Spoken Word

REVIEW: Lushloss - Asking/Bearing

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Laura Kerry

Music usually tells simple stories through small lenses. At most, it uses two voices to convey its messages. There are hidden meanings and vignettes that bleed out beyond the edges of a song, of course, but for the most part, the listener can discover the main frames of reference and through lines. Music tends to favor emotion over narrative complexity.

Lushloss’ Asking/Bearing, on the other hand, manages to emphasize both complexity and emotion. Her debut LP is technically a double album, but it sometimes doesn’t feel like an album at all. In the first part, Asking, the Seattle-based artist (also known as Olive Jun) weaves together dialogue, keys, glitchy hip-hop beats, and heavily processed vocals to form something that sounds part radio diary, part audio art piece, and in what remains, deft electronic pop.

The album begins in that last mode. Starting with a soft piano ballad and a gentle vocal melody saturated with effects, the opener “St Marco” builds to a sparse but crisp beat. As the music starts to fade, though, two voices come in, sputtering and speaking over each other. The conversation settles, revealing the Skype call between Jun and her mom that is the foundation of the rest of the album's first half. After each song in Asking, the dialogue returns, often where it left off. Throughout, the two speak from a geographic distance—Seattle to Korea—and a generational distance, but also with the closeness of mother and child. There are moments of discomfort, like that first one, in which Jun’s mom says her trans daughter’s name from before she transitioned; moments of trying to bridge the divide, like when Jun asks her mom, “When did your dad die?”; and moments of mundane logistics, as when her mother starts to plan the next trip.

It’s a complicated story—as much as any cross-section of life could be called a story—that brings up family history, cultural divisions, illness, and coming out as trans to older family members. In the end, though, it circles around the two checking in on each other. After Jun spends much of the conversation asking her mother questions and supporting her through her own mother’s illness (“I just hope you’re okay,” she says at one point), the final piece of dialogue ends with the mother saying, “You have to be okay until we get together.” It’s a jarringly touching moment, heartbreaking because it’s so intimate and raw.

Between the dialogue, Jun’s music complicates the narrative. Sometimes songs intersect with conversation—“St Marco” and “Sisters” each deal with family relationships, and in “Gutter,” the singer asks, “Have you called your mother today?” Most of it wanders elsewhere, though, suggesting a life lived in parallel to the one we can glimpse in the phone call. “Clark, WA,” a moody, guitar-driven track, seems to tell the story of an imbalanced past relationship; in “Sheet,” a delicate but hopeful-sounding song, Lushloss sings, “I’m so tired of feeling tired today”; and in “Yana (Interlude),” the bridge between Asking and Bearing, Lushloss plays a slightly sped-up recording of a voicemail for a person far away, this time with seemingly romantic overtones.

None of that distracts from the call, which comes to form the central narrative. And neither does the album’s second part. Much more straightforward electronic pop, the five songs on Bearing provide welcome companionship for the reflection required after Asking (and they probably deserve more critical space than sharing a bill with Asking affords them). Asking/Bearing is rife with voices—not just the mother-daughter duet, but the artist’s voice processed to different pitches and tones, tapes of friends speaking, field recordings, electronic and acoustic instruments—that tell separate and intersecting stories. At the end, though, as the beat and bare vocals on “Gymnasium” glitches and fades, Lushloss leaves you with an intimate sense of her as an artist and the intimacy that seeing someone so closely can create.

REVIEW: Lily and Horn Horse - Lily On Horn Horse

Laura Kerry

Lily is Lily Konigsberg of Palberta, and Horn Horse is Matt Norman, and when you put them together, you get Lily On Horn Horse. The title of this collaborative album means little beyond its component parts, but it evokes a lot—perhaps a half-formed image of a woman riding a unicorn, or the uncanny feeling that arises from recognizing words but not the way they string together.

This album is resistant to any too-perfect metaphor, but let’s just say that the title works well. In 28 songs that shift in configuration from Horn Horse to Konigsberg to Horn Horse ft. Konigsberg and Konigsberg ft. Horn Horse, Lily On Horn Horse is united simply by proximity. Most works coalesce around common sounds or quirks that mark a band, but for Konigsberg and Norman, their most prominent features are the ways that they change. In their own projects, both artists play around with expectations of genre—Horn Horse experimenting in territory related to jazz and Palberta in something like punk—but the one commonality is a kind of pared-down jitteriness that they bring into this collaborative project.

Most songs on the album are short, around two minutes or less, which highlights the frenetic shifts even more. A song with heavy jazz influence and acoustic instruments, such as Horn Horse’s “Year Book,” gives way to a sparse electronic dance track (Horn Horse ft. Lily, “PVC Pipes”), which leads into a dreamy track, Konigsberg’s “I Only Lose Because I’m Lame,” led by a slow, smoky piano. A song with a beat-poetry chant (“Teach Me To Dance”) doesn’t quite resemble the Patti Smith-like surreal poetry of “Brother and Grandma Make Waves on the Beach,” which also doesn’t quite align with “On This Day & Old Man,” its deconstruction of “hey baby” into nonsensical syllables resembling Dadaist poetry. Part of the fun of the album is riding through these playful disparities, following the pair as they come together, break apart, and reconfigure as something completely new.

Through all the shifts, though, Konigsberg and Norman provide enough to hang onto through through this ride. Within the 28 tracks, it’s possible to detect some throughlines, or at least a few general categories that help structure Lily On Horn Horse. There are the spoken-word songs mentioned above, the danceable but dreamy pop(ish) songs (“Song 16” ft. Ani, the first of two named “My Plan,” and mesmerizing, catchy “Going Outside” and “She Doesn’t Have a Good Brain”); the jazzy tunes (“Nostalgic Anxiety,” “Microscopic Request,” and “Alone at the Fair”); the quiet pop tracks (“North Porsche” and “I Only Lose Because I’m Lame”); and the unclassifiables (“What’s in the Dirt?” and “Party in the Rainbow Tunnel by GGB,” among others). Then again, the whole album, inviting despite its lack of cohesion, seems to undermine the value of categorization. You’re probably better off just diving in and seeing what happens.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Slow Dakota - A Competition

Laura Kerry

Slow Dakota’s “A Competition” begins a perplexing, spellbinding concept album that demands of its listener time and the kind of extratextual scavenger hunt that accompanies literary epics such as Ulysses and Moby Dick. Flipping through spoken word, baroque pop, folk, and other genres, Slow Dakota (AKA Columbia alum PJ Sauerteig) references Walt Whitman, William Blake, the authors of the aforementioned epics, as well as contemporary musicians, antidepressants, and high-fashion boutiques.

The most prevalent theme in The Ascension of Slow Dakota is religion, and the video for “A Competition” emphasizes that. Opening on a church, the song plays through its intro of keys and wordless vocals over dark images of stained glass, empty pews, and dizzying handheld shots of the artist hunched over the piano. As the intro fades out, so do the visuals.

When a human voice returns, it comes in the form of a spoken narrative poem about a competition to write God a song, and the narrator who lends a song to an angel friend who sings it for the competition. When the angel and the narrator’s song don’t win God’s competition, the narrator says, “You have given me the greatest gift of all—a thoughtful listener, even one who rejects me.”

As the story unfolds, the video displays the words to the poem, a suggestion that less than a religious commentary, the song, and the album as a whole, is a meditation on words. As this latest video in Slow Dakota’s series establishes in a brief glimpse, The Ascension of Slow Dakota—saturated as it is with allusion, poetry, and slipping musical themes—is as much a literary endeavor as it is a work of music.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Slow Dakota - Whitman Crossing the Sky to Spain

Will Shenton

Much of the allure of Slow Dakota's debut album, The Ascension of Slow Dakota, comes from artist PJ Sauerteig's unflinching use of spoken-word interludes. In fact, interlude might not even be the right word—these musings form the skeleton of the record in many ways, introducing the themes and reveries explored in its more traditional tracks. That's why it wasn't surprising that his second music video (after this beautiful one for "I Am Held Together") has put one of them to film.

Performed by poet Joseph Fasano, "Whitman Crossing the Sky to Spain" is a bit of an enigmatic piece. The narrator imagines being seated on a plane next to Walt Whitman as they hurtle through the sky, the poet distinctly unimpressed by the trappings of modern aviation. After refusing the complimentary orange juice, he proceeds to fuck the flight attendant, and the narration ends with a vicariously post-coital meditation on forgiveness and the nature of truth.

All the while, we're presented with shots of Sauerteig himself wandering through his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, eventually making his way to a cemetery. The final frames center around a family tombstone marked "Daly," a name that's presumably significant to the artist (whether through relation or acquaintance, I can't say). The visuals are gorgeous, and despite running for just over three minutes, "Whitman" succeeds in drawing the audience into its contemplative world with ease. Slow Dakota is clearly at home with this kind of pared-down introspection, and it bodes well for this project that it has transitioned so effortlessly into the visual realm.

REVIEW: Slow Dakota - The Ascension of Slow Dakota

Will Shenton

It has been quite a long time since I considered myself a religious person. In high school, for a while anyway, I found myself fascinated by Christianity. Driven by what I now realize was mostly a combination of guilt, superstition, and marginally obsessive tendencies, I would read the Bible and pray every night, hoping to find some kind of connection to the supernatural. It was a weird and, in retrospect, somewhat embarrassing period, but one that nonetheless left its mark on my psyche for the decade or so that followed.

I've since settled on a somewhat ambivalent view of religion. In many ways, the passion and unselfish love it can inspire is captivating, beautiful in its innocent reverence. The idea that there is some perfect being watching over us from a promised land of unimaginable beauty is comforting, at least on the surface, and can offer hope in even the darkest moments. On the other hand, those positives can never be wrested from the simple fact that most major religions are, across the board, repressive, exploitive, and marred by centuries of senseless violence. So how do we reconcile the two?

I raise this question because The Ascension of Slow Dakota, the debut album from its titular subject (aka P.J. Sauerteig), is steeped in the imagery and language of Christianity. Multiple tracks reference Biblical characters, while others resemble sermons, delivering spoken-word parables with little to no instrumental accompaniment. Yet still, after more than three weeks of listening, I can't decide if this is a straight-faced religious album or merely an inquisitive exploration of the beauty that even an inherently flawed belief system can produce.

At the same time, it's clear that Ascension is a treatise on what it means to be an artist. The first line of the first track—a predominantly spoken-word piece that sets the tone for the record—reads like a prologue, a self-aware framing of the work. The English narrator speaks of a competition among the angels to write a song that will be played in heaven for a thousand years, yet one angel laments to him that she can't come up with a piece of her own. The speaker jots down a melody for her to use, but when she returns, she apologizes and tells him that it wasn't chosen as the winner.

"'There is nothing to be sorry for,' I said, taking her hand. 'For the Creator Himself has heard my music. And so, you have given me the greatest gift of all: a thoughtful listener, even one who rejects me. This I prefer even to careless ears who may love me.'" It's an apt opening to an album that feels profoundly, intentionally flawed, in the image of the great lo-fi musicians from whom Sauerteig likely draws some inspiration.

Slow Dakota's sound, though, isn't typical of most lo-fi music. There are no fuzzed-out guitars, no bluntly mundane lyrics, and most of all, no sense that he's making something rough around the edges just to show that he's too cool to care. The instrumentation is largely poetic and grand, invoking orchestral swells on some songs, a subdued acoustic guitar on others, and even the occasional dulcimer. There's also a sincerity to the lyrics and their delivery that suggest Sauerteig's genuine devotion to his faith—or, under another interpretation, his desperate need to find it.

The latter reading is given some credence by a number of tracks, though none more than "I Am Held Together." It's a piece I've written about before, remarkable for its two-part structure and cathartic, achingly beautiful climax. But more importantly, it's one of the few songs on the album that lacks any overt reference to religion. It speaks instead of a desperate, depressed protagonist (or two, as it's a duet) who questions whether their Lexapro prescription is keeping them from seeing the world as it really is.

It's this grounded, frankly bleak chapter in The Ascension of Slow Dakota that makes the album much more than a simple exaltation of God or Christ or what have you. It's an admission, as far as I can tell, that the artist himself harbors a plethora of doubts—about his faith, about his musical ability, about the reasons behind whatever suffering he may have endured in his life. And those doubts leave room for a distinctly undogmatic approach to religious thinking.

I could spend pages delving into the intricacies of Slow Dakota's lyrics and songwriting (my copy of the album came with an annotated manuscript, complete with suggested Bible verses scrawled in the margins), but what I'm much more concerned with is its raison d'être as a whole. A central question of the album, as elucidated by tracks like "A Competition," "An Exile's Theory," and "A Mistranslation," is whether an artist can ever truly achieve perfection, and if so, whether the cost of doing so is too great.

Riddled with homages to great creators, heavenly and terrestrial alike, The Ascension of Slow Dakota never really seems to settle on an answer. "Melville went mad writing Moby Dick," we're reminded, among other stories of troubled or suicidal novelists. And yet, here we are, left with some of the greatest works ever scrawled by human hands. Was it worth it?

Perhaps it takes an album like this, one that is deeply and unapologetically imperfect, to assert our freedom from such impossible standards. When Sauerteig's voice wavers or simply fails to remain in key, when the mixing on "The Magi Visit Farmer Lee" is slightly jarring, when the genres switch from ukelele folk to synth pop without warning, we're not meant to view it as a mistake, or even a self-deprecating stylistic choice. Rather, it's a defiant statement that one can create great art without obsessing over minutiae.

For someone like me, who has long been a cynic when it comes to religious faith, it's a refreshingly creative use of that language and structure. And given the earnestness with which Sauerteig seems to have approached this project—a project that is thoroughly intricate, heartbreaking, and true to himself—I think it's one that deserves your ear as a thoughtful listener.