REVIEW: New Venusians - New Venusians

Laura Kerry

Sydney, Australia–based New Venusians has three jazz musicians at its core. Ben Panucci (founding member and the band’s guitarist) studied jazz with Andrew Bruce and Harry Sutherland (now the band’s synth players) at the Conservatory of Music in Sydney, and after meeting Christian Hemara and Meklit Kibret around the local music scene, the two singers’ voices were enough to push the musicians into the fluid realm of neo-soul. After adding two drummers, Jan Bangma and Tully Ryan, to mix, the New Venusians formula was complete.

Though the seven members have impressive resumes—including touring and session musician gigs with Chet Faker and Ngaiire, among others—their only previous release as New Venusians came in 2015, with the single “Keep Running.” Their self-titled debut is proving worth the wait.

New Venusians is a detailed and clever album that covers a large territory of genres, sounds, and moods. Though “neo-soul” is a convenient way to describe a work that contains many soulful melodies and slow but pronounced beats, the album refuses to conform to just one description. Some tracks drift further towards funk (“Keep Running...And Running”), some are more straightforwardly poppy (“Get Along”), and others represent the band’s jazz roots more faithfully (“I Wanna”).

Part of the difficulty of classification (a happy challenge, of course), is that even within well-crafted, cohesive songs, genres shift. In a couple of instances, they shift dramatically; in “Game Change,” for example, a break halfway through signals a move into a spacier, more abstracted version of what came before, and in “Keep Running...And Running,” a moment of silence towards the end leads to a completely different tone guided by a simple but hypnotizing guitar riff. In other songs, though, the mashups are more subtle. Jazzy seventh chords brush against funky basslines and ‘80s pop synths; dance beats underlie slow and soulful vocals; and psychedelic reveries conspire with earthy harmonies and earnest lyrics.  

One of the surprises on an album with such carefully calibrated nuances is the straightforwardness of the lyrics. While the instrumentals are often spacey and free-flowing, the stories they support are direct and of-this-world. “If you're willing to change / Then I will change,” Kibret sings on “Game Change”; “Has anything changed? / Still feel like I’m drowning in your arms,” Hermara sadly confesses in “Sea”; and in “I Wanna,” he expresses impatience with, “I’m swimming in the warmth of your mood / But we're still hesitating.” In an album of sliding sounds, the lyrics provide a graspable entryway.     

Above all, though, the lyrics allow focus to point elsewhere, to the range of meticulous sounds on the album. On the final song, “Here’s Hoping,” the listener can focus on the intimate soulfulness of Kibret’s voice as it skates through interesting phrases. In “I Wanna,” there’s space to spend time with the bright and inviting tone of the guitar, “Game Change” leaves enough room to wonder whether the harmony set against the vocal melody is guitar so warm it mimics the singer’s voice, and in “T.S. I Love You,” there’s time to sit with the tension contained in the sprawling arpeggios. The result of melding three jazz musicians, two soulful singers, and two drummers, New Venusians celebrates the sheer pleasure of sounds and the vibrant formations they can create together.

REVIEW: The Love Experiment - The Love Experiment

Kelly Kirwan

        We’re in the dead of winter here. The head down, world painted grey, wind-whipped bitter days of February are upon us—you West Coast folks aside—and as the wind chill starts to dip below zero know this: there’s a ray of light to get us through. Yes, we have an antidote to counter all this sleet-soaked gloom, and it comes in the form of the ever-dynamic collective, The Love Experiment. Since it’s 2010 Boston beginning, The Love Experiment has been a mosaic of twenty-some-odd songwriters, singers and multi-instrumentalists, whose taste for neo-soul and classical-inspired arrangements have created a niche genre unlike any other in the game right now. At the band’s core is triple-threat Charles “Blvk Samurai” Burchell (producer, composer, drummer), who’s been the group’s rudder as they navigate the Northeast circuit. Now based in New York City, The Love Experiment has played Manhattan staples like Webster Hall and The Bitter End, while still having an affinity for slyly putting on shows for those in-the-know enough to find them. And while I hate to blow my suave cover, I have to state the obvious: they’re beyond cool. 

        Take their song, School Girl, whose beat swerves between a sultry rhythm & blues and new age jazz, enriched by interweaving brass and ivory key accents. Lead vocalist Kim Mayo’s croon is multi-faceted, the lyrics seem to compress and twist under her high, back of the throat pitch, her voice capturing the vintage soul of Billie Holiday. It’s a playful and intricate piece of work, tracing it’s fingers across the picture of a new love, winking at the old phrase, giddy as a schoolgirl. “My daddy said, now baby don’t be shy/You got a lot to say do not apologize/But I stumble and I fumble and I lose my words/Especially around you…” She sings, each word taking on a new mint with her twittering timbre. The song ends with a hip hop finish, the jittery lovestruck persona taking on a more assured tone, as The Love Experiment proves their vast scope. 

        Want Your Love has a funkier, electronic garnish. The vocals are as light and smooth as silk, ruminating, “I just want your love…the past keeps creeping in…would you be committed?” Lines of synth give the song a quirk over groovy woodwind patterns, as the melody quickens its pace; keeping still would be a true test of will. It’s a tune that’s rife with yearning and the slight pullback of doubt, and we see the trend emerge: this album is an evolution, following love from it’s first blush to heartbreak, and then the opening of your heart anew. The Love Experiment embodies this sound; which is an expansive, heartfelt dip across genres that have deep emotional reverberations. 

        Calling this work simply an "album" doesn’t seem to cut it. It's a tour de force, with a symphony-scale composition that is here to shed some light on our cold winter days.

REVIEW: The Seshen - Flames & Figures

Laura Kerry

Nothing that Bay Area group The Seshen does is small or half-assed. With singer/songwriter Lalin St. Juste and bassist/producer Akiyoshi Ehara at the helm, the band has grown to include five other members, including another singer, a drummer, a percussionist, a keyboard/synth player, and a sampler. With seven people total, their influences run the gamut from Erykah Badu to Radiohead. Now, after two successful EPs, The Seshen’s first full-length includes a whopping thirteen tracks of well-honed pop, each brandishing different parts of their various spectrums of influences and sounds.

On Flames & Figures, The Seshen mixes electro-pop with neo-soul, ‘80s synth sounds with more contemporary flavors, and recognizable pop tropes with more soul-bearing and personal lyrics. Starting with “Distant Heart,” the opener and first single from the album, St. Juste uses retro synths as a jumping-off point for a vulnerable song couched in an upbeat melody, all relayed in a soulful voice. “You tried to keep it together / But it just falls apart,” she sings over a bouncing electronic bass. Even when the synths fall into video game territory, as in the mallets on “Right Here,” the singer keeps the music solidly grounded.

St. Juste provides a focal point amid busy, complicated instrumental parts. In “Other Spaces,” intricate percussion lines dance around quiet and evasive synth lines, but the vocal line that floats above the fray lends clarity as the song patiently builds. The Seshen is less successful, though, when St. Juste’s singing aligns too closely with the background. “Firewalker,” for example, a song that begins strongly with an easy drum loop, off-kilter synth chords, and a strong melody, soon loses its sharpness with a jazz-tinged melody that doesn’t provide enough structure against the bustling instrumental parts.

Elsewhere, though, The Seshen doesn’t fear paring down. Some of Flames & Figure’s most powerful moments are also its simplest. The title track, which begins with St. Juste’s voice close and raw over keys and a light touch of echoing synth flourishes and switches halfway through into a restrained electronic composition, allows emphasis on the longing in the singer’s voice and lyrics (“I just wanna see you / Wanna get closer”). On “Spectacle,” St. Juste finds the spaces in an eerie-yet-buoyant composition of deep bass, prominent drum loop, and flute sound, disguising an existentially distressing chorus—“We learn to love the pretense / And the emptiness expands”—in a breezy but satisfying melody.

Between seven members, thirteen tracks, and countless musical influences, The Seshen has created a beautifully focused album. Crafted around St. Juste’s tender voice and its messages of love and love lost, femininity, and power, Flames & Figures is a delightful mix of its constituent sounds that, ultimately, has transformed completely into its own.

REVIEW: Moonheart - Blow

Laura Kerry

The more you listen to Moonheart, the more their sound eludes you. Zoom in on Kim Mayo’s melodies and guitar parts in isolation, and you’ll discover some Kate Bush tinged in a little Bjork, mixed with an occasional note of neo-soul. In combination with producer Michael Sachs, though, the second half of the duo, Mayo’s songwriting transforms into more ethereal shapes, her beautiful voice made even more haunting with added reverb and echoing synths. In the three songs on Moonheart’s new EP, Blow, the pair creates electronic folk that transfixes the listener, even while slipping through her fingers.

Beginning with “These Days,” Moonheart combines unlikely elements to weave a lush-seeming song that belies its simplicity. Comprised of vocals, a bright guitar, straightforward drum loops, and a couple synths, it flows forward smoothly, pulling you in with its melancholy vibe more than its meaning. The moments when its lyrics come into focus are powerful, though (“Too many times by accident / I’d expose my lovers to a bitter wind / They weren’t dressed for”). The second song, “Joï”—a sparser, slower track—crystallizes more immediately around Mayo’s voice and a deeper, buzzier guitar sound, but it is equally dreamy (“Tell me all about the stars again”). Last, “Blow” is the EP’s most sumptuous track, but also its most elusive. The vocals jump around, showing Mayo’s range, and while the first two songs feature recognizable beats, Sachs uses percussion more creatively in the final song, propelling it gently forward to the last, satisfying fadeout. Blow may not be the kind of album you can fully grasp, but it offers plenty in the attempt.

REVIEW: Paper Void - I N C R E M E N T S

Kelly Kirwan

“We had it you fought it / I swore we’d get through it.” 

It’s a twirling soprano over shuffling percussion, a counter to the otherwise leading male voice on Paper Void’s new track, "Just Waiting." These feminine vocals are layered, as if they’ve been replayed over and over, an echo drudged up while looking back at an unraveling relationship. For this song, and the album in general, the women oscillate between a Corrine Bailey Rae sweet lilt, and a more soulful high-octave reach (courtesy of Ella Cooley and Hannah Martinson). Their counterpart, Alberto Guzmán, stays on a more murmuring level, as "Just Waiting" begins its lackadaisical fade after a brass-backed swell. Guzman muses, “So I walk the open road / Still waiting … With this time that’s passing by / Figure’s time to say goodbye.” The song's vocalists rise and fall around one another, a call and response that takes a cue from jazz and the neo-soul that took root with '90s R&B. "Just Waiting" is a taste of its overarching album, I N C R E M E N T S, whose name and font style references the initial inspiration behind their group title. 

In an interview with The Stanford Daily, founding member Gavin Leeper (who stepped into a producer role for I N C R E M E N T S) noted the importance of space in Japanese calligraphy. The negative, or white space, on a page held an equal importance as what was being written, and it was this balance—of the fragile and paper-thin, juxtaposed with the ever-stretching possibility and indeterminate shape of a vacuum—that became Paper Void’s foundational mantra. The eleven-piece ensemble on their latest album has an electric energy, feeding off one another's every move and whim as they tack on elements of soft-rock and hip-hop to their multi-dimensional genre. One of the tenets of jazz is improvisation, or at least spurts of seemingly unstructured instrumentation, which Paper Void masters. And still, their songs have a modern touch and relatable emotional current. 

Take "Differently," whose underlying beat has the ease of a slow-moving Sunday as a rap pulses at the forefront. It's a track straddled somewhere between urban rhythm and blues and the serene interludes of a sub-level, tapestry-adorned bar throwing back to 1940’s cool jazz. “I’ve been thinking that it’s infinite / My mind is often numb / But if you’re thinking about tomorrow, man / Tomorrow never comes,” we hear at a cool-headed but quick pace, followed by a warning against beaten-path traps with, “There’s more wisdom in the big dipper than six figures.” The song continues as an ode to classic hip-hop and soothing instrumentation. There’s something about a brass section, a trumpet solo and saxophone (both alto and tenor), that elicits a visceral response. This sort of music that has a meditative effect, the melody keeping you fully invested. Paper Void is making their own mold, and as I N C R E M E N T S suggests, they’ll continually be adding new styles and arrangements to their work—not concerned so much with the benchmarks they reach, but the space that lets them improvise in between.