Archive for the 'Sonic Spotlight' Category

Sonic Spotlight on Sóley

All right, all right. I know I have a problem. I get a lot of emails from publicists pitching artists to me. Many go unread. (Come on guys… punk? Heavy metal? Not so much.) But there is one thing that is sure to get my attention. Let me give you a hint. The name Sóley Stefánsdóttir… notice anything?

It was as if her name were suddenly on a blinking marquee.

Icelandic artist! Icelandic artist! Icelandic artist!

I thought to myself.

So, meet Sóley Stefánsdóttir, my latest obsession.

(photo Inga Birgisdóttir)

If you’ve seen Seabear or Sin Fang (previously Sin Fang Bous), chances are you’ve already seen Sóley. She has played in both. Apparently, Sóley had never really thought much of her vocal abilities, and it was only after touring with Seabear and singing a lot to herself that she began to “get used to the sound of her own voice” and started to share it with others.

Besides the whimsical sound that seems to be a staple in many of my favorite artists, maybe that’s one of the things that appeals to me most about Scandinavian music. There seems to be a modesty built in to the songs that makes them both charming and intimate in tone. The men of the Danish group Efterklang will applaud for you, the audience, at the end of their show, as if you had just provided the talent. It’s adorable.

“I’ll Drown,” Sóley’s recent single, is a strong introduction to her first full-length album, We Sink.

It has a slow, methodical start – just sparse beats and a plunky but haunting piano melody. But as the song unfurls, it becomes fuller and darker. The dramatic pause, held a beat longer than most would dare, initiates the all-too-honest breakdown. “I drown when I see you,” she sings. The words are simple but powerful. And isn’t that the mark of a truly great pop song? Who among us can’t relate to the words and to the beautiful hesitancy of the song?

We Sink is now available as a digital download. The hard copy drops in another few weeks.


Spotlight on Tasseomancy

Need further evidence that Toronto is taking the music scene by storm? Introducing Tasseomancy.

With equal parts Joanna Newsom, Timber Timbre, and CocoRosie, Tasseomancy is the delightfully dark project of twins Sari and Romy Lightman. You may know them as the petite back-up singers and dancers in Austra.

Tasseomancy (photo courtesy of the artist)

The Lightman sisters started making music a few years ago as Ghost Bees (and even released an EP), but with time, their artistic direction morphed, and their lo-fi folk leanings gave way to a fuller, more experimental sound with Tasseomancy.

When I got their upcoming album from a publicist a month or so back, I couldn’t wait to share it. Now, fresh from a screening of the early 90s movie Twin Sitters (which featured the Barbarian brothers babysitting – you guessed it – twins), I think the timing is right.

Tasseomancy’s debut album, Ulalume, (which, by the way, was co-produced by Timber Timbre’s Taylor Kirk and Simon Trottier) isn’t due out until August, but they just released a truly spooky video for the song “Heavy Sleep.”

Oh, so this is what it would sound like if Joanna Newsom could sing. Good to know.

Spotlight on Seapony

Need an album  to help you ease into summer? Look no further than Seapony’s debut, Go With Me.

With its simple, repetitive lyrics, fuzzed-out summery sound, and jangly guitars, “Dreaming,” the album’s opening track, reminds me a lot of Best Coast’s summer-friendly single “When I’m With You.”

But Seapony’s music has a levity to it that is more in keeping with Saturday Looks Good to Me than Best Coast. (Take a listen to “Alcohol” for comparison purposes.)

The good news? Like many summer shows in New York, you can check out Seapony’s new album for free! Stream it in its entirety here.

Talking to Taylor Kirk

Timber Timbre is known for their spooky sound, but there’s more to their music than creepy effects, chilling instrumentation, and haunting vocals.

A ghastly scene with Timber Timbre (photo courtesy of artist)

I corresponded with chief singer/songwriter Taylor Kirk to get get the inside scoop…


Me: I find that sometimes, the deeper into music I get, the harder it can be to describe it. If you met someone in a bar who was totally unfamiliar with your music and they asked you what it was like, what would you say?

Taylor Kirk: Yes, I think the same is true for me. It’s dancing about architecture. There’s never really going to be a succinct universal vocabulary for this, is there? I usually just keep it simple; blues, doo-wop, country, soul, pop, rock’n’roll. Any of these are fine.

One of the things that most distinguishes Timber Timbre is the spooky vocals. Was this way of singing always your approach or was it something you adopted specifically for Timber Timbre?

I’m not that spooky, am I? I was just trying to sound like Otis Redding. Or Nina Simone. Aw, shit.

Where do you look to for inspiration for songwriting (both in general and specifically with Creep on Creepin’ On)? How does this latest album differ from your older material?

Most often I’m inspired by music, and making recordings of music about music. I don’t have to look hard or far for inspiration, though. It’s quite habitual now, collecting ideas, melodies, stories, images, terms of endearment, elegies, etc. These songs came out of a really exciting period for me – a lot of touring and traveling, and new experiences. In fact, I thought this material was overall more fun than previous work. Funny even.

The subject matter in the lyrics threatens to paint a somber picture, but the piano parts are often so upbeat. Is your music inspired more by a dark place (as one might think by reading through the lyrics and listening to the style of the vox), or does it come from a lighter side? I chuckled when I first heard the name of your latest album. Do you consider humor/irony/dramatic effect to be an integral part of your music?

Until recently, I’ve never really been a fan of humour in music – even in the form of irony or kitsch, believe it or not. But I suppose as a songwriter, becoming more earnest might involve more of my personality sneaking into songs, and I’m just not all that serious. Most definitely, the album title is meant to incite a chuckle.

Is there a Carson McCullers tie-in with “Lonesome Hunter”? If so, have you read the book and why did you alter the title?

Yes, a friend leant me that book years ago, describing it as a masterpiece. I was sold on the title and the illustration on the cover, but then it was lost in a move… Anyway, I only ever got half-way through that one, to be honest. But the title was so poetic and relevant to my sentiment for that song… I didn’t think anyone would mind or notice.

Could you reveal some of the more unusual things you used to achieve the odd sound effects in the new album? (Is that someone screaming in “Too Old to Die Young”?) What effects do you use on your vocals?

Yeah, we did one evening of screams. It was really cathartic. At night, after dinner and a few bottles of wine, we turned out the lights in the studio and one by one we went down and did our best shrieks. Mika is a really good screamer.

Simon is the wizard behind a lot of those odd sounds so you should ask him. We did some funny things with tape. We’re not really the type of people who fetishize tape or anything, but it was fun and interesting to play with tape-machines and old delays. Nearly all of the vocals were bounced off of two-inch tape to achieve the slap-back delay. And then we’d push and pull on these old delay units to create some warbles and modulations, mainly on string parts, to make those sort of sea-sick sounds.


Check out my write-up of the song “Lonely Hunter” here on NPR Music.

Spotlight on Son Lux

The Wire‘s RPM Challenge isn’t for the faint of heart. Most musicians take 2-3 years to write, record, and produce an album. The RPM Challenge shortens that time to just one month – and the shortest month of the year at that. It’s a lot to take on.

When Ryan Lott (aka Son Lux) first heard about the challenge from NPR Music’s Robin Hilton, he wasn’t convinced it was for him.

Well, my initial reaction was I absolutely cannot do this. This is just not in the cards for me. It was just like, ah that’s too bad because that would have been a super cool opportunity, what a cool thing for them to think of me, blah, blah, blah. So I slept on it and I told a couple of people about it, one of whom is my manager, Michael. He was like, “Oh dude you have to do this.” (Laughs)

Ryan Lott (photo courtesy of artist)

So he embarked on the challenge. Over the course of February, NPR checked in with Lott regularly to note his progress. (Very cool stuff.) For a time in the middle of the process, he didn’t think he was going to make it, but somehow he managed to not only pull it off, but produce an absolutely gorgeous album that features some of my favorite artists, including the likes of: DM Stith, Antony Hegarty, Sufjan Stevens, The National, Shara Worden, and more.

Fortunately for me, it’s so ridiculously fun to make music that working really hard, as hard as I can exhausts me but also energizes me in a really important way.

I fell in love with the finished product a few weeks ago, when NPR streamed it as part of their First Listen Series. Now you can download it for yourself, and you totally should. It’s already a serious contender for my annual top ten list.

We Are Rising is full of magical moments. It held me at attention from the very first song, “Flickers.” Take a listen yourself:

You can also download “Rising,” the first single from the album, here.

Though the album has a nice, clean feel, it also somehow manages to project a  majestic quality, and this is a dichotomy I can certainly get behind.

Check out this intriguing interview (which I’ve been quoting from) with Ryan Lott and NPR’s Robin Hilton about how it all went down.

Sea of Opportunibees

Haven’t had a chance to catch Sea of Bees yet? Well you’re in luck.

Julie Baenziger of Sea of Bees (photo courtesy of artist)

Turns out Julie Baenziger is mighty busy (or should I say buzzy) this week. She’s playing something insane like eleven shows in New York alone over the next week or so. You’ve already missed a few, but fear not. Surely one of these will fit into your schedule…

Monday, 4/25 Rockwood Music Hall
Tuesday, 4/26 Joe’s Pub
Wednesday, 4/27 Glasslands
Thursday, 4/28 Pianos
Friday, 4/29 Cake Shop
Saturday, 4/30 Mercury Lounge
Sunday, 5/1 The Living Room

So many shows, it may be hard to sea the forest for the bees.

Seriously, though… you need to go to at least one of these. Her voice is singular and her performance, surprisingly emotional. For extra credit, check out the show at Piano’s, which also features (the lovely) Lady Lamb the Beekeeper.

Spotlight on Amor de Días

It’s been a couple of years since the last record from The Clientele. When I saw the British group perform last year, lead singer Alasdair MacLean was surprisingly frank when it came to his feelings on their latest album, Bonfires on the Heath. At one point, he half-apologized/half-confessed that it didn’t stack up to earlier releases.

This admission, coupled with rumors that the band were on the verge of retiring, may have been troubling to hear, but now it seems that the circumstances are anything but grim.

A little over a week ago, Merge revealed that MacLean was back in the recording studio – only this time under a new name: Amor de Días, a project he quietly began with Lupe Núñez-Fernández of the band Pipas some three years ago.

Amor de Días (photo Shoko Ishikawa)

I’m not sure how they managed to keep their collaboration a secret for so long, but I do know that I look forward to hearing their album, Street of the Love Days, which officially drops on May 17th.

Until then, take a listen to “Bunhill Fields,” their first single:

As for the future The Clientele, the publicist I corresponded with is hopeful that there will be “more to come” – especially since last year’s US tour consistantly sold out.  Alasdair MacLean has simply shifted gears for the time being.

"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being