by BRITTANY JULIOUS
The haunting qualities of any good song transcend genre. The way we listen to music now requires the sort of voracious appetite - a never ending sense of hunger for music - that makes us always search for something new. There are blogs I do not visit and songs I do not listen to, but so much of it is heard on iPods and laptops, in house parties and basement bars that music has become the noise of my day-to-day. The hum of my refrigerator in my small apartment, the screeching of the cars that race quickly down Chicago Avenue, the grunts of the men who play basketball at a nearby park … these are the sounds that infiltrate the constancy of a new album, remix or mixtape.
But certain songs stay put. They resonate long after I first listen to them. Although their appeal eventually wanes, the next band or album or song I discover has touches of them, allowing me to revisit what felt so powerful for minutes, hours, or even days.
"Into the Black" - Chromatics (mp3)
“Into the Black," from the Chromatics’ first new album in forever, Kill for Love, is one of the most startling songs you’ll hear all year. It is not outrageous or flashy, but the first few notes from the ominous guitar riff that settles throughout the song reminds the listener of their tremendous power. Like any great work from the band, it establishes the mood of the rest of the album. In this case, one should expect sorrow, mourning and the perfect soundtrack to late nights.
"Jasmine" - Jai Paul (mp3)
"BTSTU" - Jai Paul (mp3)
My greatest fear for new music from Jai Paul was to step away from my desk only to come back later in the day and realize that he had finally - finally! - released new music. And this happened. I missed the demo release by about half an hour. This amount of time seems minimal taking into account Paul's contemporary classic "BTSTU" was first released in 2010. Audiences haven't heard much since. After waiting this long, we can wait a while longer.
“BTSTU” was and is enigmatic, but also damn catchy. It’s not just a good song, but a good pop song. It deserves a larger audience. Perhaps a great pop song is another example of the way music haunts. A good pop song, both infectious and relentless, demands respect. Only a few people can accomplish something so pleasing and melodic to the ear. And “BTSTU,” years later, hits that mark every time.
Paul's music requires patience; you have to savor it continually, given the frequency at which it is released. Unlike a large majority of the music I listen to, I've been coming back to "Jasmine," Paul’s newest single. Much like “BTSTU,” it includes all of the makings of a perfect pop song: a nice beat, a memorable chorus, an even more memorable voice. But Paul’s music differs from the norm, asking the listener to unravel the layers that hide the value of his work. Once past the immediate appeal, its other stories - the hand claps, the grainy quality, the thumping bass - also deserve to be told.
"Joy" - Julian (mp3)
"Lust Spell" - Julian (mp3)
Ostensibly Julian has a better voice than Jai Paul. Whereas Paul often performs in a quiet falsetto, Julian’s voice sounds stronger and more forceful. But it is less compelling, and coupled with the production of such songs as “Joy,” it takes away from an otherwise solid single. The first few seconds sound like the beginning of a smooth, contemporary house track, but Julian keeps his sound in the vein of contemporaries like Drake and The Weeknd. This is not meant to sound like an insult.
When I listen to another early single, “Lust Spell,” I am reminded of the emerging r&b singers of my 90s youth: young, bright-eyed, and usually singing about experiences that seem more foreign to the singer than what is presented. Something about his range and intonation feels very much like a recent past, and the sound can be jarring when coupled with the contemporary, often bleak and minimalist sounds of the production.
"Leila's Tale" - Szjerdene (mp3)
Szjerdene understands restraint. Many of the emerging or underground male r&b vocalists understand production, but their vocals are second to the music. I first heard Szjerdene’s “Leila’s Tale” late last year. Like a lot of instant classics, it required repeated listening. Oftentimes I got dressed in the mornings or read late into the night with the song on repeat. Szjerdene couples her voice with the instrumentation. She listens to and sings with music, rather than against or above it. A guitar strum is the second vocalist, the other “singer” that complements her song. Like “Leila’s Tale,” new single “Blue Lullaby” has a deeply felt quality that hovers somewhere between disquieting and lovely. But as the listener takes in the steady and driven beat, they are immersed completely in the force of the song. That’s another quality of the haunting: it grips you completely and won’t let go.
"DDD" - Machinedrum (mp3)
"She Died There" - Machinedrum (mp3)
Machinedrum is prolific. I don’t say this lightly. Producer Travis Stewart is skilled at what he does and each new release, regardless of what genre he manipulates or elevates, fits his signature. Throughout many of his best releases (Room(s), SXLND), he incorporates a use of vocal samples that sound, if not lively, then at least lovely. “She Died There,” from Room(s) and “Give a Lil Luv,” from Dream Continuum (a collaboration between Machinedrum and Om Unit) elicit a strange beauty. The songs are neither quiet nor slow, but their use of vocals are startlingly compressing. They root the listener and sound on the cusp of something greater.
Trying to write articulately about what makes so much of Machinedrum’s music so great proves difficult. I was so excited and scared the first time I heard Room(s). It had been a long time since dance music felt so powerful. I asked my friend about it the next day and he said he had deleted many of the songs from his computer. They weren’t instantly compelling to him. Some music takes patience. Certain albums need to settle before revealing their charms. But Room(s) never failed for me upon first listen. It felt and still feels smarter than most anything I heard last year. The way that we listen to music now is often similar to how (I think) some musicians make music. A lack of focus, of a definitive statement stands out. But Room(s) is ambitious. Setting itself apart, it still doesn’t neglect its audience. How could it when it sounds so forceful, so elegant?
“DDD,” from the SXLND EP is unabashedly house, invoking the spirit of the early 90s in its subtle, rapturous groove. Unlike the majority of his most recent work, which blend elements of footwork and jungle, “DDD” has a steady 4/4 beat - a rhythmic pulse that is sexy and fun. It might be my favorite song of Stewart's, and although I know his work is often a testament to the styles and aesthetics he enjoys and experiments with, a part of me craves more music that felt like the first and second and third time I listened to “DDD.”
"Push the Feeling On" - Nightcrawlers (mp3)
Nightcrawlers are an established element of a good night out. “Push the Feeling On” is a song for the moment before the moment the night winds down. It is the final go, that last turn around the bend. You are then most in the element of the room: the strangers around you, bodies pressed close together, the thumping of the bass. I could listen to this song forever and not get bored if only because of the memories of it in public with my friends or alone, but always dancing.
"Crazy-Shaped Lady" - Le Le (mp3)
Although Le Le recently released Party Time, the album sounds retro. By retro, I mean that late-aughts period of French electro house that sounded so exciting as a college student. There was always an element of “the party,” of good times and drinks and dancing. The lyrics are inconsequential to the music, which sounds just right anywhere but on your laptop speakers. Songs like “Damien” and “Crazy-Shaped Lady” (or the new club classic from an earlier release,“Breakfast”) are fantastic because they require little to be enjoyed. It’s a level of fun that permeates through the song, and for Party Time, throughout the album.
"Chicago" - Fred Falke ft. Teff Balmert (mp3)
A week or two ago, my friend and I left a work party and attended a DJ set by French producer Fred Falke at Smart Bar. Falke gets the dance floor. He understands the importance of the moment, and making it last. The feeling doesn’t need to be the same, but it should always be a good feeling, a pleasant moment, an eager moment. To lose that feeling is to no longer know your place and why you're there and how to feel good.
It takes root and won’t let go. Being surrounded by strangers can be both exciting and terrifying. Being surrounded by friends and acquaintances can feel surreal. It is the disruption of place. You’ve been taken away from the music and brought back to your thoughts. Most of the time, you don’t want to go back there.
Falke played “Chicago,” his re-working of the Roy Ayers song and yes, it was a little ripe for the city and the setting, but sometimes a good song is a good song. Falke recognized this in the original and recognized this in the moment of the dance floor. “Chicago,” with its vinyl-sounding quality and smooth disco beat, fit the bill nicely. And weeks later, I still can’t stop thinking about how great it was to hear it again. It was a reminder of something good and now that it’s here, I don’t want it to go away.