REVIEW: Elbows - Corduroy EP

Kelly Kirwan

“This is a cassette player with a little cassette in it, so we’ll just have to play it, to see what it is…”

These opening lines are the voice of beloved children's show host Fred Rogers, though without context they're delivered as if cassettes were some alien contraption. His every word is repeated in strange counterpoint, a cartoonish voice like an animated martian on a helium bender. After this echoing line, we hear the telltale click that means the cassette is in place, and the music will begin—and so it does.

This serves as the introduction to a song—and album—that is equal parts odd, intriguing, nostalgic and ironic, and it does its job in setting the stage for the weird wistfulness to come on Elbows’ latest EP, Corduroy. The man behind the music is the Brooklyn-via-Bay Area producer and songwriter Max Schieble, who’s described his latest work as a kind of time travel. Schieble explained to Earmilk that these four tracks are a sampling of sounds that’ve been simmering in his mind since he started making music in the first place. The result feels both expansive and like a retro collage, filled with so many textures that no easy definition applies.

The opening track, "Oatmeal," is marked by the use of quirky sampling. A woman’s voice carries us through a circus-like synth that builds and zig-zags in a sharp pitch. Her voice has the deliberate monotone of a person reading a speech, and as the words come together they become recognizable as bits of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. But soon we depart from that 1979 classic, and move to a wry take on hip-hop’s boom bap, with a different woman’s voice adopting a midwestern twang to mimic the drum style in a stretched-out cadence: “Boom. Bap. Boom. Bap.”

The title track immediately follows, with a slinky R&B beat and Schieble’s slightly nasal, raspy pitch intoning, “Elbows on the table / Spinning fables / From the cradle / Straight to the rocking chair.” Funky synths dominate the first half of the track, before the pace gets a jolt, diving into some jittery electronic footwork that feels like a late-level arcade game. It fits with Elbows' overall aesthetic—a touch of humor woven into tightly-packed beats that incorporate everything from jazz to obscure pop culture references.

Courdory is not your run-of-the-mill EP. It’s a whirlwind that’s both witty and upbeat, and it's only the beginning for Max Schieble. We’ll be waiting to see what’s next, content to have no idea what's up his sleeve.

PREMIERE: Horse Culture - Texaco

Kelly Kirwan

Witchy. Ritual. Proto-minimal. These are just a few of the tags that Horse Culture have bestowed upon their sound, and even more specifically, their latest single, "Texaco." The Blacksburg, VA-based trio (comprised of Nika Karen McKagen, Timothy Jacob Hawks and Walter Melon Porter) have delivered a song that evolves from a subtle, easily-absorbed (if not foreboding) melody to a steady, metallic clash that still never seems to slip into complete cacophony. It’s a velvety style of goth that’s as deceptively mesmerizing and ominous as watching a candle flicker—suddenly you’re unsure of how much time has passed, or the exact moment you slipped into rapture.

In the band's own words, “Horse Culture strives for an emotional resonance in this slow trudge towards death.” Call it fatalistic or existential, but it captures the mood that is "Texaco." It's an uneasy feeling that first drifts casually into the mind and then takes over, raising the hairs on the nape of your neck and building to a climax of guitar-shredding, cymbal-slamming proportions. The vocals come forth, at times, in the monotone style of an incantation, as an eerie chorus of oohs drifts through the background, like a whistle in the wind. The lyrics are nearly lost in the array of looping chords and thumping percussion that gradually intensifies, but we latch onto them, like a guiding light in a storm. "Texaco" is curious track, evoking a sly sort of hypnotism that has us hooked long before we come to realize it.

REVIEW: Nick Hakim - Green Twins

Laura Kerry

The cover of Nick Hakim’s debut LP sports a surrealist, green-hued landscape with a detached eyeball gazing at itself in the mirror. Like an updated Salvador Dali painting, it seems to comment on the way the mind perceives itself. The eyeball is bare and exposed, suggesting vulnerability in introspection.

On Green Twins, Hakim continually makes himself vulnerable. The follow-up to his dual EP, Where Will We Go, which he made while attending the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, the album perfects the artist’s unique breed of tender soul music. Sometimes delicate and soft, sometimes strong and guttural, Hakim’s voice betrays yearning, joy, love, and ache, all with seeming ease in his singing and lyric-writing. “If there's a god /...I bet she looks like you,” he proclaims commandingly on “Bet She Looks Like You”; “Let me inside of your mind / I’ll live inside of you / To find what you're looking for,” he sings in a near-whisper over mellow keys on “Needy Bees”; and in “The Want,” his voice is delicate enough to break for a quick, barely perceptible moment as he sings, “I wanted her.”

Green Twins is so soulful and intimate that it partially disguises the quirkier elements that add texture and color to the music. Like its cover, the album contains a psychedelic strain visible in spacey accents of synth and other effects, playful dynamics, and dreamy reverb. Hakim assimilates these—along with other traces of an eclectic range of genres—effortlessly. In “Cuffed,” a song about embracing one’s “vices without shame,” his sensual delivery sounds at times like D’Angelo and his hip-hop phrasing sounds at others like Frank Ocean. In “Roller Skates,” a song with deep heartbeat percussion, his processed voice is funky before it is joined by an ascending line of harmonies that recall Motown. In “TYAF,” sparse and shimmering verses give way to dense psych-rock choruses with muffled but energetic drums.

The more you listen to Hakim’s album, the more these kinds of unexpected details emerge. What at first appears straightforward—or at least relatively so—reveals itself to be complex, strange, and multi-dimensional. He has created an entire world in the space of an album, meticulously constructed from a mind that has been trained in harmony and composition and an ear that has spent a lifetime immersed in a diverse pool of music. Through it all, though, Hakim’s gaze remains focused and introspective, like the eye in the cover art. Warm and intriguing, Green Twins draws on the thoughts and feelings of its creator, spinning them into a beautiful debut.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Room Thirteen - Roccopulco

Laura Kerry

The debut album of the band Room Thirteen came out this past winter, but its spirit season has arrived just in time for the New Orleans-based group to release the video for the title track, “Roccopulco.” A mix of dreamy vocals, bossa nova guitar, and jazzy horns, the song sounds like a vision of the ‘60s imagined while drifting off to sleep on a bright-colored towel at the beach.

The video combines this retro tone with more contemporary touches. Set on a dark stage, it features a blazer- and moustache-sporting saxophonist playing an impassioned solo and backup dancers moving slowly in unison as the song cycles through shimmering harmonies. But the dancers contain elements of both go-go and American Apparel, one of the many ways in which the old-timey and tropical touches don’t take themselves too seriously. Fish dissolve into psychedelic patterns; the sax solo breaks into a cheesy split-screen; and a collection of fruits, leafy plants, and a mysterious glittery “D” appear on stage in the beginning and end before confetti rains down, a delightfully odd way to illustrate their equatorial party vibe. Theatrical, sultry, silly, and as mesmerizing as the song, the video for “Roccopulco” is the perfect way to reimagine Room Thirteen’s summery music.

PREMIERE: Joel Michael Howard - Petraeus

Laura Kerry

With the exception of a song filled with meows and ironic boasts about fame, Joel Michael Howard has spent the last couple of years releasing cleverly orchestrated, downtempo pop songs about love and loss. In his newest track off of his second full-length, 5th Grade, Part B, Howard pursues a different emotional path: being over it.

More rhythmic than most of his other work, “Petraeus” begins with a dry drum loop and a deep, steady bass line that march the song through talk of war and brotherhood. When Howard’s voice enters, it is soft and soulful, floating weightlessly above the heartier pop instrumentation and sounding a bit like Unknown Mortal Orchestra. As the song rises to the chorus, he continues gently, “I thought we we could all be brothers now / Hold hands and love one another now” between woozy synth lines. But the next line is more forceful; as the artist sings, “Fuck that, it’s a thought lost anyhow,” his voice is as percussive as the beat beneath it. Smooth, catchy, and assured, “Patraeus” is a good anthem for those in need of moving beyond something (including disgraced former CIA directors, apparently).