Culturedarm’s Songs of the Month (October 2015)

Kelela 7

Kelela – ‘Rewind’

Kelela first came to attention in 2012 as the featured vocalist on Teengirl Fantasy’s ‘EFX’, a lilting shanty with scuttering percussion from the duo’s second album Tracer. The following year she released her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me, which showcased the breadth of her R&B stylings over clanging percussion courtesy of the LA-based label Fade To Mind and their London counterparts Night Slugs. Kingdom and Nguzunguzu were prominent figures, as Kelela’s soulful voice sometimes swirled in the mix of tracks but more often hung back and stretched out syllables, pushing through the array of textures to convey a palpable tension.

Cut 4 Me won widespread acclaim, and from Kelela’s contemporaries as well as end-of-year publications: Björk posted on Instagram calling a performance by Kelela ‘one of my all time favourites… raw and graceful’, while Solange Knowles included two Kelela songs on her compilation album Saint Heron. In the couple of years since Cut 4 Me, Kelela has collaborated with Kindness, Le1f, Tink, and DJ Dahi, while a deluxe edition of the mixtape emerged in April.

Recently signed to Warp, Kelela’s excellent new EP Hallucinogen came out on 9 October. Its six tracks again see her working with Kingdom, Nguzunguzu, and DJ Dahi, while Arca, who co-produced much of Björk’s Vulnicura, contributes to the opener ‘A Message’. ‘Rewind’ is Hallucinogen‘s lead single, a movement of the sleek neon-lit nighttime.

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Majical Cloudz – ‘Downtown’

Impersonator, the breakthrough second album by Majical Cloudz – a project fronted by the forcefully captivating figure of Devon Welsh, who sings and writes while Matthew Otto constructs soundscapes about him – was released in 2013 and stands as one of my favourite albums of the decade so far. On Are You Alone?, the follow-up which came out on 16 October, Devon’s voice continues to reverberate at the centre of songs of anguish and grace: songs about friendship and about love, which confront and enact the strain for a sure self-identity and at the same time seep into those spaces where identity is blurred.

The sound palette here is broader and more European: ‘Heavy’ shares something with the artists of the Italians Do It Better label, although that is based in Portland and LA, while ‘Silver Car Crash’ briefly echoes The Cure. The atmosphere presses a little more lightly: songs convey passing and persisting states rather than heightened moments, and Are You Alone? would well suit a reflective late-night drive. There are too many highlights here to count, from the sinuous guitar line, swelling synths, and padding drums of ‘So Blue’, to the pronouncement ‘I am feeling change’ towards the end of ‘Change’, an affirmation in a song whose overt theme is doubt and disbelief. Here is another standout, typically reflexive and heart-re-rendering, with the video for ‘Downtown’.

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Autre Ne Veut – ‘Age of Transparency’

Another artist who broke through critically in 2013, Arthur Ashin of Autre Ne Veut succeeded the acclaimed Anxiety in October with Age of Transparency, which sees his dynamic, barely-tethered-to-R&B voice soaring amid the sounds of free jazz, chopped choral music, and jagged and sweeping synths.

There are so many elements on the title track alone: from the twinkling piano, choir humming somewhere between Gregorian chant and New Age music, and wailing saxophone which together provide its long opening, before Ashin’s falsetto comes in to be buffeted by soulful vocalisations, clapping percussion, and drum patterns which span continents with their shifting forms. It is a wonderful cacophony of noise, that manages to still seem sparse and sometimes fragile. And for those who desire something stripped back, Autre Ne Veut has released Age of Transparency, Vol. 2 with cool jazz accompaniments.

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Chance The Rapper – ‘Angels’ (feat. Saba)

Chance The Rapper has spent an exceptionally fruitful couple of years working with and for others. Far from the culmination of a process, Surf by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, released in May, was one of a series of collaborations which continued from early summer on into autumn, those with Towkio and Kyle bookending others with Lil B and Noname Gypsy. Then on 27 October, performing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Chance premiered his new song ‘Angels’, featuring Saba. There are indications that a third mixtape is on its way, completing the trilogy after 10 Day and Acid Rap.

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Nicole Dollanganger – ‘Angels of Porn II’

Another from Nicole Dollanganger after a full month spent listening with wonder to Natural Born Losers, which was released via Eerie Organization on 9 October.

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Joanna Newsom – ‘Divers’

And following the announcement in August, the in-depth song analysis soon thereafter, the release on 23 October, and the full-length album review, here is the title track from Joanna Newsom’s Divers. I wrote:

‘Newsom’s starry-eyed harp descends and ascends, taking halting breaths and delving into the darkness sustained by piano and Mellotron, on this tale of unrequited love and life left unfulfilled. In an interview with NPR Music, Joanna noted how the imagery of diving, most literal here, recurs in other forms elsewhere on the album: for instance in the nightjars of ‘Anecdotes’, and in the manner of John Purroy Mitchel’s death implicated on ‘Sapokanikan’. ‘Divers’ provides the fullest expression of another of the album’s motifs, the agonising divide between men and women, or just as much, between the realms conventionally apportioned to the two genders.

The narrator here can never be sure between love and deception: given a jewel that seems twice as valuable as her life, convention also dictates that she stay stranded with the women on the pier as she watches her lover ‘phosphoresce’ into the ocean. The strain of enduring separation can be overwhelming, and in some of the most forceful lines on Divers, crying out in pain and in self-affirmation, the narrator exclaims: ‘A woman is alive! / A woman is alive; / you do not take her for a sign in nacre on a stone, / alone, unfaceted and fine.’ As with the painted-over artworks of ‘Sapokanikan’, women may be cast aside by the male memory, but witness and felt experience lingers.’


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The Stooges – ‘1970’

In fond memory of Steve Mackay, the saxophonist best-known for his work on Fun House, who died on 10 October aged sixty-sixIggy said:

‘Steve was a classic ’60s American guy, full of generosity and love for anyone he met. Every time he put his sax to his lips and honked, he lightened my road and brightened the whole world. He was a credit to his group and his generation. To know him was to love him.’

And reviewing Fun House for Creem magazine in November and December 1970, Lester Bangs wrote:

‘For some reason very few young white “rock” sax players can handle jazz forms without getting into one sort of mawkish woodshed parody or another, and when they attempt the free music of the Shepp/Ayler fringe the results regularly sink even lower. Somehow they always seem to end up merely gargling out some most untogether flurry of notes, their fingers skittering carelessly over the keys as if that were all that free jazz, in reality a fierce taskmaster, required. That’s all it requires to blow shit, but playing the real shit takes a specialized imagination and sense of control. Steve, thank god, has enough of both to make his solos and ensemble fills interesting in their own right, and treads a fine though constantly zigzagging line between the post-Coltrane approach and a great old primitive rock ‘n’ roll honk.’

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Janet Jackson – ‘Unbreakable’

The start of the month saw the release of Unbreakable, the eleventh studio album by Janet Jackson, the first since Discipline back in 2008, and the debut record under her Rhythm Nation imprint. Unbreakable came out on 2 October, and went straight to the top of the Billboard 200, becoming in the process Jackson’s seventh US number one.

The quiet storm song ‘No Sleeep’ was offered as the album’s lead single in June, with Janet slinking behind her bedroom curtains, coaxing her lover while the rain thunders outside. It came in two versions, the album cut featuring J. Cole appearing along with a music video mere days behind a condensed 3-minute edit, ideal for radio play. ‘Unbreakable’, a promotional single out to accompany the release of the album, and the opening song on the record, sees Janet embracing her fans after her time away. Sounding for all the world like her brother Michael in the introductory passage of the song, a funk groove kicks in and Janet rides a soul sample until a final word of well-wishing for the music ahead.

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Taeyeon – ‘I’ (feat. Verbal Jint)

HyunA – ‘Roll Deep’ (feat. Jung Ilhoon)

Taeyeon, a member of South Korea’s Girls’ Generation, its subgroup TTS, and the balladeering supergroup SM the Ballad, made her solo debut on 7 October with the lush pop track ‘I’, the lead single from the EP of the same name. I immediately rose to number 2 on the Gaon Album Chart, while it reached number 1 on the Billboard World Albums chart of 24 October – Taeyeon bettering the achievement of her compatriot HyunA’s A+ from a couple of weeks earlier.