Reflections on the joys of discovering new music
007 :: SOUND
Sound Ancestors by Madlib, arranged by Four Tet, released by Madlib Invazion in 2021.
Buy direct: https://madlib.bandcamp.com/album/sound-ancestors
What's the point of music? What's a musician striving to do? The simplest answer, which holds true much of the time, is that music is about the expression and conveyance of emotion, the translation of private, ineffable feelings into a public, sonic medium where others can feel them too. But this is not all that music can be. Sometimes, music is just about revelling in the joy of sound. Sometimes, the medium is not a means but an end. Sometimes, all the musician wants is for us to listen, to hear what they hear, and to be, like them, enthralled.
Listen to the crunchiness of that bassline, the crispness of those snare hits, the tenacity of this groove. And now listen to something completely different: the steady jingle of the bells, the syncopation of the bass and the kick drum, the soulful crooning in the background, that funky harp-like arpeggio. There's just so much to love here on a purely sonic level, and that's precisely the point.
Now is probably a good time to point out, for those who don't realize, that the musician behind this record is a DJ, and that this music is an assemblage of samples — bits of sound that caught the artist's attention, fitted together so as to catch ours. In other words, before this music could exist it had to be discovered, and much of its excitement lies in simply hearing everything the artist has found. Because the artist here is a master listener, and what we're being treated to is a performance by someone who hears the world better than we do — who looks where we wouldn't think to look, notices what might escape our notice, and can bring all these sounds into focus so that we can perceive them too.
In this way, the DJ reminds me of a photographer, walking the streets, camera slung around their neck, ever on the lookout for that decisive moment, where there is, however briefly, something uncommon and marvelous to see. A photograph, if it's a good one, brings the world into view, capturing, yes, what was already there, but in such a way that it becomes more potent, more pregnant, more visible. In photography we are able to glimpse the world through the photographer's discerning eye, and thus learn better how to look, just as in this music we are able to hear the world through the DJ's discerning ear, and thus learn better how to listen.
But actually, it is not only the DJ's discerning ear that is here on display. For this record is in fact the work of two musicians, one acting as DJ and the other as producer, or, as I prefer to think of it, one acting as artist and the other as curator. What we're hearing, more precisely, is one DJ listening to another and honing the other's vision, magnifying what's best and intensifying what's most powerful in their music. Through this, what might've been a mere collection of first-rate photographs is transformed into an first-rate exhibition, which shows us not only how to listen to the world but also how to listen to this music.
And like any good exhibition, this record is more than the sum of its parts. As gemlike as each track is on its own, there's a special brilliance that appears when we hear them all together, as we notice the eclectic range of soundscapes and the ecumenical use of genre across the record. We start to see that behind this music is an expansive and capacious sensibility, so devoted to sound itself that it recognizes none of our conventional boundaries. And we begin to appreciate that this music is asking us to share its vision: to broaden our own sensibilities,...
006 :: WUDDAJI
Wuddaji by Theo Parrish, released by Sound Signature in 2020.
Buy direct: https://soundsignature.net/product/theo-parrish-wuddaji
Nothing about this should work. At any given moment it feels like the whole thing could fall to pieces. So let's start by just appreciating the fact that this music not only does manage to hang together, but that it grooves.
Take, for example, this song's main loop, a jazzy, jittering melody played on electric piano. The phrase has a clear enough hook, but surrounding this hook is a tempest of other notes that set the phrase off kilter, destabilizing it both harmonically and rhythmically, to the point that it almost sounds like it's glitching, on the verge of breaking down, before it recovers and returns to its recognizable refrain.
And that's just what's happening within the main loop. For surrounding it is a tempest of other sounds that further destabilize this loop yet somehow also simultaneously ground it. Undulating synths shimmer in and out of existence; a kick drum periodically pounds its way to a downbeat; a slap bass meanders across the low-end; and a layer of buzzy static sits on top of it all. Like a crackling fire, the song continuously bursts with energy while also always seeming on the brink of collapse.
Nothing about this should work. And yet, we groove along all the same. Naturally and automatically, our minds start to hum the glancing melody, our bodies start to move in step with the throbbing beat. It's uncanny, how easily we resonate with this music, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it's uncommon to hear dance music that possesses so much soul. The song breathes, heaves, pants, and wheezes. It's dancing with itself, as we dance along with it.
It's not just this one song, either. The entire record exists in this liminal state, standing right on the edge of harmonic and rhythmic cohesion, ever on the verge of toppling over but always just barely maintaining its balance. Each song is like a spiderweb or a ship in a bottle, an object that seems like it shouldn't be able to exist in this world, an intricate and delicate construction that appears to defy the natural laws to which we all are subject. To listen to this music is to marvel at all the different pieces suspended in time, moving together in an unlikely choreography to create something that feels utterly grounded and yet also seems to float on air.
I can only think to describe this music as magic. And like magic, its aim is to entrance — to command our entire attention, and yet ever elude its grasp. But like magic, the point is not to figure out how it works its trick, but simply to go along with its sleight of hand, to exist for a moment in this state of wonder, to immerse ourselves in this impossible world, and to temporarily feel as weightless as this music itself.
005 :: BEVERLY
"Deep River (Live at Le Guess Who?)" by Beverly Glenn-Copeland, from Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, released by Transgressive Records in 2020.
Buy direct: https://beverlyglenn-copeland.bandcamp.com/album/transmissions-the-music-of-beverly-glenn-copeland-2
We will end in jubilation, but we begin in prayer. A single, solitary voice — a simple, five-line verse — an earnest plea for deliverance and grace. As this voice stands before us, naked and exposed yet confident and assured, we hear both the vulnerability and the strength that come with prayer, the humility and the awe that one feels when addressing and communing with a higher power, like the humility and awe that we feel in the presence of this miraculous voice. And so, as this voice asks for grace, it is also itself an act of grace, and thus serves as a kind of grace, a blessing of the performance now to come.
And that's not all, for this opening prayer, it should be noted, was also an invitation. As much as it was calling upon a higher power to come down and bless this musical gathering, it was also calling on us, its audience, to come over and take a seat at the table. "Don't you want to go to that Gospel-feast?" it asked. And that, as I see it, is the point of this performance: to get us to share in its beatific vision, by itself being something beatific to behold.
And so it welcomes us in and leads us along, with its steady djembe beat, its wide and open chord voicings, and its slow descending bassline. Without our even noticing it, we have crossed over into a new and beautiful musical space. It's a transition that, coincidentally or not, mirrors the song's lyrics, which are all about crossing over, across the great divide of a deep river, into that home over Jordan, into campground, into that promised land. In short, the lyrics, and their delivery, are an embodiment of the radical hope for a better life beyond this one, and this music is helping us keep our faith in that other life, by showing us the glorious sound of freedom and salvation.
Yet the true sound of deliverance transcends words and language. And perhaps this is why, in the song's third verse, the lyrics shift to ululation. Or perhaps the shift is yet a further invitation, showing that literacy is not a requisite for salvation.
And this brings us to my absolute favourite moment of the song, its most direct invitation to its audience, when the singer momentarily goes off script and breaks the fourth wall to explicitly tell us to join in.
There is just something so tender about that little instruction, something so incongruous with the singing that surrounds it. To realize that this is what the singer normally sounds like, that from a speaking voice so light and playful can come a singing voice so powerful and divine — well, it makes anything seem possible. Somehow the majestic beauty we've been hearing now doesn't seem so out of reach.
If this is how you, too, feel by the end of this performance, then that means the performance has done what it set out to do, transporting you across that deep river to the salvation on the other side. And so the song ends in a finale of overflowing jubilation, for not only has it finally reached the promised land, but it is also now here together with all of us.
004 :: SAVAGE
"Savage Remix (feat. Beyoncé)" by Megan Thee Stallion, released by 300 Entertainment in 2020.
Have four single chords ever sounded so dope? Have four single chords ever so effectively encapsulated a whole song? Two seconds in and you already know everything you need to know. This song is an attitude, and that attitude is defiance.
These chords, with their half-step alternation, refuse any stable tonal centre. These chords, with their taut syncopation, resist any clear metre (at least until the beat drops). Yet nothing here is wavering, nothing here is uncertain. The sound is all tension, holding these sonic contradictions together in a single, confident, self-standing whole.
Thus it's no surprise that when the vocals make their entrance they are equally confident and defiant. Indeed, the lyrics are a litany of conventional contradictions, all proclaimed to coexist within the MC herself: "Hood but I'm classy / Rich but I'm ratchet", "bougie", "moody", "sassy", "nasty". The song is a proud declaration of what would ordinarily be insults and slurs, a reclamation of otherwise derogatory language, captured at once in its titular word, "savage" – simultaneously denoting the dominating and the dominated subject.
Yet as much as this song is a personal statement, it is also a personal mantra, a refrain to be repeated over and over again, so as not to let yourself be defined by how others see you. But where does one find the strength to contain such multitudes? Where does one find the strength to stand up against the regressive and oppressive opinions of an unwelcoming world? Mere repetition of the mantra is not sufficient. You need an inner champion, a second voice inside your head, that validates your identity and incites you to carry on.
And this is where we find the true brilliance of this song, because that second voice is here too, whispering in this ear and then the other, punctuating and giving new strength to the song's mantra, and all the more effectively because this voice is Beyoncé, the strongest inner champion one could ever have. In this way, the song doesn't feature Beyoncé so much as it summons her into being, channelling her power and making it one's own.
What we hear is the sound of Beyoncé sublimated – the sound, not of Beyoncé herself, but of what it's like to listen to Beyoncé – the vicarious experience of being unstoppable, incomparable, and indefinable.
003 :: QUARTET
Last Leaf by Danish String Quartet, released by ECM Records in 2017.
Buy direct: https://ecmrecords.bandcamp.com/album/last-leaf-1
What even is a string quartet today? Do we need them anymore? What new could they possibly have to say? To many, the string quartet may seem like a dead language: beautiful, self-contained, but of things past, an object of study rather than a living medium.
This is all, of course, false, as any number of contemporary string quartets can attest. But this record, by the Danish String Quartet, presents a completely new way to see the string quartet completely anew.
Fittingly, the first sound one hears on the record – the sound you're hearing now – is not even a string instrument, but a keyboard: an organ of some sort, so intimate that you can hear the press of its keys. And yet, what it's playing is a hymn that, we're told, has been "arranged for string quartet", even if it's not played by one.
This opening underlines what I take to be the record's thesis: that the string quartet is not an ensemble or a repertoire so much as it is an orientation, a way of approaching music, whatever music that may be.
In this particular case, the music is old: this record, like many string quartet records, looks backward for inspiration. But rather than looking to the classical music tradition, it looks to the traditional folk songs of Scandinavia – melodies that were around long before the string quartet was canonized, long before the violin, viola, and cello even existed. In this way, the record is not reanimating a tradition so much as it is reimagining a tradition, not merely giving these melodies a four-part string arrangement, but, more deeply, refracting them through a string quartet's sensibility.
And what is that sensibility, that orientation? In my mind, it is characterized by a musical nimbleness, a fluidity in key and tempo. There is an undulation to these performances, in the way the tonal centre can shift and drift between measures, the way the pace will subtly modulate from beat to beat. I can only describe it as the movement of breath, or the movement of the heart, an expression of some vital, ineffable energy.
Great solo performances have this quality as well, being expressions of their performer's own singular energy. Yet with string quartets this experience is amplified, as their singular energy comes from four performers, working in concert, melding their individual energies into one multidimensional voice. Individuality dissolves into union, and what we hear is the sound of an intimate synchronization, of four people coalescing into a piece of music and bringing it newly alive.
The highlight of the record, for me, is "Shine You No More". The song is, essentially, a jig – a simple, looping melody played so fast and energetically that it can only be heard as an exhortation to get up, grab a partner, and dance. It's a performance that can't but set the listener into motion, whether that be a whirling of the body or a tapping of the foot. And so we, too, become synchronized with the music, and the unity between the players becomes a community with their audience.
It is, perhaps, the primordial function of music: to bring us together, by bringing sounds together. Yet here again, the old is refracted through the new: While sonically this performance follows the patterns of traditional dance music, structurally it follows the logic of contemporary dance music, in its dynamic shifts and swells, its four-to-the-floor heartbeat, or its middle section, which is basically one long slow build, and when the drop comes, it's...
002 :: POPS
Don't Lose This by Pops Staples, released by ANTI- Records in 2015.
It's customary to think of songs as built up out of a few fundamental elements: melody, rhythm, harmony, lyric – words set to a tune sung in time atop chords. But these songs are nothing like that. They of course have melody and rhythm, harmony and lyric. But that's not what they're made of, that's not what they are. Pops Staples songs, rather, are compositions of two timbres: his trembling voice and his tremolo guitar.
There's other sounds here, too, of course: drums, bass, other voices. But these songs are anchored by the unique signatures of Pops's two instruments: the wooziness of his guitar, the yearning in his voice. Either of these elements on its own is distinctive enough as it is. But together they sound like nothing else.
It's often hard to believe that these two sounds are coming from the same performer, in a simultaneous performance. They often have entirely different energies, moving not so much in counterpoint as in parallel, but in a way that somehow, miraculously, comes together as a single musical whole. These songs are like a conversation between Pops's voice and his guitar, but a conversation that does not just go back and forth between them, but also involves a lot of talking over one another.
And that's not the only reason these songs sound conversational. It's also a matter of the casualness and spontaneity of their performance. The rhythm is loose, the melodies meandering. Pops sings as if he's just telling you the lyrics, speaking them out in his delicate yet sonorous voice. The guitar licks feel extemporaneous, as if they're just whatever in the moment came to his mind. Though Pops has surely played these songs hundreds if not thousands of times before, they never sound rehearsed. They sound as if Pops has just sat down and started speaking through his instruments, channelling the energy of the moment into a new and singular performance.
There's one other element to this music's essence, one last thing that makes it what it is. This is spiritual music, gospel music, devotional music – and it's doubtful that Pops's sound could be put to any other purpose, let alone a better one. Listening to Pops play, you can't but hear the spirit moving through him, in the way his guitar quivers and the way his voice always remains pure, however quiet or loud it may be.
These are holy sounds, but also human ones. In them one can feel the divine element in man. In them one can hear a man approaching the divine. Through this music one learns that we all can aspire to something greater, however humble our talents may be. Through this music one sees that there is transcendence even amidst the mundane.