Review

REVIEW: Wilder Maker - Zion

a1608921332_10.jpg

Phillipe Roberts

Nestled in the sprawling intensity of New York City is a proud tradition of bands, from the hallowed Television to modern wiz Kevin Morby, who use their music as a portal to transcend the urban clamor for calmer pastures. After all, not everyone can be bothered to emulate the never-ending screeches and howls of city life with scuzzy alternate tunings and insistent, throbbing rhythms. Brooklyn supercrew Wilder Maker get their kicks painting rambling living portraits closer to the folk tradition, but the expansiveness of their instrumental ambitions and the clarity of their confessional, at times brooding, lyricism puts them in direct lineage with the giants that came before them. And with Gabriel Birnbaum as songwriter, that tradition is in some dangerously capable hands.

In full acknowledgement of the utter collapse of genre today, the term post-folk comes to mind when describing Wilder Maker’s swirling vortex of airy-textured, extended jam-rock music. However, the four-piece is careful to center vocals and guitar in all of these compositions. One of their greatest strengths is that any of the songs on their latest masterpiece, Zion, would sound phenomenal stripped down to just those elements. Indeed, when they bring the lights all the way down for penultimate track “Multiplied,” with Birnbaum and longtime collaborator Katie Von Schleicher’s voices twirling around delicate finger-picked guitar and minimal shaker-and-bass-drum percussion, their flawless precision is awe-inspiring. They know how to tear your head off with a saxophone solo, like they do on the electrified country of “Gonna Get My Money,” or throw caution to the wind with the hallelujah crescendos on “Women Dancing Immortal,” but this is a band of marvelous and mysterious restraint.

For the most part however, Wilder Maker focus on taking private crises and blowing them up to tremendous proportions. They aren’t about punchy statements, preferring gaping expanses that allow them to spin lyrical yarns packed with vivid imagery. Opener “Closer to God” recounts ditching a scummy landlord for Mexico in no fewer than five verses. The narrative is packed with details like “The new place was a canvas / And we were a brush heavy with paint,” and couches them between the dual guitar harmonies and maximalist, All Things Must Pass thunder of its six-minute runtime.

Von Schleicher’s turns on lead vocals contrast with Birnbaum’s bluesy twang—the soaring highs of “Impossible Summer” spark off the driving instrumentation like lightning. “Like a dreamer who's still dreaming / I just can’t stop fucking up,” she yelps, before being swallowed by a crashing, metallic breakdown, the whole band slowing to a stop as she repeats “I tried so hard” until she disappears into the ether. When she owns the mic again on “Drunk Driver,” she wears a post-traumatic grimace. The story unfolds gently, tumbling through drowned feelings at a bar into another chanted, theatrical climax: howls of “The band plays on” collapse into a single piano note as the drunk driver turns the key. The combination of her stately, stage-perfected prowess and Birnbaum’s rousing but casually introspective warmth makes for an inviting listen at every turn.

As far as folk records go, Zion is as empowering as they come, with two riveting storytellers at the helm armed to the teeth with inventive tunes. Don’t let those thick runtimes stand in your way—Wilder Maker have a knack for generously elevating the smallest of bitter details to grand scales and inviting you in as they process them. Catharsis is better when it’s shared.

REVIEW: mayako xo - mayako xo

a0343336701_10.jpg

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: MIKE - Renaissance Man

a1604383379_10.jpg

Phillipe Roberts

MIKE’s latest release, his second in as many months, is less a rebirth than a gathering of inertia. With a build to match his slumbering giant vocal delivery, the Bronx rapper clambers to the top of his class one hulking bar at a time on Renaissance Man, a brisk and breezy record crackling with both low-to-no fidelity hiss and the generous spirit that’s quickly becoming his calling card.

In his beat selection, MIKE’s deck stacks towards the vaporous and disorienting. Synths ooze and slither; micro-samples drown at distances too far out to be recognized; drums swallow one another, smeared across the mix in a slimy, yet satisfying grab-bag cocktail. Lesser rappers might lose their way in such foggy conditions, but the backbeat blitz serves MIKE well, running cover as his sturdy, booming voice barrels through your lowered defenses.

“Goliath Goliath” is the finest execution of this play. A voice distorts in robotic, stuttering quarter-time, SNES samples blip left to right, a sound like dry joints rotating in a socket ripples through your eardrums; it’s a minefield of confusion until MIKE charges in with even meters, steady and sure. The effect is a grounding juxtaposition to the nauseating surroundings. He’s not afraid to invert the formula, however. If “Goliath Goliath” is treading water, “Sidewalk Soldier” has lungs half-filled with ocean. MIKE’s voice, doubled and occasionally tripled, slips and slides out of phase with itself: “The beast on the prowl for the bread in his whip / No leash on my doubt, I'm expecting a threat.” He’s sleepwalking over danger, sounding like he’s rapping to a beat that’s barely leaking through concrete walls.

That sense of sure-footedness, of stable focus in the face of chaos, seems central to the mythos MIKE is creating around himself with every subsequent release. The track titles alone (“Goliath,” “Sidewalk Soldier,” “Resistant Man”) are enough of an indication. A peculiar moral indignation, a righteous, eye-of-the-storm calm curls around the core of his work. Look no further than the repetition of “The truth is on its way” in the coda of “Time Will Tell,” or how the following sound collage track, “Why I’m Here,” breaks down shame towards the black American dialect, making a case for it as—in his choice of sampled words—“a genuine dialect of English.” If you’re on his list (like the ones he’s surpassed by “ducking all your feedback” on “Sidewalk Soldier”), MIKE may not be coming for you just yet, but he’s sharpening his technique, biding his time for the knockout blow.

Seeing him for the first time, opening a hodgepodge lineup with psych-rockers CRUMB and Cumbia group Combo Chimbita, I found myself struck by the insular cocoon of friends that swarmed around MIKE on stage, some heading out into the crowd to dance for a beat or two before hopping back on to deliver a doubled verse. They egged him on before every track, shouting out requests while being a part of the show themselves. MIKE glowed with the energy of a person whose friends have finally nudged him into the spotlight. Song by song, with peaks and valleys, you could tell he was starting to feel it too. Renaissance Man captures that mood for the first time in his discography—after building his inertia steadily for years, MIKE is starting to feel himself. It’s a great look on him, and a graceful leap forward.

REVIEW: Smalltalker - Talk Small

a0660695160_16.jpg

Will Shenton

Smalltalker's latest EP, Talk Small, opens with a quiet, distant-sounding jazz-hop groove, casually noodling along and seeming to promise a more demure sound than their previous work. But fifteen seconds in, the track comes into focus with a few bold instrumental hits, fleshing out the atmospheric haze before launching into the lush harmonies of "Wildcard." It's a playful tease to kick off the record, and one that captures the band's easy confidence.

One of the first things you'll notice about Smalltalker is the comparatively huge roster of musicians—ten in the regular lineup, including ThrdCoast's very own Gerard Marcus on trumpet—that gives their smooth, jazzy soul its size. But they don't just rely on walls of sound to bowl you over; every song is meticulously crafted, giving each instrument its own time to shine. The crisp production makes it easy to pick out the constituent parts, leaving the listener plenty to discover on subsequent listens.

Talk Small may be a relatively short EP, but it feels like a fully-formed album. We ride from the wistful melodies of "One Too" to the energetic, danceable highs of "To Choose," before closing with the quiet reminiscences of "Sorry." And with such a density of instrumental and vocal elements throughout, Smalltalker seems to have crammed more into its twenty-minute runtime than most bands do with twice that. It's an impressive feat, and one that will leave you satisfied even as you pine for their full-length debut.

REVIEW: Trees Take Ease - Stevia

a3682796618_10.jpg

Will Shenton

With Stevia, Trees Take Ease (AKA Brooklyn artist Stephen Becker) has created a world of his own, replete with philosophical musings and surreal diversions. Describing the EP as "a land of mushy songs and rumpled dreams, frozen vegetables and slippery posters, vitamin d and gnarled yarn," Becker defines the impressionistic framework—or lack thereof—that gives his sound such a beguiling character.

Nostalgic and contemplative, each song on Stevia feels equal parts familiar and alien, mirroring an introspective dive into one's own psyche. The lyrics are delivered in sensory fragments, often giving abstract ideas very tactile characteristics. "Love is a concept fading and tough / Like a moon in waning," Becker sings over an upbeat drum kit on "Whole In One," continuing, "Ready or not / I'm a cookie crumbling / Soft / Like a mattress fumbling." It's beautifully vivid nonsense, reveling in absurdity while nonetheless seeming to get at some truth that defies categorization.

The songwriting itself is largely energetic and poppy, but Becker takes countless surprising detours. The hypnotic beat of "See Saw" devolves into an extended off-kilter guitar solo; "Every Inch" blends squeaky-clean synths with lackadaisical, lo-fi vocals; "Same Old" is a propulsive, hazy pop-rocker steeped in sunshine; and closer "Stephen" mirrors the opener in runtime and its dissolution into washed-out atmospherics. There's a throughline, to be sure, but these subtle changes in direction make for a riveting listen.

Never content to take things at face value, Trees Take Ease resists easy definitions. "Less is not more," Becker chants on "See Saw," pushing back against the platitude and carving a space for his work outside the mundane. While Stevia is relatively short, it's certainly not minimalist. Dense with both sounds and ideas, it declares an uncharacteristically straightforward thesis: maybe more is more.