Jack – Jack (2015)

Jack - Jack

For many emerging artists, a common practice in making albums is to start out with one that is self-titled. Eponymous releases often aim to define an artist’s stylistic tendencies as well as their public image. This way, the music becomes about the artist themselves and allows them to safely experiment without the pressure of trying to tackle a high-flying concept album on their first go. At its core, Jack Shaffrey’s debut album does just that. It’s Jack, and unapologetically so.

Jack begins with “unfettered intro”. The title is fitting; in the first minute of the track, Jack introduces a handful of instruments, each with their own distinct timbre. Their entrances grow to become freer as the intro progresses.

Following the intro is “lightlynow”, easily one of my favorite tracks on the album. The main motif is established by chopping and looping effects. It’s simple enough to not be distracting and is distinct enough to be memorable. Jack’s vocal duo with himself is a neat effect. The parts don’t line up, nor are they intended to. Where part of him is crooning “she told me it feels so good to be in love”, the other part of him is catching his breath after sighing with bliss.

Another one of my favorites is “leaving”. The opening synth pattern wavers between contentedness and lingering sentimentalism, as reflected in the lyrics that follow. The first few lines convey Jack’s pleasant feelings toward the future: “Sunlit day I’d like to come home / to the place beyond the ridge away where I’m grown. Lay in bed to look at my dreams / a collage of blue and green floats beautifully.” By using simple imagery and warm vocal and bass tones, Jack establishes his feelings on what is to come and evokes a welcoming sense of optimism for the listener. During the brief instrumental break, hints of “come home” and the tail end of “beautifully” float in and out of the texture with ease. After daydreaming about returning home, Jack looks back on his past and raises a question that is never quite answered: “Past is pleasant memories to know / but those days are gone, I wonder what were they for?” Because both lines are sung similarly, it’s not immediately apparent that he’s still dwelling on the past. Upon leaving that question open, one can’t help but yearn for an answer, a conclusion, or a resolution of some sort. At this point, it is clear what the opening dissonances mean as the desire to resolve them becomes mutual.

A lot of Jack explores some deep, untethered emotions as shown on “melancholic,” “whyimsounhappy,” and “fuck.” “melancholic” reminds me of some of Gorillaz’s more recent material — namely “Broken” and other selections from Plastic Beach — whereas “whyimsounhappy” has parallels with Damon Albarn’s solo work on Everyday Robots (“Lonely Press Play“). The track begins with the sound of Jack pressing ‘play’ on a tape player which starts a wonky melodic line that pans from left to right. After letting it repeat itself a few times, the tape player is shut off and an entirely new song starts up. In this composition, Jack’s emotions are raw and unfiltered. He lets his different outbursts and ideas speak for themselves. Though the song developed naturally out of the indecisive starting and stopping of the opening tape loop, Jack suddenly presses ‘stop’, bringing everything to a distraught close.

Jack successfully expresses what it intends to in the best way possible. By exploring different timbres, genres, and production styles, Jack effectively conveys what he means to on his debut album. I enjoyed listening and re-listening to Jack and am looking forward to future projects.

Favorite Track: “leaving”

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Time Planet – Time Planet (2015)

Time Planet - Time Planet

Time Planet is the eponymous debut album from a group of young musicians from New England. The quintet features Alex Quinn on trumpet, Hunter McKay on saxophone and bass clarinet, Alex Han on keyboards, Jason Emmond on bass, and Evan Kesel on drums. One important factoid to note is how young the group is. Everyone in Time Planet is studying (music or otherwise) at universities and conservatories throughout New England with the exception of drummer Evan Kesel, who will begin school at Berklee College of Music in the fall of 2016.

One thing I like in particular about this group is how amazingly consistent they are on and off stage. At the band’s album release party at the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center I noticed a handful of idiosyncratic features that remained constant between the album and their live performances. When performing the very end of “Zodiac Killer”, McKay and Quinn repeat a phrase several times before cutting it short by one note the last time around. When the band cuts out, Han briefly sustains the note they omitted. It wasn’t until I listened to the recording that I realized that this was intentional. On a couple of songs, namely “Galactic Noise”, Kesal will occasionally anticipate or lag the kick and snare hits by mere fractions of a beat to emulate a ‘looping error’ effect. To some, this may seem like an error or an imperfection, but his sense of time and the presence of these characteristic hits on the recordings says otherwise.

The members of the band have varying music tastes, a trait that works in their favor. Some of Hunter Mckay’s greatest influences include Chris Potter, Mark Turner, and Donny McCaslin, all of which are evident in his improvisation. After the band’s album release show I was able to talk to their drummer. Upon being asked about who his influences are, he told me that he doesn’t often listen to jazz drummers but instead prefers the works of the late hip-hop beat maker J Dilla.

Time Planet is entirely comprised of original compositions by McKay and Quinn that combine stylistic elements from jazz, fusion, and neo-soul. With such a diverse combination of personal influences and styles it’s hard to nail down what Time Planet really is; even McKay isn’t quite sure. “I hesitate to call it jazz/rock because that can make people think fusion and that’s definitely not what it is.” he says. “It’s definitely more of an alt. rock influence from bands like Radiohead.” He then compared the improvisation in “Garbage Beast” to Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place”.

One of the many high points on this album is “Nimbus Lord”, a track that unites everything that the band does well. The rhythm section is now enhanced with the warm, dark timbre of the bass clarinet doubling Emmond’s bass part. Soon after the initial groove is set up comes one of the most memorable melodies on the album followed by solos by Han and Quinn.

Time Planet is a fantastic album that is both compelling for jazz fans and accessible to casual listeners. If you have an interest in jazz, Radiohead, or are looking for something new, this album is definitely something to check out.

Favorite Track: “Nimbus Lord”

I was contacted (but not compensated) by Time Planet to review their debut album. All ideas expressed are my own.

Various Artists – DESKTAPE (2015)

DESKPOP - DESKTAPE

The war on formats has been raging on ever since recorded music became commercialized. During their height (and even today), vinyl records offered high-quality audio packaged in a pleasantly displayable 12” x 12” sleeve of art, cassettes provided portability and convenience, and CDs aimed to erase the faults and inconsistencies that came with its predecessors. While streaming music through services like Spotify and Apple Music has become the norm, many music collectors continue to purchase CDs, records, and even tapes. There’s a certain appeal to the process of driving from store-to-store, sifting through a large library of music, and buying a physical copy of an album. What separates this from the point-and-click adventure that is buying music online is that the physical copy feels real, for lack of a better word. Regardless of how the music sounds, I will never be able to hold digital audio in my hand.

Marketed as “THE VERY FIRST ALBUM EVER TO DROP ON A USB CARD”, DESKTAPE is a compilation of electronic pop songs and is the first release by the Bandcamp label DESKPOP. DESKTAPE serves as a happy medium for music collectors. It promises the convenience and portability of cassettes and CDs, the tangibility of physical formats, and the ephemeral appeal of digital audio. On the album’s Bandcamp page, a slogan reads “SLIP IT IN YOUR WALLET OR PURSE / DELETE OUR MUSIC / PUT YOUR OWN MUSIC ON IT / YOU DECIDE WHAT REPLACES US”. For $10, listeners have the option to do whatever they please: keep the files on the USB card in support of physical audio, or replace the contents in favor of digital. This compilation was curated by artists FLOOR BABA and Braz_OS, both of whom appear on DESKTAPE. Not only do the songs on this compilation sound good by themselves, but the order in which they appear holds meaning as well.

My favorite composition on DESKTAPE is the first track, “A Leisurely Stroll” by That Andy Guy. The fun and excitement of this track work well with its placement. By starting a historically significant release with something that’s catchy, listeners are more inclined to continue listening. The lo-fi drum ’n’ bass breaks are really nice in conjunction with he otherwise clean production. This track really reminds me of Maxo’s latest EP, Chordslayer, released earlier in 2015. Maxo’s works are notable for their complex chord changes (hence, Chordslayer) and intricate keyboard playing. Overall, “A Leisurely Stroll” is poppy, engaging, and exciting.

Another fun track on the compilation is nelward’s “fizzPOP”. Going along with the title, this song makes use of sounds such as opening cans, pouring soda, and popping bubbles as percussive and imagery elements. “Donut Dude” by Captain Beard is a fitting follow-up track that continues the theme of playful video game music.

Perhaps the most poppy song on DESKTAPE is “Mall-Crossed Lovers” by bansheebeat. This song features Danika Harrod, a vocalist who’s appeared on works by Maxo, Seth Boyer, and Geotheory. The title is a play on “star-crossed lovers”, making this song a modernized and compressed Romeo and Juliet. The lyrics reflect a late-night, capitalist-fueled romance and play on Shakespearian storytelling: “Secret rendezvous / meet me outside of J. Crew. The mall is closed and the lights are dim / let’s play hide and seek in H&M.” Like the play it emulates, “Mall-Crossed Lovers” is a great piece of work that tells the story of a romance that is doomed to fail.

The last three tracks of DESKTAPE work well in ending the compilation. Their titles, content, and placement in the compilation give a very satisfying sense of closure. “Gift Shop” reminds me of the slew of MIDI-powered corporate jazz I reviewed back in October during Vaporwave month. I think it’s clever to put this track toward the end of the compilation, making the listener exit through the “Gift Shop”, be “Gone Amiss”, and finally exit as “Sunset Riders”. “Sunset Riders” is a gorgeous ending to a fantastic compilation. Where “Gift Shop” and “Gone Amiss” are ‘game over’, “Sunset Riders” is the end credits. The melody is charming and memorable while the shuffling beat and chords are reminiscent of a lo-fi Moby tribute. It’s cinematic in composition and nostalgic in its selection of soundfonts.

DESKTAPE is the first of its kind. It hosts a well-curated collection of electronic music packed in a convenient and unique format. “SLIP IT IN YOUR WALLET OR PURSE”, I highly recommend it.

Favorite Track: “A Leisurely Stroll” by That Andy Guy

Honorable Mentions:

“Mall-Crossed Lovers (feat. danika)” by bansheebeat

“Sunset Riders” by Vince Kaichan

 

Rony Trio – Shadow (2015)

Rony Trio is a self-described jäger-folk band from London. As the genre’s name implies, their music sounds like folk-pop music with a shot of Jägermeister. The trio is simple, consisting of Rony Berrebi on vocals and guitar, Oliver Mitchell on bass, and Jim MacRae on drums. Rony grew up on a wide variety of music, from bossa nova, blues, jazz, and rock. In addition to these influences, the band is collectively influenced by artists such as Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews Band, Metronomy, and Herbie Hancock.

Despite identifying as a trio, the three members of the band are sometimes joined by other instrumentalists and vocalists. Even when joined by other musicians, the band’s music still carries a sweet tinge of humbleness that trios often do. This modest backbone to the trio’s music is best embodied in “Mystery”, a song that carries warmth, love, and sense of community one feels when singing with a bunch of friends. In this track, Rony Trio is joined by their friends — even strangers, perhaps — in singing background vocals, clapping to the beat, or simply being present. The accompanying music video functions perfectly. Like the music it’s paired with, it is earnest, heartwarming, and brimming with a cozy sense of companionship.

One powerful and emotionally distraught track is “Mythology”, the EP’s closer. As described by the trio, the song is about “religious tolerance…risks and pitfalls of everyone living in their own worlds not understanding other worldview and beliefs.” Through heavy distortion and a brutally honest refrain, Rony Trio delivers a well-needed message about respecting one another and embracing each individual’s unique qualities.

Shadow is well-crafted EP that delivers powerful and emotionally dense music. Part of the charm of Rony Trio’s music is that there are songs that appeal to varying emotions. Even with these variances, it’s not hard to find something to relate to. I recommend taking twenty minutes out of your day and experiencing a hearty and heartfelt shot of jäger-folk.

Favorite Track: Mystery

Rony Trio - Shadow

I was contacted (but not compensated) by Rony Trio to review their debut EP. All ideas expressed are my own.

Digital Voyager – Abstract Spaces デラックス (2015)

Abstract Spaces デラックス was released by Digital Voyager on the Bandcamp label Ailanthus Recordings. Of the many vaporwave labels on Bandcamp, AR is by far the most diverse and experimental. Generally, Beer on the Rug hosts a handful of Ramona Andra Xavier’s work in addition to releases that are similar in style, Dream Catalogue houses hazy dreamscapes, and Business Casual focuses on future funk. Ailanthus Recordings has released music in a wide array of styles and tend to cater to the polar extremes of vaporwave as a whole. Corporate jazz albums such as Donovan Hikaru’s Business Travel Bonanza lay alongside the punk-based Fjords releases (volumes II, IV, and V). I guarantee that if you dig through this fascinating music niche you’re bound to find something that interests you.

Abstract Spaces デラックス is an interior design project by the fictional companies Osaka Interior Design LTD and Fukuoka Mall Design Services. The album’s subtext draws the listener in through describing the different spaces available for purchase: “From cutting edge Lasertag Arenas and Underwater Computer Lounges to relaxing Arts and Crafts Centers…you’re guaranteed to find the right space for you. Take a walk through the malls of the future, today!” Each of the spaces described in this text are showcased throughout the album.

The tracks on Abstract Spaces デラックス come from keyboard demos from the 80s and 90s, apart from one original song. Digital Voyager made this album as “[an] homage but also made to express my fascination for the quaint corporate soundtracks of the 90s.” This album is presented in a very professional manner, very much like a showroom. The opening track welcomes the listener to the world of digital interior design (“Introducing Your New Spaces!”) whereas the closing track nicely concludes everything and wishes the listener to return (“See You Soon!”).

The corporate jazz compositions on this album are a solid, digital representation of the sounds and styles that they emulate. “Underwater Computer Lounge 2000 オンライン!” is composed in the style of a MIDI-based jazz big band. In jazz, there is a common improvisational style known as “trading”. While improvising over a chorus, musicians will sometimes “trade 8’s” or “trade 4’s”, meaning that they will alternate improvising in 8 or 4-bar groups, respectively. In this track, a saxophone and a synthesizer trade 2’s. Because the sax is panned to the right and the synth is panned to the left, a pseudo-stereo image is created.

Going along with the idea of imagery, the two-part jungle tracks are really neat. The tracks “JUNGLE シミュレータ (Dawn)” and “JUNGLE シミュレータ (Dusk)” are placed back-to-back so as to create a cohesive final image for the listener. Both tracks accurately capture the intended atmosphere.

Everything about this album stirs up nostalgia for me. From the early graphic design and Solo Cup “Jazz” patterns that decorate the cover to the Rugrats sample in “クリエイティブ ARTS AND CRAFTS CENTER”, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in the 90s. Abstract Spaces デラックス truly is a hidden gem in the world of vaporwave and nostalgic culture.

Favorite Track: Underwater Computer Lounge 2000 オンライン!

Digital Voyager - Abstract Spaces デラックス

G A M E S H A R K ™ – SHARK 2 パラサイトシングル (2015)

SHARK 2 パラサイトシングル was released in June of 2015 on the up-and-coming vaporwave label Midnight Moon Tapes. As the name suggests, MMT specializes in releasing experimental vaporwave and other electronic music on cassette tapes. This album has a lot of neat compositions on it. Unlike other vaporwave artists that I’ve heard, G A M E S H A R K ™ uses samples of orchestral excerpts. This simple difference in stylistic approach to contemporary vaporwave makes for a very interesting release.

SHARK 2 パラサイトシングル opens in a very interesting way. Compared to the movie dialogue and teaser track that started Saint Pepsi’s Hit Vibes and the extremely experimental and other-worldly sounds of Sacred Tapestry’s Shader, “Time” is almost exclusively acoustic and orchestral. Throughout the minute-long intro, a dissonant guitar arpeggio plays in time with a ticking clock. The monotonous sound of the clock along with the other instruments creates somewhat of an existential crisis for the listener. “Time” is different, but it works. How else is a shark with a martini supposed to make you feel?

“Sedated”, the album’s first shot at contemporary vaporwave, is a really neat composition. G A M E S H A R K ™ follows in the footsteps of many vaporwave artists before them in the way this track is composed. This track begins with skipping low-end samples at various speeds before settling into a cohesive rhythm. Throughout the song, there are distant voices in the extreme left or extreme right channels. You can’t quite make out what they’re saying, but it’s made obvious that someone is there. The vocal samples share sonic space with other glitchy sounds, all of which are run through a high-pass filter in order to sharply contrast the existing bass line. Having such high-frequency sounds and chirps in only one channel can be jarring at times, but overall the effect is fairly nice.

One part of the album that confused me was the implied duality between “Desolate” and “Isolate”. The two tracks are stylistically polar opposites, and yet they are placed in conjunction with one another on the album. “Desolate” is a worldly orchestral composition, whereas “Isolate” is almost exclusively electronic. Parts of the latter track seem to manipulate acoustic instruments themselves or alter existing recordings of them. The tracks on their own sound nice, but I’m not entirely sure whether or not they have anything to do with one another.

More often than not, the samples on this album aren’t altered much. While I’m not opposed to compositions without chopping or looping, the effects used at the very end of “Closed” makes me wish this idea was expanded on. Until this point in the album, very few acoustic-based samples were altered. To me, “Clouded” seems like a great fragment of an idea in the form of a 46-second sequel to “Introspection”.

The highlight of this album is its final track, “Existential”. Though instrumentally very simple, this track functions very well as a pleasant and conclusive ending to the album. Like “Sedated”, there’s a distant voice speaking about something the listener can’t quite grasp.

SHARK 2 パラサイトシングル is a really interesting album. While the songs themselves are nice on their own, the sporadically different styles across this album were unexpected, though not quite out-of-place. The track titles vaguely convey themes of existentialism and general ill-being, the content of the songs don’t always reflect these ideas. As stated before, the back-to-back songs “Desolate” and “Isolate” feel like they should mean something more, but they don’t. If they do, it’s incredibly subtle. Despite these thematic irregularities, I enjoyed listening to this album.

Favorite Track: Existential

G A M E S H A R K ™ - SHARK 2 パラサイトシングル

Saint Pepsi – Hit Vibes (2013)

After a whir of bubbly synths and slap bass set the tone, a can of soda is cracked open and a voice proudly proclaims “It’s Saint Pepsi, bitch!” Saint Pepsi was the recording name used by Ryan DeRobertis for a series of Bandcamp releases from 2012 to early 2014. Currently, DeRobertis produces music under the alias Skylar Spence. Hit Vibes was released under the Bandcamp label KEATS//COLLECTIVE in May of 2013. Hit Vibes falls under the category of future funk, a sub-genre of vaporwave. The aesthetic and musical roots of future funk are almost identical to vaporwave. The genre as a whole has a fascination with lo-fi sounds and the revival of old songs. In this case, the source material typically stems from 70s funk and disco songs that are re-hashed and sped up to make more upbeat and danceable tracks.

The intro track, “Hit Vibes”, is one of the greatest intro tracks I’ve ever heard. The brief dialogue at the beginning perfectly sets the tone and creates a great deal of hype for what’s to come. Luxury, fine clothes, and parties are just a small taste of what Saint Pepsi has to offer on this album. This minute-long teaser grabs the listener’s attention and entices them to listen further.

Hit Vibes showcases a handful of revived dance tunes that have been edited, chopped, and enhanced to be poppy and danceable in this day and age. From standard disco tunes like “Have Faith” and “Better” to the hard synth wave and funk styles used in “Cherry Pepsi” and “Around”, the aesthetics and musical endgame are identical. The idea of bringing back hits — or even lesser-known B-sides — and making them appealing to a younger audience today is remarkable. This creates a split meaning of the album title: The songs on the album deliver vibes that are a hit, or the vibes on this album come from the dated hits that they sample.

The constant drive of upbeat dance tunes are periodically given a break with more traditional vaporwave songs such as “Together”, “Interlude”, and “Miss You”. The steady breaks in the energy work well in pacing the album as a whole. Although they are stylistically different and their source materials greatly differ, these slow-jam tracks are comparable to early vaporwave songs through their use of drawn-out samples. Of course, vaporwave (and future funk, for that matter) don’t have to sound a certain way; similarities in compositional style don’t dictate what other artists in the genre have to do. As  t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 sarcastically stated, “Vaporwave is just slowed down music in Audacity.”

There’s no one way to compose anything. Vaporwave and future funk are no exception.

Hit Vibes is one of my favorite albums of all time. Each song is incredibly catchy and full of energy. The way that Saint Pepsi structures this album is phenomenal. After the intro track, the listener is thrown into a dance club. The upbeat and reworked dance tracks are perfectly framed by tamer more relaxing compositions. This isn’t far off from what a DJ would do when mixing a set for a dance. Having high-energy dance tracks interspaced with slower songs is more or less expected in that scene. If you’re into funk, disco, or dance music in general, Hit Vibes is essential.

Favorite Track: Have Faith

Honorable Mention: Around

Saint Pepsi - Hit Vibes