A Guide to the Wild Expanse of Cosmic American Music

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Illustration by Gabriel Alcala

Gram Parsons is generally credited with the invention of “Cosmic American Music”—blues, country, and rock all rolled into one sparkling package. Then again, Gram Parsons also referred to what he’d wrought as a “‘country-rock’ plastic dry-fuck.” Still, it’s fair to situate Parsons somewhere near the head of the reinvigoration of American roots music that began in the mid ’60s, spearheaded by The Band and reaching its commercial peak with a series of country rock acts in the mid-to-late ‘70s. During this time, a good many performers found success combining the clarity of country with funk, blues, and R&B grooves, with the Muscle Shoals house band backing Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers selling out the Fillmore East, and J.J. Cale setting blues to drum machines.

These were artists that drew on a wide variety of American musical traditions and fused them into something vibrant, new, and exciting. At the same time, fingerpickers like Robbie Basho and John Fahey were reinventing vernacular guitar styles into what would later be called American Primitivism, and a good many semi-anonymous acts, immortalized on Light in the Attic’s Country Funk series, took the outlaw credo to its hip-shaking limits. This was American music in the broadest sense of the word, even if not quite all of its performers were American (see: Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie).

We’ve seen many Americana revivals in the time since, whether the roots-rock scene of the ‘80s or the O Brother, Where Art Thou?-inspired traditionalism at the turn of the century. These musicians are less easy to define as part of a movement, but share a common ground nonetheless. They’re mostly individuals, scattered throughout the country, with minimal commercial success. Their music has been collected on a handful of great labels (Scissor Tail in Tulsa, Paradise of Bachelors in Chapel Hill, Drag City in Chicago), each with a slightly different focus. But that glorious, syncretic impulse remains among them all, fusing folklore to funk, raga to R&B, in service all of some grand American musical vision.

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Zach Witness on How OutKast’s Music Can Spark Change Today

Zach Witness

Photo by Christian Vasquez.

The debut album by Zach Witness, Electric Revival: Rise of an OutKast Nation, started as an homage. In 2015, while producing Erykah Badu’s But You Caint Use My Phone, he got to meet and work with enigmatic personal hero André 3000, who was featured on the album’s final track “Hello,” a Todd Rundgren/Isley Brothers cover. To say thanks, Witness presented Dré with Electric Revival, an instrumental album with both electronic and orchestral tributes to OutKast’s great catalogue. Now, Witness hopes Electric Revival inspires a new generation to think and act for themselves, just like the hip-hop duo did for him.

We talked with Witness about how the album came together, and why exclusive music makes for a pretty cool birthday present.

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How the Game “Hotline Miami” Set M|O|O|N Into Orbit

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In 2012, a little video game called Hotline Miami was released on the distribution platform Steam, developed by the unassuming two-man Swedish team Dennaton Games. HLM, as the game is often abbreviated, utilized a lengthy 22 tracks of directly-sourced electronic music, which sometimes echoed the violent aural sensibilities of Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive. In terms of pure Steam users, HLM has over two million installs at the time of this writing, and its design and audio are considered indelible inspirations to indie games for the past five years.

Hotline Miami is a pixelated, ultraviolent, surreal thriller and score-attack game, rich with pulsing dream imagery, mythic coked-out ‘80s Miami aesthetics, Lynchian mystery, and laser-colored viscera. A “Game Over” screen can appear in as little as several seconds, as most every character in each level can be killed with one hit—including you. On restart, a selection from its soundtrack—sometimes by design, but often chosen at random—will kick in, fueling the slaughter.

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Album of the Day: Dzang, “3G”

Dzang is both the recording project of Los Angeles-based musician Adam Gunther and the name of the label he runs. His compositions, and the label itself, serve multiple purposes: to make the avant-garde more accessible, while pushing the limits of pop music. On 3G, Gunther’s third LP as Dzang, the multi-instrumentalist crafts dance-indebted rap, gorgeous piano ballads, and everything in between.

Gunther uses 3G as a showcase for L.A.’s up-and-coming singers and songwriters, allowing vocalists like Maria Minerva and Olivia Kaplan to shine without obstruction. Minerva and Kaplan are featured on two songs apiece, and their voices mesh perfectly with Gunther’s slinking psychedelic romps and minimal, pop-oriented melodies. Elsewhere, on “So Young,” an alt-R&B tune with massive percussion, Gunther enlists L.A. mainstay Maxim Ludwig, whose floating hums wash in from a celestial place. Conversely, on album opener “My Name (Nana),” Gunther gets help from rapper Don Christian, who spits double-time flows over an austere dance beat and pitch-shifted vocals. This and other tracks speak to Gunther’s equally thrilling and off-kilter sonic world.

Though Dzang is a project based on collaboration, some of 3G’s strongest moments come when Gunther performs alone. “Supercomplication” is a warm, electro-shoegaze anthem, blending the astral progressions of M83 with the low-end thump of Flying Lotus’s early beat scene forays. The album’s final track, “Take You Down To,” begins with hypnotic looping before descending into free jazz. Its thumping, four-on-the-floor bass drum keeps the song rooted.

3G’s most impressive trick isn’t the album’s diversity, it’s how seamlessly this multitude of influences blend into something entirely fresh. Dzang can be tricky to grasp, but once you understand the concept, it pulls you in even further.

Will Schube

Pomdip’s Experimental Pop Channels Authentic Joy

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Makan Negahban was a musician before he became a painter. The Los Angeles artist, who makes music as Pomdip, began painting for a living in November 2016, and has quickly become a hot prospect on the L.A. art scene. His most recent exhibition—and first solo art show—at co-LAb Gallery in Highland Park received, according to gallery owner Kristin Hector, the highest number of pre-sales of any show the space ever hosted. But while experimenting with acrylics has taken up most of his year, he has also found the time to complete his fourth solo album. A Jar at the Jamboree was released earlier this month by New Los Angeles Records.

Long before he ever picked up a paintbrush, Negahban approached music by asking how painting and music-making are related. He’s always thought about color, the aesthetic flow of a record from start to finish, and how songs can be arranged to fit together like a collage. A Jar at the Jamboree is perhaps his most ambitious project, taking four years to complete; he also worked on another record at the same time, which will be released later this year. He prioritized Jamboree because it captures the way he feels about the state of his life right now—working as a full-time artist, living with his long-term girlfriend and their dog, and having a little more financial freedom. His goal was to create something that felt tangible and nourishing.

A Jar at the Jamboree is vibrant and flamboyant, sprinkled with tropical melodies inspired by the music of Harry Belafonte and S.E. Rogue; it blends neo-psychedelia, bedroom pop, and worldbeat. Negahban seems to have caught the same vibe as Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear of Animal Collective, creating pop music for sound junkies, potheads, and hip shakers.

Jamboree takes its name from a riddle that Negahban invented to describe its sound. We’ll let him explain.

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