Singer-Songwriter

VIDEO PREMIERE

Melodie Stancato - 42.0209° N, 70.0370° W

By Gerard Marcus

The first time I heard the music of Melodie Stancato I was immediately entranced. Her music felt personal on an almost subconscious level. It’s musical portraiture, trying to capture a sense of place, time, personality, and experience. It’s like finding a stranger’s old journal, or notes left behind in the margins of a used book–a glimpse into the most personal headspace. We haven’t heard a lot from Melodie in a while–it’s been almost two years since the last release from Swoon Lake–but I’m happy to see that in her new single and video for “42.0209° N, 70.0370° W,” the touch of the personal hasn’t been lost.

If you google “42.0209° N, 70.0370° W” it will lead you to Truro, MA. Specifically, Hanging Valley on Longnook Beach, which appears to be where the music video was shot. The video is a simple movement piece performed by Stancato in a single take on the side of a sand dune. The song and dance weave a tale of personal exploration and a search for connection. But an internal one, where you analyze yourself within the world and not the world around you. The beauty of this piece lies there, in a reminder to look inwards every now and again, and to let the outside world just be.

REVIEW: Wilder Maker - Zion

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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.

VIDEO PREMIERE: HNRY FLWR - Little Brother

Will Shenton

While the trend of using home movies in music videos isn't new, it's definitely one that has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. Most of the time, they're simply used to cultivate an air of vague nostalgia without much concern for the actual content. But in HNRY FLWR's latest video for their heartbreaking ballad "Little Brother," the old, fuzzy VHS tells a much more compelling story.

"Little Brother" is a treatise on bullying, and, more broadly, on the conditions that create cycles of male violence. In the band's description of the video, they explain that "Our friend, David, was a sweet boy—we see him in this music video celebrating his first Halloween as an RC-wielding Superman in 1990, somewhere in the Midwest. A couple years later ... he'd get bullied for being earnest and quiet, and then he'd bully his little brother as they grew up. It is a feedback loop that spirals outward until you find a way to channel it."

With that context, what initially seems like a cute (if somewhat banal) home movie becomes something more tragic: one of the last recordings of a child's innocence before the world turned him cruel. As HNRY FLWR croons "We're all made from an act of love," we see the first glimpse of the titular little brother—someone who would soon be yet another victim in the chain.

That said, "Little Brother" is not entirely without hope. This vignette, a single day in the life of a child, captures a gentleness that's present in all of us. As much as our experiences may bury it beneath anger and regret, there's always the possibility that we rediscover it and find absolution.

 

Catch HNRY FLWR opening for Uni and Blame Candy on Friday, 1/19 at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn.

REVIEW: LUKA - What Kind of Animal

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Phillipe Roberts

For an album recorded and mixed live-to-tape in a single day, What Kind of Animal plays like a study in stillness. On his third full-length, Toronto-based musician LUKA capitalizes on his greatest asset, the bleak intimacy of his vocals, surrounding it with arrangements that are content to simmer in the background until called forth to add a touch of chaos. But these outbursts are exceptions to the rule, momentary squalls rippling across otherwise placid waters. An observational songwriter with a keen eye for bleak imagery, LUKA crafts shadowy folk that slithers its way into your heart. What Kind of Animal is a perfect soundtrack to existential dread, a predawn whisper that hangs over you long after sunrise.

LUKA’s tunes sleepwalk down a lineage of somber, close-mic’d pop stretching from The Velvet Underground’s self-titled record up to Yo La Tengo’s groundbreaking And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The sonic focus is squarely on the vocals in the style of Lou Reed’s “closet mixes,” with the supporting instrumentation pushed up and away to emphasize the loneliness of LUKA’s delivery; he sounds truly isolated in the mix, as if he’s singing along to the decaying memory of a song. The softly brushed drums, twinkling guitars, and warm bass hum along dutifully, breaking the reflective mood in only two moments—the ascendant guitar solo on “Animal” and the collective noise-scape that closes out “Happy”—where the cohesion of LUKA’s live band strategically lets off a little steam, bucking you awake after a particularly sleepy stretch.

To be sure, the mood on What Kind of Animal is predominantly overcast. On opener “Near Collision,” LUKA wastes all of two bars before spilling his lonesome guts. “She cried last night / So I held her / She read his poetry in tears,” he confesses, following it up with what might be the album’s finest lyric and thesis statement: “I cannot help but be dazzled by debris.” Indeed, many songs on the record come across like an examination of his own emotional wreckage. The surrealist imagery of standout track “Realize” reads like prelude to a broken relationship, peppered with fortune-cookie distillations of 4 a.m. post-fight wisdom. “Love is but a voice / That calls on you,” he sings, helpless against the tide of emotion sweeping him away as “Everything I feel about you / Moves inward.”

The singular moment of sunlight on the record, “Quick Reflex”, is also its shortest, and can’t help but be tainted by an escapist need for retreat into an idealized past. “Quick reflex / Flex and you’ll be in the past / Quick reflex / Flex and you’ll be home at last,” goes the chorus, sounding absolutely positive that if he can crack open the meaning of objects from an earlier time, he can disappear into it again. This kind of twisted, self-effacing optimism is LUKA’s sweet spot, and the swaying track coasts into the sunset with sprays of shimmering guitar. It serves as a pleasant and welcome counterpoint to the creeping fear that haunts the rest of What Kind of Animal, a masterful rendering of LUKA’s nocturnal sympathies.

REVIEW: Laura Wolf - Stitch One

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Phillipe Roberts

In an Old Spruce Sessions video released in August of this year, Laura Wolf performs two songs off of her latest EP, Stitch One. The rendition of “Circles” is spare and lovely, but it’s her version of “Good” that truly shines. On the album, the track feels spacious; her strong voice, the various cello melodies, finger-picked guitar, and percussive slaps are panned and separated, breathing into one another. Live, sheltered from a sudden storm in a tiny tractor shed, Wolf gradually weaves the song into shape, each layer perfectly visible for an instant as she threads it into place. Though it takes a full two minutes longer to perform, seeing the bones of the track laid bare does much to peel back the artistry at work in Laura Wolf’s songwriting. Hearing them sewn up and refreshed on Stitch One, the songs take on a grandiose new scale. It’s a wholly different experience, but a rewarding one if you give them time to reveal themselves.

Perhaps the only fault in those live sessions, and live looping in general, is the destructive electronic effects of piling on so many layers. And if the live version of “Good” is any indication, Laura Wolf’s songs are dense; she pauses to add handclaps and slaps to the bridge of her cello for percussion as well as two switches from her primary instrument to the guitar slung over her back. The sounds end up squashed, each piece losing some of its distinct tonal character.

Stitch One does away with the distortion, and the clarity allows the remarkable amount of arranged detail to spring out at you. “Circles” gains a ghostly instrumental interlude with melodic screeching as the strings flutter in the distance. The added low end on “Body Part” drives the beat harder, giving the track an epic, anthemic feel, and the slight solo just before the outro feels gritty but optimistically adventurous.

For the most part, Laura Wolf’s vocals lean towards folk, but there’s a clear theatrical element at key parts that heightens the emotional drama at play. This influence is most keenly felt on “Stitch Two,” where her intense vibrato meanders through folk guitar, erupts in a pre-climactic roar, and descends back into gentle arpeggiations before her triumphant belting dissolves into multi-part harmony. By comparison, the slow, heartbreaking story of “Chinese Finger Trap” contains a few lofty moments, but takes a more straightforward melodic approach to sifting through the rubble of a broken relationship.

Wolf ends her first EP with a brooding instrumental that serves as the title track. “Stitch One” blooms out of a mournful yet cinematic melody; the scope feels huge, suggesting wide-open spaces while filling them with slight dissonances that press in at the margins. But steadily over the course of the song, brighter and bolder harmonies slip in until the track is spilling over with light at its close. It's a fitting end for a record so invested in the healing power of process.