Northampton

VIDEO PREMIERE: Jake Klar - Over & Over

Laura Kerry

After you listen to his song “Over & Over,” it should come as no surprise that Jake Klar’s Until The Wild Fire Becomes Paradise is the product of wandering. The October album emerged out of the artist’s journals that he kept over a two-year expedition throughout the US and beyond, borrowing from his impressions from the road that he captured in poetry, stories, and images.

In Klar’s new video for “Over & Over,” he—with the help of cinematographer Jackson Glasgow and editor Aaron Brummer—reflects this itinerant spirit. With the warm-hued, scratch-filled, and teetering look of old tape shot on a handheld camera, the video follows an amble through a nondescript place. As Klar sings in his low and expressive voice, he wanders sidewalks, jumps a fence (gracefully), hangs on an old bridge with two friends, throws rocks, dances, and jumps into a dumpster (also gracefully).

Nothing particularly remarkable happens, but as the rumbling Americana guitar, folky melody, and jaunty piano rise, the music invests the scene with a sense of poignancy. Like the view of a highway out of a Greyhound bus window, it is made beautiful by the right music. Between this and the film effects and aimlessness of the action, the video feels intimate, as if it’s found footage from a home video collection or a projection streaming directly from a someone’s memory. Or, perhaps, it’s the journals coming through. Either way, it’s worth a visit.

PREMIERE: Max Wareham - Good News

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Laura Kerry

Max Wareham’s website bio perfectly encapsulates his music: “He cut his teeth studying jazz at conservatory,” it says, “but now polishes them digging holes on a horse farm.”

He's best known as the bassist in Sun Parade, and has also released music with the studio collective Cousin Moon, but in his first solo studio record, the Northampton-based Wareham leaves behind lively experimentation for quieter, more acoustic pastures. Good News is a folk album that summons its abundant warmth from the glow of acoustic guitar and the beautiful hum of the artist’s voice.

Reminiscent of traditional folk music spanning from England to the Appalachians, 1920s country, and more contemporary indie folk, Wareham’s debut has few frills and no pretensions. Paired with the finger-picked compositions, the lyrics on Good News sometimes come off almost like remixes of old Irish ballads, but the artist makes them sound personal. Often hushed yet charged with feeling, his singing evokes a sense of intimacy as he croons old-timey lines such as, “Twenty years ago I left my old home / Set off to ramble around” (“Laurel Groves”); “If she comes lookin’ / Tell her where I've gone” (“If She Comes Lookin’”); and “Thinkin’ about that pretty little girl / Who broke this heart of mine” (“Roving on a Winter's Night”).

Good News excels at living in the present. On “Talking to My Sister,” he paints a more concrete picture over a picking pattern with sad undertones, singing, “Talking to my sister after the funeral / Stirring black coffee with an old dinner roll.” In “Much Too Much,” he combines past and present in lyrics like, “Fare thee well / Coffee cups / Old hotel,” also venturing into stranger narrative territories such as outer space traveling. Here and elsewhere, Wareham also explores unexpected sonic terrain. In "Much Too Much," he builds his verses around a subdued yet chaotic buzz combining a vocal call-and-response, guitars, and strings before switching to a jaunty horn composition in the chorus fit for an entrance to a royal ball.

Throughout the album, Wareham draws more subtly from this same palette, quietly backing up his singing and guitar playing with an orchestra of fiddles, cellos, bassoons, organs, and other instruments. His jazz roots are apparent in his ability to seamlessly weave together disparate parts and achieve a range of dynamics in a muted swath. The album contains the kinds of intricacies that you feel rather than analyze. With Wareham’s tender voice and skillful, understatedly thoughtful songwriting leading the way, Good News is a touch of warmth as temperatures drop.

REVIEW: Cousin Moon - Cousin Moon

Laura Kerry

Cousin Moon, a band known around the Northampton, Massachusetts area for several years and under a few different names, disappeared into the studio about three years ago and emerged with the 17 polished songs that comprise their self-titled LP.

The first feature that strikes a listener upon arriving at the band’s Bandcamp page, besides the length of the album, is the volume of album credits. A dense block of text that requires a couple scrolls, the notes list every song and painstakingly attribute each sound—from the oscillating drum machine in opening track “Thursdays” to the soundscape and Akai in the closer, “Lorna.”

Some of the care of crediting speaks to the fact that Cousin Moon, a five-piece group, functions more like a tight-knit collective than a uniform band. Aaron Moon, Karl Helander, Phoebe Helander, Max Wareham, and Andy Cass all play different roles throughout the album, and the result is a collection of songs that, while all related, possess slight variations in tone and feel. Karl Helander’s vocals sound distinct from Moon’s, which sound completely different than Phoebe Helander’s. Karl Helander, Wareham, and Moon all play different versions of guitar (Spanish guitar, National lap steel, “guitarmonies”), and no two synths are the same.

More than the shifting arrangements of multitalented musicians, though, the dense credits reflect the meticulousness with which the band approaches its sound. In Cousin Moon, each instrument and voice deserves every bit of acknowledgment that it receives. At first glance, it’s easy to revel in the immediate satisfaction of Beach Boys harmonies, Beatles (or Tame Impala’s version of the Beatles) pop-psychedelia, and other perfectly crafted displays of pop, folk, and indie rock. But delve more deeply into the dense compositions, and you begin to pull out a surprising number of voices.

Even quieter-seeming tracks such as the jazz-inflected “Dreamers” reveal themselves to be complicated and impressively detailed; the credits list Gibson finger picking, counter melodies and background vocals, and a double bass, among other more usual suspects. “Rainy Season,” too, the sparsest and most delicate on the album, boasts light synth, two different kinds of guitar, and multi-part harmonies. Only the all-instrumental interlude, “Stan,” is truly simple, containing a straightforward build and release of synth voices.

The credits become a sort of game of cross-referencing. As the listener moves through the kaleidoscopic texture of Cousin Moon, the impulse arises to pick it apart and understand it. Is that a sitar creating the retro-feeling psychedelic dizziness in “Senior”? (Yes.) What creates that Bowie-like drama on “Entropy”? (Karl Helander’s vocals; “Mellotron-esque strings”; double bass.) How did “Florentine” get so darn warm? (Implied Beach Boys influence; flute; lap steel.)

Of course, the album does fine on its own without the literature, too, leaping through love longs, surreal narratives, and songs about art with a gracefulness impressive for something so ambitious. Cousin Moon gave a substantial amount of time, thought, and care into music that ultimately serves the listener best when she gives the same back.

REVIEW: Boy Harsher - Yr Body is Nothing

Laura Kerry

It’s no surprise that, according to an interview from last year, the personal and musical relationship that comprises Boy Harsher began with a church/warehouse space and the song “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Back in Savannah, Georgia, where the duo lived and went to film school before moving up to Northampton, Massachusetts, Jae Matthews had an aha moment watching Gus Muller dancing to New Order, and she began to woo him by sending him her prose writing, which he set to music, thus creating their first project together, Teen Dreamz.

Now, an EP and a brand new full-length later, Boy Harsher has perfected the formula whose seeds lie in that revelatory moment in Savannah. On Yr Body Is Nothing, they mix post-industrial warehouses with the dry pulse of ‘80s new wave, creating synth-driven music that infuses its dark, creeping tone with an invitation to move. The duo resembles the band that is central to its mythology, New Order, in both sound and tone—the way it couches songs about emotional states (primarily overwhelming anxiety) in unexpectedly danceable tunes.

Throughout Yr Body Is Nothing, Boy Harsher flickers back and forth between the immediacy of those emotional states and simple numbness. That plays out in the vocals, which are sometimes distant and monotone (“Cry Fest”), and at other times close and despairing (“Last Days”), or even soulful (“Save Me”). In some songs, including the title track, they start out far away but come into focus, escalating the sense of anxiety as it continues. While build-ups in songs typically lead to some sort of release, here they serve to increase the tension, making the unease more palpable. When “Suitor” escalates, it does so in the form of a frenetic bass and a cacophony of voices, including deep breaths; when the beat “drops” after this and structure returns, the dance beat sounds ominous.

On an album full of songs with titles such as “Save Me” and “Cry Fest,” it doesn’t come as too much of a shock that one of the most danceable tunes is called “Morphine.” With a jittery bass line, deep, pulsing beat, and bright organ synth, the instrumentals lead to one of the few real hooks, “She’s like morphine on my mind / She’s like morphine all the time.” More than this refrain, though, another line stands out among the anguished whisper of vocals: "I want to make it hurt more / I want to make you dance." This seems to get to the heart of the album, suggesting that pain and fear and anxiety can push you towards the kinds of music that make you bob your head or move your hips, and that bobbing your head or moving your hips can create a kind of welcome numbness. Through the drone of bass, beat loops, and synths on “Morphine,” “Big Bad John,” and “A Realness,” among other tracks, it’s possible to achieve a moment of catharsis.

REVIEW: Mal Devisa - Kiid

Laura Kerry

In the spirit of Mal Devisa, who doesn’t mince words, I’ll get right to it: this is a stunning album. The debut full-length of the artist born Deja Carr, Kiid follows two EPs and a collection of performances—around Northampton, MA, where she’s based, on Boston’s NPR station, in a TEDx conference—that have built up an impressive reputation for the young musician. Known for accompanying herself with unconventional bass lines, adding elements of improvisation, and wielding a powerful voice, she has already proven herself a talented singer and creative songwriter.

Now, Kiid is a confident proclamation of Mal Devisa’s depth and scope as an artist. Drawing from rock, blues, spoken word, hip-hop, and jazz, among other sources, she has created a sound that is very much her own. But part of what makes Kiid so thrilling is that that sound isn’t just one thing. In ten songs, Mal Devisa swings from genre to genre, tone to tone, and theme to theme in extremes that on lesser albums, played with a less adept hand, would feel unwieldy. Mal Devisa, though, folds them seamlessly into her craft.

Most of Kiid dwells on the softer side, beginning with the opener "Fire,” a gentle and reflective yet smoldering rock song that asks, “Does it kill you to know that we’re all dying?” and ends with a round of distorted guitar to underline the existential dread of the question. Staying quiet all the way through is “Sea of limbs,” which encourages the addressee with the sweetly moving refrain, “Keep your eyes open / I promise you are solid gold,” and the smoky, keyboard-backed “Forget that I.” whose vocals get so soft that they crack into a whisper at one point and claim, “I’m a lovesick woman, I have no blues,” all while intoning a bit like Nina Simone. “Everybody Knows,” “Live Again,” and “Sea of limbs intro” also employ the same sparse, lo-fi composition of bass and vocals that lends them an ageless feel.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, strewn throughout the soulful, stark tracks, are four tunes that exhibit a more brazen kind of confidence. On the soul-infused rock shuffle of “Daisy,” that confidence is playful; over distorted guitar and a steady bass drumbeat, Mal Devisa sings, “With my head on good you’d just want to spend your money on me.” On “In My Neighborhood,” a song with dark, pulsing layers of percussion, it is angrier, expressed in chanted vocals that begin almost as spoken word and end in a Santigold-like yelp. In “FAT,” a brief rap interlude, it is defiant and challenging, manifesting in the form of the repeated line that ends, “What, you mad?” And in the last song, “Dominatrix,” it is pure swagger. “Messing around I wrote a masterpiece... / Now I go by Mal Devisa / Avid rapper she’s a preacher,” she boasts, shifting into a third-person perspective.

But this swagger isn’t as far from the start of the album as it initially appears. Engaging with the identity politics at the intersection of race, class, and gender (“I’m better off being a queen in size 16 jeans…or the only black woman slaying science on TV”), “Dominatrix” arises from the same existential considerations as “Fire,” the same rage as “In My Neighborhood,” and the same love as “Sea of limbs," albeit in a different form. It is one more proclamation—in what we hope will be a long series—of who Mal Devisa is as an artist. “I will never change Devisa and you labels better face it.”