Sufjan Stevens “Fourth of July”

Some of my favorite songs hurt too much to listen to very often. They send me plunging into those forlorn corners of memory that I spend most days avoiding. I try to remember these songs, play them, and appreciate what happens when I open the flood gates to total despair.

All year long, I keep an ongoing list of the music that really touches me. Even if I’ve only heard something once, it won’t be forgotten. So long as an album really strikes me, it remains on the list. It’s a gentle reminder of some of my best moments, light and dark.

I’ve realized this is a  perfect way to keep track of the more sharply emotional music I encounter. When something makes me cry, striking a deep feeling that I can’t shake for hours, I don’t often want to dive right back in. It’s too much. The music I listen to while driving, for instance, doesn’t often involve a lot of harsh emotional places. Some albums don’t beg repeat plays, yet stil wear a groove into my mind. The list helps me conjure those overwhelming artists for a reappraisal. It’s a practice that I find profoundly rewarding at the end of each year.

This year’s list included Sufjan Steven’s latest album, Carrie & Lowell. It’s a harrowing, autobiographical experience that’s eerily stripped down and direct, compared to his grand, overstuffed earlier albums. Lyrics trade heavy in both spiritual and personal tones, and despite the light atmosphere, the narrative settles uncomfortably on the heart. The deceptively simple collection of guitar and piano driven tunes are connected by a gauzy atmosphere, with blurred beginnings and endings. Tracks emerge from the hissing fog of memory, embracing and then leaving before they can be fully grasped.

This one, though. Fourth of July just cuts me right down. Before I’d even read the backstory of the album, named after Stevens’ estranged, recently late mother and stepfather, the lyrics rang painful. Structured as a conversation between Stevens and his mother on her deathbed, it’s full of aching verses that express the regret of a mostly missed relationship. Since she’d left when he was a child, Stevens was saying goodbye to a stranger that he nonetheless loved and forgave completely.

While my relationship with my own late mother couldn’t be more different, one verse felt immediately like a message from her. It struck like a knife through the ribs, sucking the air from my lungs. It felt like what my mom would have said if she’d known she wouldn’t see me again, that day I waved goodbye in the snow.

Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light

I have to admit: I shake just typing these words out. Some thoughts act like a portal, ripping me directly back to the moment I knew my mom was gone. There’s no fighting it; I just let it wash over and move on. Sufjan Stevens has captured this feeling more accurately than any contemporary musician I’ve heard, painting that exquisite combination of sadness, regret, acceptance, and dawning relief that forever trails after the black hole at the center of memory.

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Just as Fourth of July is an emotionally cathartic listen, it’s equally as disruptive to write about. I’m staring down my blog while my sinuses disintegrate, tears falling. Just as profound depths of sadness allow for a unique bounce into tear-streaked laughter and relief, music like this warms a smile on my face as I reflect on it. Writing about why something nails my gut, poking at the connective tissue of emotion itself, is why I started writing about music itself.

When I find myself avoiding art that makes me truly feel on a visceral level, I try to puncture that safe bubble. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the nearly four years my mom has been gone, it’s that I need to let those darkest feelings out, at least occasionally. I might fall into an ugly, sobbing mess, but I need the perspective. I never appreciate the mundane bliss of everyday life without consistent reminders of what it’s like back at rock bottom.

Perhaps this is why Stevens ends the song with a refrain that feels more affirming than despairing. In a warmly gentle tone, he ushers us back toward the rest of our lives, repeating:

We’re all gonna die.

Gr◯un土 – Vodunizm

When I saw the name Gr◯un土 on a list of recently released albums, my first thought was to pass right on by. After all, there are countless indistinct artists with unpronounceable ascii-fun names. Then I saw the cover art and was intrigued. Something called to me. I found a stream of Vodunizm and a smile immediately crept across my face.

 

It’s a feeling I haven’t had so fast in a long time. Total buoyant physicality; my body had to move. Shoulder shrugs at the desk turned into dancing around my apartment, spilling coffee on my pajama pants and scaring the cats. Dancey, approachable music rarely hits me with such a visceral impact. The first phrase that ran through my head was, “interstellar rave music for a misty mountain jungle sleepover.”

After a bit of digging, I realized that sentiment wasn’t total nonsense.

Written in English on his Facebook profile, the artist’s own statement sums up the intention here pretty well. It’s earnest and guileless and I love it. He’s talking about the title track, “in which indigenous beats gradually permeate and resonate with the psychedelic overdub sounds, the festive sound world that freely runs through organic~cosmic~Balearic realms makes our brains totally shiver!” However cheesy that might seem, it paints a warmly specific picture in my mind.

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The music structurally reminds me of slow motion dub techno, but it’s far too active and bright to fit with Basic Channel or Deepchord. The mood leans into the celebratory tent, all neon strobes and moving bodies, yet the tempo is suited for the chillout room. I’m sitting here on my third listen, fourth cup of coffee at noon on a Saturday, and it sounds perfect. That says it all.

The deep, rubbery beats are sprinkled with a galaxy of tangible  instrumentation, whether sampled or recorded live. Songs erupt, cut through with traditional Japanese percussion, bells, and chimes. Obvious samples are rare, but at one point the classic Godzilla roar makes an appearance. The fact that it’s not jarring or dumb says a lot about the otherworldly context.

These tracks manage to dilate time, slowly expanding in a beat cloud of unknowing. I felt lost inside a mere 4 minute song at the center of the album, ping ponging between antique female vocal samples like a foggy hall of mirrors. At 77 minutes, it’s a long album, but it felt like waking from a dream at the end, the homogenous sound washing tracks together in memory. It’s a cohesive sound world that I want to be cocooned in.

Some time during my second go-round, I realized that this percussive, almost tribal atmosphere was reminding me of nothing so much as Boredoms’ magnum opus, Vision Creation Newsun. Both albums stand as futuristic productions built from the dizzying interplay of tactile, timeless elements. The unyielding beat, the blend of ancient and modern textures, the  sun-worshipping mood, these all connect the album to a time and place that seems long gone in our world. This album engaged my nostalgia center without directly referencing anything I’ve listened to, in the past or today.

Within minutes of clicking play I was scouring the internet to find out more. It seems Gr◯un土, aka DJ Ground, is from Osaka, Japan. This is, maybe not coincidentally, where my beloved Boredoms are from. He’s well known there as the main organizer for ChillMountain, an outdoor music festival that’s been going on for a decade, which really explains the time-stretching dynamic of his music. I can imagine floating on beats like this for hours amidst a sea of bodies and glowing lights in the thinned atmosphere.

Vodunizm is his debut full-length album, a fantastic introduction to this sound. It’s always flirting around the edge of familiarity before taking off down new paths, mining history and cinema for inspiration. It feels like an utterly complete artistic statement.

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The album is digital-only for now, and you can get it for 1800 yen on Bandcamp. Google tells me this is roughly $15, which makes sense. I’m emailing to ask about a possible physical release, but until then I’ll enjoy it right here.

Drexciya “Andraean Sand Dunes”

Drexciya is an enigma of an act that left behind some of the greatest and strangest techno and electro music ever recorded. From the debut album Neptune’s Lair, here’s the first song I heard, the tune that hooked me and opened up an entire new world of sound.

I’d never known the outer reaches of techno until I listened to Andraean Sand Dunes.

It’s a pure exploration of genre constructs littering the ocean floor, an aquatic adventure full of energetic machine-funk pulses and glistening columns of light reaching down from the surface. This is techno for adventuring, the kind of track that makes me want to kick open my front door and run through the night, rather than dance at all. In other words, it’s more My Kind Of Thing.

While the production itself springs from the sounds and structures of classic electro, the music leans hard into futuristic Detroit techno, with a cascading synth repetition begging hypnosis rather than hip shaking. The bass line is as funky as this kind of music gets, but it’s sunk into an atmospheric wash of melody, dropping out for moments of pure untethered synthesizer flight. Head nodding never felt so aerodynamic.

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Despite my years-long love of Drexicya, I have never previously written about them on this blog. The mysterious duo of James Stinson and Gerald Donald may have dissolved after Stinson’s untimely death in 2002, but their legacy has only grown over the years. After a host of single and b-side collections were issued, their original album label Tresor began repressing the classic trio of full-lengths on vinyl. This is important, because it means that I was finally able to pick up a copy of Neptune’s Lair and own a piece of techno’s weirdest mythology. It’s not just an important and brilliant album; it’s incredibly easy to get into and enjoy. You can find a copy via Discogs or even on Amazon, though the latter’s price is outrageous.

Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden Of Delete

Oneohtrix Point Never has returned with a massive new album you can call G.O.D. It peels up the corner tiles of a thousand realities over 45 minutes, blooming micro-worlds of sound and immediately dissolving in head-on collisions.

For the first time in years, OPN – real name Daniel Lopatin – hasn’t completely restructured his sound, yet I’m feeling the same sense of dizzying vertigo that he’s made a career out of conjuring. In a real sense, the strongest component of his appeal has always been that daring sense of surprise, the act of an artist venturing over the edge of the known music world and bringing back sounds that I’ve never even anticipated, much less heard. More than a style, it’s an idea, a philosophy. In the wrong hands, it can become a cheap trick. This is something far more substantial.

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Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

On a weekend in August of 2015, I discovered Maggot Brain. I may have been 44 years late, but I’m just now realizing the depth and power that Funkadelic were capable of.

I’ve been on a funk kick, spurred on by the incredible new Dam-Funk album, and stumbled up on the evocative cover of Maggot Brain, with a woman’s head planted in the dirt, face frozen mid-scream.

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It’s deeply unnerving, an iconic image that immediately sears into the memory. It fits the music completely.

Listen yourself:

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Elysia Crampton – American Drift

This is hard to explain, but I promise that Elysia Crampton has recorded some of the most ecstatic and staggering music you’ll hear all year. There’s a deep spiritual undercurrent to her new album that elevates it far beyond mere conceptual music. This connects to my heart, my head, and my gut, rendering me speechless.

The album is  only 30 minutes, but covers a galaxy of feeling that I’m feeling unprepared to describe this morning. Just listen if you want to hear something startling and beautiful.

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Walking With Jesus

I had a conversation with a friend today about Christian music and why it mostly bothers the hell out of me. (ha) I realized it’s that sense of overt politeness, the way it’s crafted – an official Christian musician seems to have all rough edges sanded off, as pious as a politician tries to look – that takes away any depth and feeling in the lyrics or music itself. It lacks almost anything that I could normally grasp as enjoyable.

Then I thought, you know what? I love a lot of artists who are either Christian themselves, make music about Christ-like ideals, or simply use the forms of traditional Christian music as a foundation for their own thing. Spiritualized does the latter, employing the language of early blues and gospel to speak directly to my soul.

Here’s the band playing a timeless live staple, Walking With Jesus.

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