Indie Jazz

VIDEO PREMIERE: Cherubim - Rough Rider

Raquel Dalarossa

Brooklyn's Cherubim combine jazz, soul, R&B and folk to create moody and moving soundscapes. Though the band involves a revolving cast of instrumental contributors that help fill out the lush sound, it's ultimately anchored by vocalist and lyricist Alisha Roney and her counterpart, percussionist Joey Ziegler, who both also write and produce all of Cherubim's output.

The band released their debut eponymous EP last year (and took the time to stop by our very own Blue Room), and today they're releasing their first music video for the EP's single, "Rough Rider." Described as a "bittersweet homage to innocence and joy," the video is a lo-fi work shot entirely on iPhone, featuring scenes of childhood friendship filtered through a grainy but brightly colored lens. Inducing a strong nostalgia, it's a perfect complement for a track that starts out with a sweet, almost angelic tone, before swelling with joyous instrumentals and Roney's honeyed vocals.

REVIEW: Rob Stokes - Live at the Heartbreak Hotel

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Raquel Dalarossa

There’s not much to be found online about Rob Stokes. Aside from a Bandcamp and an Instagram, information about the musician and artist seems hard to come by. But as it turns out, Stokes is a formidable figure in the Washington, DC indie circuit, where he runs Medium Rare, an initiative that sees Stokes recording, producing, and engineering music for other artists, putting out tapes, as well as curating events. Amidst all of that, the Pittsburgh native has found the time to put together his own album.

Live at the Heartbreak Hotel threads together a background in jazz, a budding career in beat-making, and an easygoing approach to experimentation. It feels like the thematic counterpart to Stokes’ EP last year, Love Was Made for These Times, though the lyrics are not the centerpiece in any of his work (especially given the effects often applied to the vocals, turning them more into instruments than deliverers of actual words). What comes to the fore immediately is how rhythmically driven his songs are.

There’s a lot of variation within these ten tracks, but they meld together beautifully. “Blue” is a soulful slow jam heard through a psychedelic lens, while “In the Cut” is a laid-back guitar-pop dream, ambling along like a summer’s day on just a little bit of acid. Songs like “Space” and “Sharks in the Pond” feature acoustic guitar for a folksier effect, but a lively bass and percussive backdrop keep the groove going. Meanwhile, DC-based rapper SIR E.U features on two jazzy R&B tracks, providing fuzzy but nimble verses that provide a propulsion to balance out Stokes’ mellow singing.

All throughout, even when the tempo goes up, the vibes stay pretty relaxed. It’s easy listening that can find itself in a lounge in the ‘60s or at a jazz club today. And really, that’s what sets Live at the Heartbreak Hotel apart: it feels all at once weird, and classic.

INTERVIEW: Elbows

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Phillipe Roberts

From the second I slip through the foam-white door into Cafe Cotton Bean and reach to shake Max Schieble’s hand, it’s clear that I’m interrupting something. Draped in a purple corduroy shirt adorned with a golden trumpet pin, he slides the cap over his pen and guides it back into his pocket. There’s the slight but familiar full-body sigh of an artist yanked out of the moment. “I actually haven’t gotten much time to just sit and draw lately,” he says, gingerly placing his notebook onto the table in front him, “I was really getting into it.”

But an innocent, almost bashful smile spreads over his face—no harm, no foul. We grab a pair of cappuccinos, sit down, and lean in. He guides me through his last few pages, filled with tessellated grids of anthropomorphic everyday objects—clouds, cars, hills, leaves—floating through negative space. Under his pen, they balloon into being with a goofy, animated warmth. It’s almost as if they’ve sprung to life unexpectedly, gate-crashing our reality from a Mickey Mouse dimension in the far reaches of his memory.

Max’s music as Elbows hits you in a similar way. From samples snipped out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on the Corduroy EP to the wavy psychedelia of his latest effort, Sycamore, rose-tinted nostalgia cuts through his work like a knife. “The Rain,” the opening track on Sycamore, spins into frame like a time-warp, reversing violently until a thunderclap brings Max in, beckoning you into his memories: “Through the cobblestones / Fish are swimming / Up, down, smothered in their coats / Bound homeward.” This kind of visual storytelling is a trick nicked from Philly rockers Dr. Dog, a band whose soft psychedelic touch is definitely part of his musical lineage. “You can definitely hear it in the harmonies I use,” he says, “But I love the way that their stories are so hard to piece together, despite the strong imagery.”

"The album is this journey back home,

and seeing all the changes that have taken place."

Born in San Francisco, but moving to New York for undergraduate studies at NYU, those opening lines from “The Rain” mirror his own musical journey over the past few years. It’s a journey that forms the central narrative of the album he’s been building towards, and that’s still coming together as we sip our coffee.

“The concept of the album is this journey back home, and seeing all the changes that have taken place,” he explains. “So Corduroy and those singles are kind of like short stories leading up to it. Sycamore was this street in the town that I went to school in, but I always lived far away and it was a huge pain to get there, so it became this kind of mythically significant place for me. This record is about trying to get back to that place.”

It’s been a long road indeed: Max has been working on some of these tracks, in some form or another, since 2010. “With ‘Windowpane,’ the main keys section is the oldest thing on this record. I had the chorus since 2010, but the verses I wrote last year,” he tells me. “I knew the lyrics would take more time, because those are the most revealing part of the music for me. The chords for ‘The Rain’ were done in early 2011.” But even as he started to collect band members and perform live, he felt that he needed more time before they were ready to put it down to tape. “It’s a story I’ve been trying to tell for a while, but it’s been a process of becoming a better musician—particularly with vocals. It took awhile for me to feel like my abilities were there to do these songs justice.”

“I wanted it to have a sound

like a blimp walking through the forest”

The grind pays off on Sycamore, whose songs are his strongest yet vocally, particularly due to Max embracing the odd, half-rapped vocal cadence that he began developing on Corduroy. Inspiration-wise, he’s eager to praise Frank Ocean, whose string of singles last year featuring a more prominent sing-rap swing struck a chord that goes back to his earliest musical memories. “The first song I remember writing was a rap about my Aunt Joyce and how she loves to shop. I showed it to my Mom and she said ‘I’m not too sure about that one,’” he laughs, “At the time I didn’t even realize it was a rap. I was just spitting out these monotonous, heavily rhythmic melodies. Basically scatting.” The technique’s stayed with him ever since. “I always have more lyrics than I know what to do with, and it’s easier getting around that with rap” Max says, grinning.

When I ask if there’s potential synesthesia linking his music and bubbly visual style, Max tells me that the connection isn’t so concrete for him. You wouldn’t get far, as a friend of his learned, “putting on a Mötley Crüe song and asking me what color it is.” Though he’s fine with the term, he thinks that a few too many artists have turned it into a played-out concept. Still, a rare instance of it occured for him on the song “Blimp,” and sent him searching for an impossible tone to match the image in his head. “I had this idea that I wanted it to have a sound like a blimp walking through the forest,” he explains. “I didn’t know what that sound was going to be for a really long time. It didn’t sound right for months, until I found these 808s that hit the spot.”

Those electronic touches are part of what makes Elbows’ music so wonderfully disorienting, even when they’re cloaked in catchy, immediate arrangements. “Psychedelic” is a bit of a loaded term, generally pushing listeners to expect something in the vein of ‘60s and ‘70s progressive pop like The Beatles or Pink Floyd. Oozing with slippery textures and teeming with effects, Max’s music aims to confuse and disorient in a similar way, but by looking at the spirit of those recordings rather than the tones themselves. “The sounds we consider ‘psychedelic’ came initially from electronic effects and experimenting,” he explains. It’s a lineage best carried on by electronic producers, he believes, naming Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, and Thundercat as artists he considers instrumental in forging a path ahead. To further break from the past, most of his processing ends up in the vocals or synthesizers, rather than guitars—a choice he credits to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.

"But that concept, imagining that one person was literally

singing all of those things, stuck with me."

Even as the sonics for the record were starting to come together, it took a literal journey home to get a real spark going—an album about growing up just didn’t feel right without being surrounded by the places into which Max was trying to pull his listeners. And it meant bringing the band, some of whom also play in Space Captain and Alto Palo, along for the ride. “We went out to San Francisco in January of 2015,” he says, squinting into his memories for clarity, “and the first thing I did was take the band on a tour of all the spots on the album: ‘You know how in this song I mention the 2AM Club? This is that. Sycamore street? Here it is.”’

And when it came time to press record, it even involved discovering that a few places had been hiding secrets all along. “We were looking for a spot to record and it dawned on me that my next-door neighbor had a full studio in his basement. As a kid learning to play, he’d always let me borrow an amp, or some cables, but it was crazy to go down there and find this entire setup just waiting for us.” Stepping into the past often dredges up secrets, but few of us are lucky enough to find them intact and ready to be put to good use.

Before we part ways, Max returns to the question of psychedelia as you’d expect someone so perpetually steeped in nostalgia to: by spinning more childhood tales. “I have one memory of playing The College Dropout for my Dad, and he thought that Kanye was singing all of the samples,” he laughs. “He didn’t understand sampling at all, so he was going off about how this guy was insane. On the one hand it’s like, ‘Dad, that’s clearly Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.”’ But that concept, imagining that one person was literally singing all of those things, stuck with me. For me, that’s truly psychedelic.” With an album on the way, and an accompanying visual EP that’ll serve as a trailer, we can’t wait to see the ways that Elbows throws his expanding vision at the wall.

REVIEW: Chicago Afrobeat Project - What Goes Up

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Laura Kerry

For the last 15 years, a varying group of musicians has met in Chicago lofts and studios to create around their shared love of Afrobeat music. Since 2012, Chicago Afrobeat Project (CAbP) has released four albums and developed a unique sound that combines West African beats, jazz instrumentation and melodies, and a range of elements from other genres, from funk to indie.

Inviting different members and artists to contribute and leave their mark as they please, CAbP runs as more of a collective than a rigid band, and their new release, What Goes Up, reflects this structure (or lack thereof). In ten songs, the album cycles through different voices, moods, and instrumentation, crediting almost 20 different artists—about half of whom are vocalists. As a result, though the bass, guitar, synth, and horn sections remain throughout, each song carries a different tone.

Unifying What Goes Up as much as the core members of the group is featured guest Tony Allen, who plays drums on every song. Allen is a legend, landing in the top third of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” list and earning a number one spot in Brian Eno’s estimation. He helped create the fundamental beat in Afrobeat, playing with Fela Kuti for a decade in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s a big deal for one of the genre’s forefathers to join forces with one of its most interesting disciples. Both parties seem to revel in that, producing an exuberant album.

Staying true to Afrobeat, What Goes Up is founded on complex rhythms. Led by Allen, the album shifts around West African polyrhythms—multiple patterns of beats that work with and against each other. In “Cut the Infection,” a video game synth dances with the drum kit in one of the more traditional feeling songs; in “Must Come Down,” the vocals find their own space among a dark pulse of screeching electric guitar, animated horns, and jazzy percussion; and in “White Rhino,” the fluid swirl of brighter instruments contrasts with the rigid beat. Each track is wildly complex, but not so much so that the listener can’t automatically internalize their feeling and dynamic motion. Even when songs meander, leaning closer to jazz than the comforting structures of pop, they maintain their pulsating, lively grip.

Though the rhythms dominate, they do not detract from the album’s content. True to their legacy, CAbP often tackle political themes. Over an urgent rhythm and lofty horn accents, “Race Hustle” confronts the manifestations of racism. “I won’t apologize for the fear my skin puts in your eyes,” J.C. Brooks sings, his voice rising to a near breaking point as he cries, “No I won't just look the other way / While you murder me again today.” In “White Rhino,” Ugochi sings about the overwhelming presence of bad in the world, repeating the words “too much” before a series of ills—starvation, aggression, oppression. These are powerful messages, but CAbP is at their most powerful when they deliver their politics with specificity or a touch of whimsy. In “Marker 48,” for example, humanity’s destructive relationship with earth is staged as a breakup between a normal man and woman. The metaphor draws the listener in, provoking a little bit of a chuckle and even more thought.

What Goes Up delivers as a message, a work of music, and an ode to a genre. With Allen’s accompaniment, CAbP has created exactly what a tribute to Afrobeat or anything should be: It executes on the original but also evolves it, pushing it to new and intriguing places.

PREMIERE: Twilyte Axis - VHS

Will Shenton

I always find it difficult to write about jazz, or the myriad subgenres and derivations thereof. It's long been a style I appreciate only at arms length, thoroughly convinced that as much as I may enjoy it, I'm in any position to evaluate it critically. But when it comes to Twilyte Axis' new single, "VHS," there are enough familiar elements from synth pop and indie electronica that it was much more approachable for my uncultured ears.

The song opens on a vaguely minimalist lick, before settling into a more propulsive groove overlaid with saxophone and synths. The instruments ebb and flow throughout its nearly seven-minute run, here joining in cacophonous explosion, there snapping to staccato attention. "VHS" is a track that plays beautifully with layering and pacing, jolting the listener around like they're strapped into a rollercoaster. And much like a rollercoaster, it's a thrilling experience from start to finish.