California

REVIEW: mayako xo - mayako xo

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Phillipe Roberts

mayako xo makes a terrifying first impression. Visit the Bandcamp page for her self-titled record and the “single” you’re treated to, “Ma Says,” is less a warm introduction than an attempt to drag you into a personal vision of hell. Its grueling eight-minute length and monotonous, looped central riff forces your ear to lean in to the subtle inflections: a delightfully soured vocal note, alternating dissonant scrapes up and down the fretboard. And all of this strung together by the subtle horror of a Shel Silverstein poem.

“And I ain’t too smart,” she intones in a dark, ritualistic voice, “But there’s one thing for certain.” Your whole body stands at attention. A lone bass note wobbles and dissipates, carrying all the air in the room out with it. “Either Ma is wrong / Or else God is.” The original work contains none of this horror, but it’s mayako xo’s ability to read between the lines, to seize those empty spaces and twist them into something deadly, that makes the album such an enchanting listen.

For a record composed mostly of droning passages and spoken-word self-dialogue, the hypnotic nature of the music allows mayako xo to slip right past you with unexpected briskness. Rather than build up to ear-splitting crescendos or massive beat drops, the artist siphons off the energy; these songs collapse rather than explode, shriveling up in a heat-death coma of eerie silence. Opening track “The Ship” seems to take particular pleasure in catharsis denial. The instrumental is the busiest on the album, a romp through clattering tom-toms and tambourines and a menacing, see-sawing flute sample. Her voice rattles off pitch-shifted entreaties to be made whole: “I hear you want me / Can’t you call me / Deliver me to me?” And then the bottom end falls out, leaving her voice twisting and distorted, curling off like smoke trails into the darkness.

mayako xo likes her darknesses vast, with plenty of space and reverb to the backing tracks. They sound distant in contrast to her voice, giving the sense that she’s singing along to music playing through the walls of a vast hall or church. Her breathy melodies are gritty and drawn out, wavering in and out and frequently complemented by a harmonizer that adds a second voice in a different pitch. On “Mud,” this secondary presence mocks her, chanting “I’m not anyone / I’m not anyone,” like a grotesque, nagging inner voice amplifying her most self-defeating impulses. On “The Truth,” the effect is angelic, soaring weightlessly over a heavy, doom-inspired guitar drearily headbanging in tow. But throughout the record, she keeps this juxtaposition of space constant; her voice drives the music entirely, never enveloped completely by the encroaching horror breathing down her neck.

mayako xo is a brisk journey through warped mental states, an excavation of personal truth through hypnotic ritual. Sparse yet alluring in its seductive simplicity, it’s a labyrinth of emotion whose details have to be searched with bare hands, hugging the walls to keep track of where you’ve been. There may not be any climactic hallelujah moment on the other side, but mayako xo captures the beauty of wandering the internal maze.

PREMIERE: Curling - Radio King

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Phillipe Roberts

Coming off of their 2016 self-titled release, which featured frantic drums in constant combat with noisily nimble guitar (leaning towards YES on the math-rock spectrum), Curling strike a surprisingly measured posture on their latest single. Glued to a propulsive beat and pressing its way through a hail of glittering arpeggios, “Radio King” doesn’t let up until the last note splashes off into the sunset, leaving a memory trail of sparkling, no-nonsense melodies in its wake.

There’s a curious purity to Curling’s approach this time around. For a band used to off-time turnaround riffs and intricately stitched together fills, hearing them jam out and ride the beat so consistently is a breath of fresh air. Given time and space to get comfortable in the mix, that virtuosic intensity brings out a sweetly nostalgic side to the band. It pairs especially well with singer Bernie Gelman’s knack for aching wistfulness, affecting a tone that’s somewhere between Duster and vintage Built to Spill.

In a better world, the stadium-sized falsetto choruses of “Radio King” would be a swift ticket into the ranks of FM royalty. As a single, it’s a phenomenal entry point into the limited but rapidly expanding universe that Curling is building around them.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Plattenbau - Security

Will Shenton

Where most in the pantheon of retro, VHS-style music videos go for an understated, DIY aesthetic, Plattenbau's latest uses it as a canvas for vibrant, kaleidoscopic visuals. While the lo-fi tracking fuzz remains as a nostalgic filter, the colorful geometry that cascades around the Oakland duo is utterly mesmerizing, especially when coupled with the propulsive industrial beats they've become known for.

Taken from their forthcoming EP, Endless, "Security" indulges in a long simmer before boiling over. Opening on nothing but deep, driving synths, we're shortly treated to Megan Biscieglia's restrained, almost whispering vocals. Over the course of the song, her voice expands and recedes, occasionally bursting into soaring cries before retreating back into intimate, conspiratorial tones.

Throughout, the manic distortions of worn-out videotape take on vivid colors and textures, adding layers of dynamism to irresistible effect. "Security" is a piece that surprises both lyrically and visually, bringing new life to an already riveting track.

Endless drops June 5 on Glowing Dagger.

REVIEW: Box Dreams - Box Dreams

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Phillipe Roberts

No doubt aided by the ascent of Frank Ocean to minor R&B deity status with his continued success and cross-genre appeal, the archetype of the lonely lo-fi crooner seems inescapable these days. You know the type: isolated, sensitive, destitute in the absence of love, but cloaked in enough reverb to (hopefully) turn that sadness into sex appeal. It’s a winning formula, albeit done to death; after all, once the echoes die down, the last minor 7th rings out, and you’re left sitting there to parse over the lyrics sheet, the self-deprecating clinginess so endemic to the genre can really have you running towards sunnier pastures.

At first listen, Box Dreams’ self-titled effort shows off a striking affinity for that archetype. His lyrics drift between yearning, hazy romance and escapist nostalgia, his cavernous productions stuffed with chopped horns, dreary guitars, and foggy field recordings suggesting a body in dire need with a mind wrapped in comfortable seclusion. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Adam Rhodes has more to offer than rose-tinted atmosphere. In fact, in the best moments on Box Dreams, he takes pleasure in sudden shifts from warm and sprawling soundscapes to hard-hitting moments of cold interiority. Working between these two temperatures with a graceful ear for sonic narrative, Box Dreams puts his inner workings on display in a lush feast for the ears.

These focal oscillations rarely take longer than half a song to occur. Rhodes works fast to create structure, and moves at an unrelenting pace through a dizzying array of melodic ideas. The second track, “Am I a Moment,” is a prime example. Starting with a psychedelic breakbeat stomp, an air-clearing guitar chord rings out just under a minute in. Horns loop and turn in on themselves before a modified beat returns, coasting over a wonky bassline to a chorus that recalls Daniel Rossen’s contributions to Grizzly Bear. A ghostly sax solo misdirects your attention before the vacuum returns again to provide a clear foundation for a springy, percussive outro coated in fuzz guitar. The productions of this style, particularly in the penultimate bop “Peach Juice,” are pure color, free associating between tones but meshing cohesively.

This tendency for songs to turn inside out, seemingly at a whim, can at times prove too disorienting. Taken individually, the preceding song and the reversed, Boards of Canada-style outro in the opener (“Where I’m Going”) are phenomenal, but the sensuous embrace of the vocal portion is completely lost in the gloom of the ending. By the time it sweeps over, you’ve lost the thread. This may be intentional, done in attempt to create a flowing, cinematic experience. However, it can sometimes feel like Rhodes looking at the landscape from too many angles to give us a defining image.

Rhodes’ voice is mostly saturated in echo, functioning like a vaguely human presence in an album full of disorienting instrumentals. This is a solid choice, because when he gives it space to breathe, as on highlights “Beside You” and “Intro (Santa Barbara),” he absolutely takes over a mix with emotion. The warbling auto-tune choking his voice on the former makes for a perfectly refreshing slide from high-energy trap hi-hat grooves to desperate, multi-tracked pleading, an ice-bath in the middle of the desert. The latter, released almost a year ago, unfurls a steel guitar sample before deconstructing it for the most upbeat moment on the record, a patiently funky island groove. The chorus here is as poptimist as it gets, with a confident tune that doesn’t hide, sounding like an instant summer throwback spiced with regret. Box Dreams would do well to let his pipes shine more directly. It’s no wonder that this track in particular is his most listened to; the elegant simplicity of it all demands it.

Box Dreams is an ambitious attempt to crack the divide between luxurious, space-bound beats and spare, late-night lust. It succeeds at prying open the doorway, and at times, suggests an untapped universe waiting to be exploited. Put your local sadboy on notice: it’s time to dream bigger. Much bigger.

REVIEW: Twin Oaks - Living Rooms

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Laura Kerry

Sometimes, doing less is harder than doing more. In quiet acts with one or two people, no one can hide; every sound, every word, every breath is exposed.

Twin Oaks thrives in this kind of exposure. A Los Angeles duo comprised of Aaron Domingo and Lauren Brown, they've released several albums worth of atmospheric folk and rock tinged with dream pop and shoegaze. On their latest EP, Living Rooms, the band adds another layer to their raw formula: they recorded the album live “in various open spaces using minimal equipment,” and the result is surprisingly precise and unsurprisingly beautiful.

Returning to their origins as a bedroom pop group, Twin Oaks has pared down. The songs primarily revolve around the dynamic between Domingo’s guitar—sometimes in tightly picked folk melodies and other times in a slow march of strummed chords—and Brown’s singing. With the exception of the eerie final song “Felt Like Dying,” Living Rooms leaves the singer vulnerable, full of reverb but without much instrumental cover. Armed with an evocative voice that sometimes resembles The xx’s Romy Madley Croft or Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, Brown is up to the task. She sings patiently and deliberately, milking each sparse syllable for all of its emotional worth.

Considering the words they form, those syllables are worth a lot. The lyrics on Living Rooms are intimate, pretty, and, for the most part, sad. In some songs, Twin Oaks conjure small but vivid fragments of imagery, creating a mood more than a story. “I'll watch them walk away / Light the flame and throw it down / Watch a kingdom burn,” Brown sings on “Collapse,” suggesting the outline of ruin without filling in the details.

In other songs, Twin Oaks writes in a more confessional and prosaic mode. In both “Rumors” and “Felt Like Dying,” they present their lyrics in paragraph form, each comprised of short, full sentences. In the former, Brown sings as if reading out of a journal: “I'll make sure to map out the ways from this old fucking town and I can't recognize myself. I don't see myself in any of the things I have,” she croons. Later, she adds, “Maybe I'm lying. ... Okay, I'm lying.” Evoking the feeling that she has reached this realization in the act of performing the song, the admission emphasizes the album’s sense of immediacy and vulnerability, already heightened by its live recording. With moments like these, Twin Oaks brings their listeners in close, inviting us into the room where they—and in turn, we—are exposed.