Category Archives: featured music

Joan Shelley’s Music Cuts Through the Chaos of Daily Life

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Joan Shelley. Photo by Ebru Yildiz.

When Joan Shelley performed with Wilco at New York’s Beacon Theatre this March, she stood huddled on the corner of the massive stage alongside collaborator Nathan Salsburg. Beneath Wilco’s elaborate backdrop of trees and foliage, the pair might have even appeared, from certain angles, as one body, their instruments (Salsburg on guitar, Shelley alternating between guitar and banjo), overlapping both physically and sonically. And if their tightknit music and cozy positioning on stage didn’t already indicate a sense of intimacy, Shelley closed the set—which highlighted tracks from her extraordinary new self-titled album—with a traditional folk song, sans accompaniment and sans microphone. As Shelley stepped to the front of the stage to sing “Darling Don’t You Know That’s Wrong,” the audience became a part of her small circle.

It was a fitting gesture from an artist who describes her music as “the quickest way from me to another person,” whose every word seems to be chosen as a way to cut through the chaos of daily life. “It’s coming to the people instead of people coming to you,” she says of the a capella performance: “As a singer, it’s asking more from my body in order to physically do it—to turn up what you’re doing, and step outside the barrier of technology.” It makes sense that Shelley sees technology as a hurdle and not a tool. As she’s evolved as a songwriter, her songs have become more unadorned and powerful. Her two previous records on Philadelphia label No Quarter—2014’s Electric Ursa and the following year’s Over and Even—each represented massive steps forward through the deeper refinement of her craft. If you carve out a place to listen, her music fills the space around you.

Shelley’s latest record is no different. Produced by Jeff Tweedy at his Loft Studio in Chicago, Joan Shelley widens her scope, focusing on more spacious songcraft. The first single, “Wild Indifference,” is built on a series of sustained, open chords that sound like sighs of relief. But the album also marks Shelley’s starkest, simplest work to date. Early in the writing process, she found herself inspired by the most primitive of folk tunes: recordings in which performers simply sang in unison with their instrument. “I started trying to be a more playful guitarist,” she says, citing the jokey songs of cult favorite folk artist Michael Hurley as a guiding light.

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Beauty Pill’s Chad Clark Wants To Be Arto Lindsay When He Grows Up

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The 2015 release of Beauty Pill’s Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are was an event in many ways. For one, it was the D.C. band’s first album in 12 years. But it was also part of a bigger artistic happening that included three very public stages of creation.

Conceived by Beauty Pill singer and songwriter Chad Clark, Immersive Ideal began with the band recording Describes in Arlington, Virginia’s Artisphere theater, where anyone could come and watch them work. Once the album was complete, a multimedia installation was created featuring band photos flashing on screens as Describes played in surround sound. Finally, Beauty Pill performed the album, but in an unorthodox way: with the band members set up in corners of the room, and the audience in the middle.

“I don’t pretend that these were radical ideas,” says Clark over lunch at Kramerbooks in Northwest D.C. “If there’s any flag of D.C. art that I would like to fly, it’s that these things were organically generated out of curiosity.” Clark’s argument is convincing because his curiosity is obvious. He’s always searching for new ways to think about music and art, and you can hear that inquisitiveness in the dense, busy mix of Describes. Its songs bubble with ideas without becoming overloaded. It’s a glimpse into a brain that wants to communicate many thoughts but with exacting clarity.

Two years after its release, Clark recently put Describes on Bandcamp. “It feels almost like a reissue,” he says. “People love Bandcamp, they love the idea of it, and I’m into that.” Beauty Pill is about to embark on a short tour with post-punk legend Arto Lindsay (whose song “The Prize” was covered on Describes). We asked Clark about his reflections on the album, what draws him to Lindsay’s work, and what Beauty Pill plans to do next.

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Brother Ali Finds the Middle Ground Between the Personal and the Political

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Brother Ali knows that times are tough. He’s been spending most of this young century wrestling with that reality—not only as a musician, but as an activist. The five years since his previous album, 2012’s Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, have brought no shortage of new topics for him to tackle: the rising profile of Minneapolis representative and fellow Muslim Keith Ellison, to the killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile in his Twin Cities home.

This sort of environment might herald a new Brother Ali album as a potential call to action for what might feel like trying times. But All The Beauty in This Whole Life has a different dimension to it. Ali doesn’t shy away from politics, of course: “Dear Black Son” is a father-to-child conversation about racism; on “Uncle Usi Taught Me,” he contrasts the respect he received while lecturing in Iran to the TSA’s dehumanizing treatment of him on the return trip; “Before They Called You White” examines the ways European-Americans have become pawns of white supremacy. But as we spoke with Ali, he returned, again and again, to the idea of balance—of listening to fans as much as he speaks to them, and of acknowledging not only the world’s problems, but the moments of beauty and divinity that exist, and that we all need to fight for.

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Album of the Day: VVV, “Why El Paso Sky”

Austin-based Iranian-American Shawhin Izaddoost established his VVV project with a handful of singles in 2010, followed by the hyperactive, dubstep-leaning LP, Across the Sea in 2011. His latest, Why El Paso Sky, he’s calling a mixtape; the 16-piece collection is officially comprised of “B-sides and rarities” of the ambient techno ilk. These supposed loose ends shape up, though, boasting the tonal cohesion of something more centered and singular—you might almost call it an album.

Izaddoost’s flair for rhythmic experimentation via sub-bass frequencies and fractious time signatures remains intact on Why El Paso Sky, though he’s moved even further stylistically from the glossy digital euphoria of mainstream EDM. There’s enough low-end ammunition on tracks like “Gauss Patterns” and “Lens & Filter Repair Station” to cross over as club cuts, but there’s also a brittle, industrial corrosiveness that gives off a certain air of exhaustion, as if the factory workers are taking a creaking assembly conveyor to counseling. The oscillating machine sounds are channeled through a warm, static buffer that give them a humane, empathetic overtone. The shrieking gears on “Near War Path” bear a trace of Hieroglyphic Being’s shrill mechanics, while the arcing, minor key “Limestone” suggests Demdike Stare horrors, or Pye Corner Audio dramas.

With “follow up releases” being planned for arrival later in 2017, this collection appears to be the quieter and more modest of the offerings. At least that’s what the cassette-only format and press release might lead one to believe. Nevertheless, Why El Paso Sky is a rarity—seeming cast-offs bundled into a complete, lucid statement.

—Joseph Darling

The Bedroom Witch Believes the Dancefloor Can Be a Space for Healing

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Bedroom Witch. Photos by Kristin Cofer, part of “The Rose Project.”

Los Angeles artist Sepehr Mashiahof, who records and performs as The Bedroom Witch, uses catchy, danceable electronic music as a vehicle to explore—and to heal from—personal trauma. Her presence, both on and off-stage, is both soothing and quietly confident—she almost seems to glide instead of walk. Her performances, often accompanied by background projections she makes herself, are designed to inspire her audience to move. “I want all the struggling, beautiful freaks with whom I exist to find comfort in whatever way resonates with them individually through this other world that I designed for myself a long time ago.” she says, “This album is for them—it’s for us. and for our collective healing. Not for anyone else.”

As Mashiahof sees it, the sense of alone-ness that often comes with being socially marginalized can be both physical and metaphysical—which is why that dancefloor can be such a regenerative space. All of that feeds into the music she makes as Bedroom Witch. “My feelings of isolation from society definitely inform why I chose to set the Bedroom Witch [project] in a detached bedroom, floating somewhere in space and time,” she says.

The first full-length by The Bedroom Witch is set to come out on L.A.-based Practical Records, who have previously released work from Jeepneys, Julius Smack and Wizard Apprentice. The album, bluntly titled Injury, is due for tape release on April 21st. The album is a testament to Mashiahof’s fragility, vulnerability, and resilience in a world that sometimes refuses to make space for her. “My intention with this album,” she says, “was to source my own traumas and to confront them lucidly, in an attempt to make peace with the fact that they’ll never really go away.” The album feels simultaneously present, prophetically futuristic, and indebted to ‘80s dystopian cinema. Mashiahof’s dark electronics foreground her personal lyrics, where she calls upon those on the margins to imagine a future where they play a leading role. “When I think of Injury,” she says, “all I see is a vast land of volcanoes, statues, white balloons and shattered hourglasses scattered along seashores looking out into nothingness. That’s where I’ve been, and now I’m looking for the ones who dropped me off here and erased my memory.”

We talked to Mashiahof at length to explore this vision further.

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