyal deadhead, a 50th birthday shoutout on social media before his passing.
You don’t have to be a Grateful Dead fan to get behind what MELD is throwing down. If you enjoy Joss Stone or Jewel’s earthy aesthetic, you’ll have no problem connecting to a song on her album.
Alessia Cara Delights Fans with Surprise EP Holiday Stuff
By Katiee McKinstry
This past week, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Alessia Cara surprised fans with a holiday-themed EP, Holiday Stuff.
The EP features Cara’s past holiday hits, from covers such as “The Christmas Song” and “Moody’s Mood for Love.” Likewise, the EP also has Cara’s previous holiday hits including “Make It To Christmas” and “The Only Thing Missing.” However, “Make It To Christmas” got a makeover—the song sounds completely different from its original, Cara’s holiday treat to her fans.
“Surprise! Holiday Stuff, a (very impulsive) 4 song EP of festive tunes coming to you midnight ET tomorrow,” Cara said on Twitter. “By me and the great Jon Levine.”
Earlier this year on July 17, shortly after her 24th birthday, Cara dropped a different EP called This Summer: Live Off The Floor. The EP featured live performances of the songs off of This Summer and three bonus tracks as well. This EP, as well as Holiday Stuff, are super special in that the proceeds from the EP sales (and Cara’s EP sales for the next 21 years) are going to Save The Children.
“Alessia that was so good,” said a fan on Twitter. “The EP is fire. Go stream Holiday Stuff by Alessia Cara right now, like now.”
Cara released Holiday Stuff via Canada’s biggest music company, Def Jam Recordings/Universal Music Canada. You can listen to Holiday Stuffon all major streaming platforms this holiday. Watch the video below for behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Holiday Stuff:
Katiee McKinstry is a music and culture blogger who has experience working with crisis center and DV shelter populations. For more of her work, visit herwebsite.
Bartees Strange’s Live Forever is a pulsing, sonic conundrum, released on Music Memory and mastered by Grammy-nominated producer Will Yip. In the first minutes of Live Forever, the Washington D.C. songwriter paints with an ethereal brush. “Jealousy” opens with soft piano chords, birds chirping, and an almost unintelligible Strange delivers lines about anger, missing pieces of the self, and a missing but needed voice.
Distinct sounds like his will stop you in your tracks when you first hear them. Music’s ability to mold memories with reality is palpable with brilliant songwriting such as his. While bathing my son after an extraordinarily messy lunch, the first notes of “Jealousy” played through a small Bluetooth speaker. The window was open and the trees swayed with their newly changing leaves. He babbled along to the slowly crashing chords, shimmying in the rippling water, pushing infinite waves to the edges of the pool.
“Mustang” followed after, cutting the soft sounds with sharp synthesizers and a driving post-punk anthem. Strange has a stunning vocal range, moving between soft indie rock and anthemic, almost bellowing choruses. Showing his vocal range alongside musical prowess, Strange delves into a gritty punk in an abrupt ending to the track.
Bartees Strange is a gifted songwriter with a unique background. Born in Ipswich, England, he travelled across Europe at a young age, being exposed to music through the church. His life in the States has had a proclivity to move around, jumping between music scenes in Oklahoma, eventually finding his way to the metro D.C. area as a songwriter and producer.
Citing his young life and navigating the world as a Black man, “Boomer” is a fast-paced song, switching between wittily delivered rap verses and jangling, boot-stomping country bridges.
He juggles aspirations of a better life on the trippy rap track “Kelly Rowland.” On “Stone Meadows,” he builds a wall of stadium rock, blending his loud delivery and shuffling drums.
Strange’s power lies in his ability to evoke mood with the strike of a chord. His large breadth of musical experiences, ranging from country bands, emo bands, and formal opera vocal training, has created a perfect mix of the unpredictable in him. He transcends genre with a smile on his face and a quick whip in his words.
While trying to trace a singular root for in his sound, a messy clump of vines lies in the wake. This album is a gesture towards an infinite possibility of sound, influenced by punk, rap, indie-pop, synth-rock, with a brilliant, singular singer songwriting voice.Genre isn’t really in Strange’s vocabulary, because his songwriting melds sonic worlds together in a distinctive thread.
Strange closes the album with the moody anthem “Ghostly.” The track ebbs and flows with plicking synth chords as he contemplates memories of friends and the effects of growing distant from one another. Midway through, he shifts into a new refrain with driving chords, reaching towards a hefty album closer. The song evaporates quickly, mixing vocal harmonies and crashing static.
John Mccracken is a freelance writer from Wisconsin, living in Green Bay. He’s reported on breaking labor news, the intimacy of food in the face of a global pandemic, and interviewed multiple New York Times Bestselling authors. Visit his work here.
The best distraction can convince a person to leave their worries behind for a while and get caught up elsewhere.
By Katie Powers
Forty Feet Tall’sA Good Distraction is a gripping and fast-paced sonic journey that offers compelling storytelling and high-energy psychedelic rock with a pop-punk flare. The album explores a range of sounds and stylistic choices, but the Portland-based alternative rockers hold a steady command over every track. Perhaps most importantly, each track effectively permits its listeners to get lost in the overwhelming and sometimes defeating world detailed on the album.
Forty Feet Tall, which features Cole Gann on guitar and vocals, Brett Marquette on bass, Jack Sehres on guitar, and Ian Kelley on drums, got their start playing at venues in Los Angeles but grew into their sound in Portland, where they attended college. A Good Distraction is their second full-length release after their debut in 2014. It’s easy to imagine the possibility of this album in a stadium setting, with the frenetic energy of a live audience giving new life and power to the high-intensity tracks.
The album is strong from the outset, with “Rain Machine,” a rocking commencement. The track features heavy instrumentals and earnestly angsty vocals from Gann, instantly situating the listener in the powerful emotional resonance behind the album. “It’s a shame that we’re awake now/I liked you better in my dreams,” he sings. It’s a delicate balance between modern punk and nostalgic rock and roll, which the group successfully maintains through the album’s journey.
“Julian,” the album’s fourth track, represents a tonal shift from the opening run. The song leans into a heavy bassline from Marquette, underscored by a punchy guitar riff, but the storytelling feels distinctly brighter. The song moves along at a brisk and steady clip, and Gann’s vocals flow as he sings about an unstable love story. Still, the track ends on a unique and mysterious note, as the group sings together in harmony and the prominent instrumentals fade away, which aligns with the unresolved themes of the song.
Gann’s vocals steal the show on “ON/OFF,” the album’s most contemporary track. He sings in a smooth and falsetto over stinging instrumentals that come to a head in carefully controlled harmony during the refrain. After a subtle buildup, the track reaches a crescendo that breaks away from the song’s previously restrained sound. It features a powerful guitar solo that feels like a well-earned punch to the face.
“Don’t Tell Your Mom” is pure punk-rock fun that evokes a youthful verve. It boasts some similarities to “Ex Kids,” which appears earlier on the album but this one sounds elevated and more developed. It opens with quick, twisted, and opposing guitar hooks that instantly captivate the listener. Then, during the refrain, the band shouts, “Don’t Tell Your Mom,” conjuring an utterly angsty mood. The song’s entire vocals walk a balance of talking, singing, and freely vocalizing, making the story behind the song feel urgent and the emotions immediate.