Friday, September 11, 2015

Love and Mercy and Sharks- An Interview with Jimmy Whispers

Photo from Facebook

Love and mercy and forgiveness and "all that good stuff." That's how Chicago "bedroom popper" Jimmy Whispers pegs his particular brand of lo-fi music which has been compared to Daniel Johnston "hanging out by himself at a beach party." A quick listen to his sparse but spry 2015 debut Summer in Pain reveals this love and mercy in full. There's of course "I Love You" where he essentially repeats the title as a mantra over his humming Thomas organ, which he's had for seven years, and the slight thwacking of drums. Efforts such as "Michael Don't Cry" manage somehow manage to find the good stuff too. The track stumbles along with faint percussion and has Whispers offering up a pick-me up to someone even as own his head seems to be down. "Summer in Pain," where Whispers croons into his iPhone and plays gentle chords, wades through "beer and piss" and an "Apocalypse" but is still resilient enough to not drown in all of that bullshit. To even continue you'd have to at least have a smidgen of faith in those concepts up above, a compulsion toward the light even when darkness is more prevalent.

In conversation with Whispers this bright affability comes through. He giggles between answers, in part to keep himself entertained on the solo drive to the night's gig in Bloomington, Illinois but also out of sheer amusement with how's his music's been compared to Frank Sinatra by “someone’s mom.” “No fedora though,” he prefers a ball cap with “Chicago” written in a 70s font. The Sinatra comparison is one that has him genuinely stoked. And that excitement bleeds into everything. He insists that "What a Wonderful World" by Louie Armstrong, a song he occasionally plays at his live shows, is "the best." At a handful of those same shows Whispers crams into a red dress and preens around on stage as the “song and dance man” he dubs himself. It originally started as more of an entertaining provocation, but Whispers admits "Now I just like wearing dresses" I leave a couple of dresses at my house all the time."

Two years ago Whispers didn't have the same kind of time to enjoy a luxuriant red dress. He was driving around "drunken idiots" in his white Honda Civic for Uber, working 12 hours shifts on occasion. He was recording songs, nearly 500 of them from his recollection, into an iPhone and promoting them with street art and zines without any idea when they might come out. In the past year he opened for heroes such as R.Stevie Moore and Ariel Pink. "It took me a minute not to be starstruck talking to R. Stevie" he fondly remembers. Over the summer at Pitchfork Music Festival in his native Chicago, he crowd surfed, danced and mock-executed his way to one of the standout sets of the weekend. He recently traveled to Europe for the first time and played in Holland, France, England, Sweden and Denmark. Now he's rocking the heartland, having a drink or two backstage and doing pushups to prep for the shows. In between there’s the long stretches of road that make up this “Midwest driving shit.” At most he can hope to see a twister while he's out on the highway. "Maybe I'll catch one," he gleefully imagines. Even if bad weather hits, Whispers places it as part of the good stuff. 

Those giggles and laughs sometimes paper over a certain seriousness though. “Everyday something creeps into my mind and tries to mess me up,” he responds to when he’s felt distanced from his musical dreams. "It’s constant revaluation and affirmation." "I wanna change the way I feel tonight," is how he puts it in "Pain in My Love," a highlight of his debut record as recorded by a guilt-plagued calliope player. When he's not on wax he enacts that change by "Thinking where I was a couple of months before and every day's getting better, things get better all of the time." 

(The "Greatest Bedroom Popper" is performing Saturday at Cafe Berlin in Columbia, Mo. The show starts at 8pm with DJ Moose and Chives opening.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

In Revue- 'Depression Cherry' (Beach House)

The last time, or maybe the time before (it's hard to say with certainty), that I was driving the two-hour stretch of I-70 from Columbia, Mo to Kansas City I had a cheaper than cheap pair of knockoff Raybans on. "POLYVINYL," a record label home to bands I love such as American Football was imprinted in white lettering on the black sides. I had just turned off the podcast Hollywood Prospectus featuring some witty repartee about the failings of True Detective Season 2 when I switched over to Beach House’s fifth LP Depression Cherry. Given that I was gazing intently through the small "slit" in the glasses, just above the bridge of these faux-Bans, the timing could not have been better.

Such an innocuous thing was so cosmically perfect because that sort of staring, peering through minutiae with the intensity to cause blindness, is the kind of focus it would take for someone to notice the movement in Beach House's sound over those aforementioned five albums. Beach House, the band’s 2006 debut, might sound like its guitar is on loan and its rickety drum machines from a flooded Guitar Center, but I’m still reminded of the halo effect around light poles on an empty street of a mid-sized city (pop. 100,000) at 2 a.m. on a Sunday night; Bloom from 2012 also does this. It’s like this dulled warmth, perhaps being hugged by someone with snow gloves on, that’s been in Beach House’s blood since the beginning. The gloves have gotten bigger and a little more expensive perhaps, but you can still feel this warmth. A writer for Stereogum, whose name I am genuinely forgetting, compared its subtle expansion of sound to shifting plate tectonics and I think that’s as good a metaphor as will ever be developed to describe its “change” in sound.

The new "accouterments" to Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scally's summer home are first single "Sparks"'s shoegaze, the Perrey-esque synth fade ups on "Space Song," an insistent ticking in "Wildflower" that takes me back to Drive, a propulsive quality in the first five seconds of "Bluebird" that brings to mind Dan Deacon. All of it is fairly new, but none of it feels that way. At no point do the extra wrinkles in the pages make the text unreadable. Shoegaze has so often been concerned with sonic textures that the peeling guitars and vocal shards of "Sparks" make sense. It’s evident that Jean-Jacques Perry's defining ambient piece "Prelude au Sommeil" has its soft hand pushing up the synth fader in "Space Song" because both efforts leave you breathless. Not in the sense that you're choking. No no. That you literally have exhaled your entire body in response to how tranquil the sound is. You have to push the air out just to make room for comprehending the moment. I think of Drive when I hear the ticking of "Wildflower" because it has similar noirish uneasiness. What you once knew to be true and could hold in your hands is slowly slipping out. Which is an awful, terrifying feeling.

If all of this makes Depression Cherry sound obtuse or fey, it isn't. For as airy and ethereal as LeGrand's voice is, she's incredibly grounded. Before she even gets to "Beyond Love"'s chorus she sings "I'm gonna tear off all the petals from the rose that's in your mouth," a detail so lived in and specific you take it for truth. A married couple in "PPP" (Piss Poor Planning) is looking into each other’s eyes and struggling to see anything worth loving anymore, "It won't last forever, or maybe it will" is the figure-8 elliptic she deflatedly croons. The avian of "Bluebird" can't seem to take flight before the penultimate song's trickling keys evaporate into the night air. 

Only on closer "Days of Candy" does the album shuffle off its lyrical mortal coil. And then, it does so by including a 24-part harmony from the Pearl River Community College singers and stating "the universe is riding off with you." Its part hymn, part nursery song, part dirge and one of the most hypnotically ornate things the band has done. Drum machines crackle on a sort of delay and LeGrand's voice echoes like she's the last person on Earth trapped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When Beach House goes big, it goes big in a way that would be frightening if for not how lovely it sounds.

And yes love is a common topic, but the love of these characters is just as likely to wither inward as it is to expand outward. What is a warm love song one minute can become a cold elegy the next. Alex Scally's gently flitting guitar can grow loud enough to drown out the hum of an entire city. With Beach House you can see all of these mammoth changes coming from a mile away; you just have to look closely.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

In Revue- 'M3LL155X' (FKA twigs)

I'll admit before I actually heard FKA twigs' surprise EP release M3LL155X my initial reaction was one of concern. Not for anything happening in the UK singer's life or the scant few details I had read about the album. Nay nay.

My concern was for how it would be received. It can be especially hard for artists who come out of the gate with such an assured, specifically styled album as twigs' LP1 to ever capture that zeitgeist again. When an artist brings such force so early, the public expectation machine can go haywire and nothing they do in the wake will live up. See Interpol for some of the "best" proof of the past decade or so. Hell I know people that still insist Kanye West's initial soul-rap period was his best, which is sort of frightening. People cling to first impressions way too much.

Fortunately that's not something to worry about with twigs' M3LL155X (pronounced Melissa). Working with Beyoncé producer Boots, twigs has crafted an album that stands alongside LP1, not in its shadow. There's no feeling of unnecessary duplication. The pair, along with producers Cy An and Tic, take the decaying drum machines and cacophonous noise of LP1 and project them farther outward. "Figure 8" starts with a terrifying low-end burble that gives credence to twigs' exhaling "It's a miracle we're still alive." Hollow ringing tubes hail "Glass & Patron," before a swarm of static comes flying through. Everything is pulverized by drums, which are loud and wobbly enough to cause heart arrhythmia.

That's even true of "In Time," the closest M3LL155X comes to an outright love song. "I will be better and we will be stronger and you will be greater," twigs declares with an uncertain resolve. She chest puffs "You've got a goddamn nerve," but that missive sits atop unstable keys and shifting drums. Nothing feels certain. The Weeknd's own dark R&B has been a comparison point before, but nowhere is the truer than on "In Time." Both artists have a way of sounding resolute, even when everything around them signals chaos. Twigs promises "I'll be home soon" in "Mothercreep"'s swirling outro, though she previously confesses "In words I lose" and "I don't know who my mother is." Realistically there's no home to go home to, just the false ideals of one.

So much of M3LL155X lyrically chases that idea of figuring out who you are when there's no template to go off of. In the aforementioned "Figure 8" she longs to live through someone else's "vice," before acknowledging "you're more alive than what I'll ever be." The admission's doubly painful delivered in a warped vocal that makes you think she's so world-weary she can't even muster the strength to sing for herself. That fragility carries over to "I'm Your Doll" a fetid electro "sex jam" with stereo-panning moans and lines such as "Complete me, I'm here alone." There's a cliché about sex that "you lose yourself in another person," but the character twigs inhabits doesn't seem to have anything to lose.

All of this might sound weak, but there's a profound strength in twigs' naked confessionals. It takes a lot to feel comfortable saying you're alone, especially when you're surrounded by people. Asking your partner to be better is difficult no matter what the relationship is. Though twigs sounds uncertain, it's clear from her latest effort that she knows exactly what she wants. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

In Revue- 'Summertime '06' (Vince Staples)

I can't pretend to know Vince Staples' story. His life is not my life. His city's not my city. His skin's not my skin. After the first bars of the sweeping Summertime '06 opener "Lift Me Up" there are miles between us. "I'm just a n**** until I fill my pockets and then I'm Mr. N****, they follow me while shoppin'." That's something I've never experienced. I've also never found "another dead body in the alley," as the fever dream "Birds & Bees" tells us. My granddad wasn't in a gang. None of my friends have been murdered. I don't have any real animus toward the police, past a few tickets here and there. Despite our similar ages (22 for Staples, 24 for me) we seemingly couldn't be more different.

But I identify with Summertime '06. Each barb from Staples stings me in a way lines don't always do. I've had that hopeless, crushing feeling that blindsides Staples in the defiantly prideful, slow moving "C.N.B." Maybe you know the kind? Where you roll out of bed with pep in your step only to think this is pointless, there’s no promise in the outside world. You'd rather say "f*** it," than fight.  

That misanthropy rings out with the pots and pans percussion of "Jump Off the Roof." Staples considers the title action to feel alive; to snap out of the drug-addled coma he's fallen into. On the second disc's metallic "Like It Is" Staples admits with deflation the streets are the only things worth loving. For all the danger he knows they promise he tries to connect with them just to have a tangible connection. Like the imagined suicide of "Jump Off the Roof," he's risking everything for the minimal return of feeling something. 

Summertime '06 isn’t exactly the kind of album people rally around. Over the course of 59 minutes and two discs it features mounds of insular, world weary, desperate stuff. One of the lightest moments, "Summertime," still has Staples murmuring over a wheezing organ sound: "My feelings told me love is real, but feelings known to get you killed." To end, he begs "don't leave me alone in this cruel, cruel world." This is his debut LP and he's ending a disc on that note, a desperate send-off scrawled in the margins of scrap paper. 

Why is this album worth listening to then if there's little to root for? In part because Staples is so committed to the material. He snarls "can a motherf***er breathe?" in the aforementioned "Lift Me Up," a stunning bit of unguarded confusion to rival Ab-Soul's in "Ronald Reagan Era." You can easily picture him doing the money dance during "Get Paid," his voice cocky and drawling out "paiiiiiiiddd." One of my favorites is first single "Señorita" where he goes into hyperdrive to match Future's Autotuned double-time. "F*** ya dead homies, run ya bread homie, got some lead for me, I'm on Artesia, parked in my Beamer bumping my own s***," he spits without taking a rest. When he returns to the delivery at the end of verse two, you're left dizzy and dazzled. Ditto to the way he pronounces "North" as "norf" and pauses to let the burbles of "Surf" float to the murky surface. Typically those are the thrilling moves of a vet who has figured out his or her strength, not an artist on their first full-length.

The production though does have a veteran’s name attached and it adeptly matches Staples' grim view. No I.D. made his name with the warm soul of Common's Resurrection but his work on Summertime '06 threatens to cast a long shadow over past boom bap. Run the Jewel's post-apocalyptic detritus is a clear influence, so too is the blackened spring of ScHoolboy Q's "Prescription/Oxymoron." Along with cloud rap innovator Clams Casino and trap deconstructionist DJ Dahi, I.D.’s created a work that's equal turns alluring and repulsive. The weird aquatic sirens at the beginning of "Norf Norf" send listeners running to the hills and "Loca" draws them back with emphatic handclaps and sensual "baby babies." "Might Be Wrong" best splits the difference. It starts with Haleef Talib's vocals floating above trickles of keyboard and heavy strings before swooping into a valley of bass moans. In exactly four minutes we hear the come up and the fall back down. We're taught "Hands up, don't shoot. Shot. Stand your ground. Blacks don't own no ground to stand on so we stand on our words." All without Staples saying anything.  

Whenever Staples does speak, it's well worth listening to. Your ears perk up, even when he's staring straight at you saying "I done seen my homies die then went on rides to kill 'em back. So how you say you feel me when you never had to get through that?" Who the hell has been through that? Odds are 99% of the people listening will never know that deeply visceral and profound of pain. But there you are, nodding along to every missive like you know exactly what the hell he is talking about. Empathizing isn’t really as hard as it seems. Geography, life story and skin color be damned. Connections are always possible.