Los Angeles

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.

REVIEW: Sudan Archives - Sink

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Raquel Dalarossa

At 17, Brittney Parks declared that she didn’t like her first name. In response, her mother granted her a new one: Sudan. Today, the woman once known as Brittney writes, records, and produces her own music as Sudan Archives, a project that’s as self-determining and uncontainable as its creator. On her latest EP, Sink, she crystallizes her varied influences and inspirations—minimalist R&B, North African folk, electronic pop—into something entirely her own.

At this point, Sink—released May 25th via Stones Throw Records—has already been making the rounds through every music blog and tastemaker’s playlist, and that’s no surprise for an EP that was clearly intended to make waves. From its bold cover art to its declarative lead single “Nont for Sale,” Sink is proof that Sudan Archives has truly arrived.

The single’s lyrics should spell it out for you: “This is my light, don’t block the sun … This is my time, don’t waste it up,” she announces over a bed of plucked strings and a trap beat. Her violin—a self-taught instrument—is a centerpiece in most of the tracks, juxtaposing electronic elements to create something of a cross between SBTRKT and Andrew Bird. But her own references are much farther reaching; on her Instagram, Sudan Archives often praises the Sudanese multi-instrumentalist Asim Gorashi, for example.

You can hear her more experimental folk leanings come out in the rich textures of tracks like “Pay Attention” and “Escape.” The former is warmly hued and grounding, like a tribal chant laced with the sounds of the outdoors, while the latter is faster paced, with watery, splashy sounds for percussion, creating the feeling of a rushing river. The vocal treatment often adds just the right kind of dimension to each track; she’s at times slinky (as in “Mind Control”), and at other times almost childish. In “Beautiful Mistake” her voice softens as she sings “I’m a beautiful mistake … I don’t give a fuck / I know that you don’t like it when I say that / But baby do you feel me?”

The confidence she exudes in each of these six tracks is a constant highlight, and that’s saying something for an EP full of standout details. One thing is for sure: Sudan Archives is an artist worth keeping an eye on, lest she take over the world.

REVIEW: Prism Tats - Mamba

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Phillipe Roberts

A little advice when trying out Mamba: check your DIY at the door. Garrett Van Der Spek makes garage rock that’s a bit too plush for the basement. Cushioned with clean vocal harmonies, embellished with soft synthesizers, and sandwiched between a pair of spacious, downbeat crooning numbers, Prism TatsMamba tackles the genre with a smirking poise. The tempos don’t rush ahead nervously and the instruments knit together seamlessly, entirely devoid of rough edges. There’s a calculated energy to the affair that can’t be ignored. For devotees of the genre, crate digging for the latest blown out gem, its pristine presentation leaves a certain “rawness” to be desired. But even still, Van Der Spek’s clear ambition in flexing his songwriting chops and the unflinching swagger he carries into each song makes for a brisk rush of energy from top to bottom.

To call the production on Mamba “clean” is a raving understatement—this album is Department of Health Grade A spotless. Even its loudest, most chaotic moments, like the feedback eruption that closes out the title track, don’t come close to putting the meter into the red or producing the slightest unwanted artifact. On tracks with a serious amount of tonal variety, like “Vamps,” which thunders ahead with plenty of vocal effects swimming around two guitars, one bright and palm-muted and the other ringing like church bells in the pre-chorus, this streamlined sound works well. It brings out a tremendous amount of flavor that would otherwise get muddled. But on “Live Like Dogs,” whose glam rock design struggles to pull ahead of the typical guitar-drums-bass instrumentation, it saps some much needed unpredictability from a tightly written tune.

However, when Garrett Van Der Spek has a mind to twist a song with some newfound instrumentation, his instincts are spot on. “Daggers” hangs heavy on its festival-ready chorus, and rightfully so, but it's the woozy, flute-like organ swooping into the verses that turns it into something more than a straightforward anthem. And when he branches out into more exotic textures, the rewards grow exponentially richer. In "Ocean Floor," it’s refreshing to hear a drum machine bumping out a metronomic pattern on an album of explosive live drumming, especially when paired with a Robert Fripp-indebted guitar lead soaring in the background, sounding like “Somber Reptiles” from Another Green World with vocals. Indeed, the tracks that burn more slowly, taking on an almost ambient pace, feel like the next step in Van Der Spek’s evolution away from garage relics of the past.

Where his last record closed with the fuzzy, burnt-out strums of “Know It All,” this time Van Der Spek brings the lights all the way down for “Doomed,” an acoustic track that drifts away steadily like the end credits to a space western. Liberated from the burden of injecting that typical venomous swagger over bombastic riffs, a more introspective Van Der Spek mulls over his fate, turning into a more relatable and approachable character in the process. And as much as the polished punk pouting still remains compelling enough to keep you listening, it’s this side of Prism Tats that will keep you waiting for more.

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.

TRACK REVIEW: Pastel - close

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Raquel Dalarossa

Valentine’s Day isn’t a particularly exciting holiday for most people, but it is usually, at the very least, a great day for music lovers. Today, we’re gifted a sensual and intimate one-off single, appropriately titled "close," from Pastel.

Pastel is the musical moniker for the Los Angeles-based artist Gabriel Brenner, who last year released the crushing conceptual EP absent, just dust. Now, Brenner is resurrecting the sound that we found on his earlier work—including 2016’s Bone-Weary and 2014’s It Will Be Missed—delicately blending R&B with a bit of bedroom electronic pop.

“close” feels like a painter back at his easel, employing some of his favorite techniques in better-than-ever fashion. It’s a minimalistic track with a steady pulse like a heartbeat, anchoring Brenner’s voice. Sparse instrumentation—plinking piano keys and a scintillating guitar—adorns the space around his hushed, honeyed vocals, and he layers each sound with a care and consideration that's almost audible itself. Many of the lyrics are sung under his breath—a perfect fit for the quiet thoughts and internal observations that he’s giving voice to. But he gains volume and confidence when, in the chorus, he strips away all the sonic ornaments to ask: “Do you think about my body? Do you think about my skin?” And a wave of sound and emotion breaks through the cool exterior as the questions leave his lips.

The song portrays the exquisite feeling of infatuation so tenderly that you can’t help falling in love with it. Catch Pastel at this year’s SXSW Festival in March.