United Waters : The Narrows

I won’t pretend to know much about Mouthus. I won’t because I don’t. I know nothing about the noise rock duo that hailed from Brooklyn, New York and who released close to 200 LPs in the course of 10 years(probably wasn’t that many records.) Well, I do know something. I know that Mouthus’ guitarist Brian Sullivan formed United Waters and released their first album Your First Ever River in 2011. I came into the United Waters world through their second album Sunburner back in 2014. That album was a gauzy collection of underwater-sounding folk grunge. It was like songs that had been soaked in gutter water and laid out to dry in the New York summer heat for days. They sounded like Carlton Melton decompressed and stretched out on an iron maiden. It was strange, claustrophobic, and oddly comforting.

United Waters are readying their newest album, the excellent The Narrows for Drawing Room Records. It continues to slowly clear the songs of vegetation and forest growth which allows Sullivan’s songwriting to shine even more. I wouldn’t call the record a pop album, but it’s a far cry from noise rock.

If it weren’t for Sullivan’s voice, The Narrows could pass for a quaint, indie folk album. The music is put together like jagged puzzle pieces, not quite fitting together perfectly but enough so that you can make out what is going on. But Sullivan’s voice adds an element of dark resonance that gives the proceedings a queasy feel. His vocals lie in subterranean spaces, like Mark Lanegan and Leonard Cohen having a conversation under a pile of mattresses. There’s melody and keys being conveyed in Sullivan’s vocal delivery, but not upfront. It’s assumed as you hear the music. As on Sunburner, nothing is obvious. The music feels muted and distant, like you’re hearing music playing in another room of the house. Or even in another house. But that’s the charm of Sullivan and United Waters. If it were easy to snag onto the melodies and songwriting, then this would be just another album you’d spin and put off to the side. But The Narrows is not that.

The songs are ramshackle and pieced together like a domicile in a shantytown. They should hold up in the rain and wind, but in case it doesn’t have an escape plan. “Move The Distance” is melancholy in its delivery. It’s like Sullivan’s version of musical desolation. It’s jaunty in its rhythms and the guitars sound pained while building the musical world that surrounds us. It’s like old Cure, but a sad and numb track you’d never heard before. Brian Sullivan chews lyrics like he’s chewing rubble. He gargles his words in weathered contemplation. “Ride The Midnight Home” is nearly early 80s pop, but done only the way United Waters can do it. There’s still lots of noise and confusion in the mix, but there’s a real subtlety here. “Even The Moon Remembers” rides on an acoustic guitar and wobbly electric guitar as Brian Sullivan emotes like Phil Alvin looking out over the edge of the universe. It’s a pretty track, and one that stands out in the United Waters catalog.

There seems to be a more nuanced approach on The Narrows. The dystopian haziness of Sunburner isn’t quite as prominent here. In it’s place is a more in-focus sound. Like the aperture has been tightened and the picture is much more in focus, but the sound remains mysterious. “Least Turn” and “Thunderings” benefit greatly from the noir-ish nature of the sound and songwriting. I could see Brian Sullivan reading old Jim Thompson novels and taking something from them.

Elsewhere, “Mile Wide” brings some of those “Out Of Flight” vibes to the proceedings and title track “The Narrows” ends the album like a lost industrial Leonard Cohen track. It sounds like murky pulp folk.

United Waters keep shedding more and more light on their albums. The Narrows feels like the most clear-eyed record yet, with Sullivan’s songcraft getting some much deserved attention this time around. There will always be an element of darkness and decay with Sullivan and United Waters, which is strangely reassuring to me.

7.8 out of 10

 

Brad Laner : Micro-Awakenings

Brad Laner is one of the most creative musical minds you’ve probably never heard of. He’s a California guy that’s been deep in the experimental music scene since thelaner-sleeve-small mid-80s. From cassette excursions with Debt of Nature and Steaming Coils, to the monumental noise pop provocateurs Medicine in the late 80s and early 90s, to the electronic experimentation of Electric Company, Laner seems to pull influence and inspiration from all over the map. Besides his unique industrial-meets-psychedelic guitar sound, he’s a prolific studio master. His solo records, as well as the two Medicine reunion albums released in 2013 and 2014 have a sound all their own. Laner seems to create sonics that are both futuristic and classic. Buzzing guitars and industrial rhythms are surrounded by almost jazz-inflected vocal harmonies. Brad Laner seems to be as moved by the Mothers of Invention as “Mother Nature’s Son”.

Last year Laner released For Magnetic Tape with Drawing Room Records, a cassette release of Cecil Taylor-esque piano excursions. It’s a release where free jazz collides with the avante garde. It’s an intimate and personal release. Now, Drawing Room and Brad Laner present Micro-Awakenings, a double LP  with 4 musical suites that feel like traveling through a musical mind that shape shifts through styles and sounds. It’s experimental pop. An arthouse record that taken in all at once feels like a metamorphosis of the psyche.

The history of Micro-Awakenings begins in the early 2000s when Laner began writing and recording the suites that are included on the record. Between 2003 and 2009 the music was recorded and there were plans to release it as a double LP, then with another label. Plans fell through and the tracks were eventually released as a digital-only release as 61 single tracks through Mutant Sounds. But now, Brad Laner finally gives Micro-Awakenings the proper vinyl release it deserves through the excellent folks at Drawing Room Records.

dsc04963So how does it sound? Well, imagine driving in some beat up old gas guzzler late through the night and flipping through the radio for something to listen to. It’s like channel surfing through these intergalactic stations that only appear when you’re traveling at the speed of unleaded through open-skied desert at 2am. The music ranges from crystalline, futuristic pop to lounge-y late night vibes. It runs the course from groovy bass numbers to experimental electronic. There are moments of Adrian Belew-esque pop experimentation(much like his underrated Op Zop Too Wah) and industrial-heavy sonic snark.

If you’re at all familiar with Laner’s later work on his solo albums, as well as the last two Medicine records, then you know this album sounds incredibly good. Each of the suites ebb and flow within themselves. It’s four album sides(or four long single tracks for the digital-only folks), and within those suites the mood and vibe changes and alternates every so often. Though it can be a heady mix to ingest, there’s still a playfulness throughout. Side C ends with a child talking in the mic through some heavy delay that reminds me of my own kids messing around in my studio when they were still young enough for things like that to entertain them.

Micro-Awakenings isn’t for the masses. It’s not barbecue and grilling music(though if you are playing this at your next barbecue please invite me.) It is, however, music for the musically adventurous. It’s an album to savor like a fine wine or exotic dessert. If you love Oneohtrix Point Never, Adrian Belew, Laner’s work in Medicine and his solo work(especially his score for the Beautiful Noise doc), then seek this album out. It feels and sounds like a lot of work and love went into these pieces. The least we can do is enjoy the fruits of his labor.

8.3 out 10

Cellophane Garden : Illuminations

When you think of a musician holed up in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas creating music amongst those storied wooded hills, the sound that comes to mind is agarden particular one. That sound probably isn’t of the atmospheric and spatial variety, but more of the old time-y, bluegrass variety. In fact spatial, atmospheric, dreamy, and drone-y are exactly what you’ll find on Cellophane Garden’s debut vinyl release called Illuminations. Cellophane Garden is the musical project of musician and vinyl record curator Kevin Blagg. Blagg, along with percussionist J. Seymore, have cultivated a beautifully textured album that feels as melodically rich as it does artistically satisfying.

Blagg, armed with electric and acoustic guitars, synthesizers, echo systems, and a healthy dose of sound collaging has sewn together musical patterns and shapes into Brian Eno-esque walls of noise. “Mystic Maneuver” floats along a steady stream of flanged tones. It sounds like thoughts and ideas floating through the ether. It has the feel of a sci fi score. “Voice of Sonar Healing” is a beautifully textured piece. It’s 9 minutes of exquisite melody. Nostalgic like looking over a ridge and to the sea, thinking of all those who’ve come and gone in your life. Blagg seems to be channeling some classic 4AD sounds here, with Cocteau Twins coming to mind. But beyond inspirations and influences, “Voice of Sonar Healing” is just a beautiful piece of music. It’s new age-y, in that you can see someone falling into deep thought while listening to this song and finding some greater truth. But if that phrase bugs you, then we can just say it’s some seriously heady sounds. “Illuminations” squawks and squeals like a rusted wheel spinning in a cave as synths trail underneath all the noise.

Elsewhere, “High Frequency Blue” has the desolate sound of a rugged, earthier Tangerine Dream. The acoustic guitar and electronic percussion seem to have been made for independent film. It has a real cinematic feel. “Hiss is Bliss” uses the electric guitar to wonderful effect, filling the spaces with subtle nuance. The mix of acoustic and electronic instruments helps to give a very organic feel throughout the album. Kevin Blagg and J. Seymore have built a mysterious musical world here, one that ebbs and flows between bittersweet and darker tones.

Cellophane Garden’s Illuminations is a vast musical landscape that seems to beckon from some far-reaching realm. The Ozarks of northwest Arkansas have bestowed upon Kevin Blagg a sense of journey and spatial exploration. He’s created musical worlds for us to get lost in. It’s a soundtrack for the moment where the mountain meets the sky and that overwhelming sense that comes over you when you reach it.

8.2 out of 10

Ashley Bellouin : Ballads

After the needle drops on Ashley Bellouin’s debut album titled Ballads you know right away this isn’t going to be a sappy collection ofbellouin odes to lovers and significant others. The pastoral drone of harmonium, glass armonica, and other assorted spectral toys hit your ears and seem to open a portal that leads into some great, dark unknown. You float along these beautiful tones created both with instruments hand held and manipulated in the digital realm. Bellouin, along with guitarist Ben Bracken and cellist Teddy Rankin have created two atmospheric tracks, “Bourdon” on side A and “Hummen” on side B, that feel like ideas and emotions forming in some artistic “big bang” . Ballads follows in the footsteps of classic electronic and experimental composers like Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and Morton Subotnick and pushes the boundaries of what instrumental music can and should be.

According to Ashley Bellouin’s biography, “Bellouin holds an MFA in Electronic Music & Recording Media from Mills College, where she studied with Maggi Payne, John Bischoff, and James Fei. Here accolades the Frog Peak Collective Experimental Music Award for most outstanding thesis”, and it goes on to say “She has presented her work at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Soundwave ((5)) Festival, the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, UC Santa Cruz, and Stanford University, among other venues. Her residencies include the Paul Dresher Ensemble Artist Residency Center, the UC Berkeley Center for New Media, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, and EMS in Stockholm, Sweden. Additional awards include a YBCAway grant from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.” She has also worked with synth pioneers Don Buchla and Dave Smith, working as an engineer at Dave Smith Instruments.

What I take away from listening to her excellent debut is that yes, she’s more than proficient technically with the instruments here, but that as a composer Bellouin understands that there’s more to a musical piece than just noise for the sake of noise. Both “Bourdon” and “Hummen” are as eloquent as they are heady. They are soundscapes that journey through the head and heart. They work on an intellectual and gut level. Mica Levi hinted at this musical terrain on her Under The Skin S/T. Like Levi, Ashley Bellouin takes a minimalist approach to composition, but results are anything but minimal. 

Ballads is an album that begs for late night headphone sessions. It’s an existential whisper from the universe to our ears. Bellouin’s light touches and droning instrumentation seem to amplify a great unknown. An unknown we need only to drop the needle to receive.

8.6 out of 10