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The Year of Magical Listening

  • 031 :: I

    29 APR 2024 · FEATURING  Tigers Blood by Waxahatchee, released by Anti- in 2024. /  - - TRANSCRIPT  This is an artist who knows exactly who they are. They know exactly who "you" are, too, the second person in all their lyrics. Every song on this record feels like a frank conversation that needed to happen. It might seem accusatory if it didn't sound so sweet. But that's the grace of honesty that only a clear-eyed observer of life can bring. So let's pull up a chair and hear what this singer has to say.  This song, like so many of the singer's others, traces out a relational dynamic, here between a "you" who is selfish and self-centered, to the neglect of others' feelings, and an "I" who has been burned one too many times, and describes their relationship this way: "All my life I've been running from what you want". It's an all too familiar situation, one person taking everything except for responsibility for their actions, while the other is left questioning their complicity as they struggle to break free. We don't know if the "you" of this song is a lover, or a friend, or a parent, or a sibling. But that's kind of the point, as we can see them all in its story and in the beautifully enigmatic imagery that it uses to get at this feeling, with lines like "am I your moat or your drawbridge?" or "it plays on my mind how the time passing holds you like pocket change".  Yet what I find most remarkable about this song is not its truthfulness or its poetry, but how the singer doesn't sound at all jilted, or heartbroken, or even just fed up. They're not giving voice to the anger and frustration and sadness that's surely there. Rather, the song feels like it's coming from a place of understanding, of knowing yourself and knowing others, and of finally being able to see a relationship for what it is. And that feels special. It's rare enough to reach a place like that in our own relationships; rarer still for a piece of music to commemorate that achievement, and to encapsulate a glimmer of how it feels.  But now let me be honest for a minute. Because as extraordinary as I believe this music to be, I do have to admit that it is just folk music at the end of the day. At first blush you might think that you've heard it all before: the common chord progressions, the easy melodies, that familiar country lilt. So why, then, is this the most affecting song I've heard all year?  First, to state the obvious, music doesn't need to be original to move us. And second, it's all in the details: that pristine voice; the perfectly tuned guitar tones; the uncanny harmonization of its chorus duet; and these gemlike lyrics that are like poems unto themselves, like "you just settle in like a song with no end". Other songs may be similar, but no song is just like this.  But there's another reason that this song is so affecting, at least to my ears. For me, this music has the special, ineffable quality that comes from an artist making exactly the kind of art they're on this earth to make. What I hear in this music is an artist who has found their voice, an artist who is less interested in writing the "best" songs and more concerned to write the songs that only they can sing. Because, in the end, that's all an artist can really ever do. It just takes some artists longer to get there. Every sound on this record just feels like it's in its right place. And there's nothing quite like that feeling.  This is an artist who knows exactly who they are. They've found their song, and now they're just settling in, with no end in sight. And their music is an invitation for us to settle in with them and hear what they have to say.
    9m 37s
  • 030 :: KNOWER

    29 MAR 2024 · FEATURING  KNOWER FOREVER by KNOWER, self-released in 2023. /  -  -  -  -  TRANSCRIPT  I'm ashamed to say it now, but I didn't think I liked this music at first. I resisted it, even. It seemed, to put it simply, too much. And by the way, this music, what's playing right now: it's nothing like the rest of the album. It's nothing like the songs I actually want to talk about. Then again, no song on this album is like the rest of the album. If there's one constant to this music, it's a refusal to stay in any one place. So maybe this, a sumptuous orchestral overture, is the most fitting introduction to an album that never ceases to subvert our expectations – like this.  See what I mean when I said that this music seemed like too much? What do you even do with a riff like this? It's so intense and sludgy and just kind of dumb, that it's hard to know whether it's meant in earnest or in jest. But one thing's for sure: the band is playing the heck out of it. And then the song flips on its head, opening up into these bright jazzy harmonies and pillowy synth pads, layered on top of an absolutely killer bass line.  It's so ridiculously groovy, it almost feels like a joke, like a spoof of a jam band. And the lyrics don't make things seem any the more serious, being just a list of things that the singer "[is] thinking while you are talking", like "does purgatory have snacks?" and "do hot girls like chords?".  But just as the band has us thinking that they're just goofing around, out comes this explosive solo, which is no joke. This is some seriously sick shredding. It's moving faster than I can even hear it. It's the sort of virtuosity that puts a grimace on your face, that feels like it's bringing us to the bleeding edge of what music can be.  This is music on overdrive, music that exists to be over the top, music that wants to show us that it can do anything.  So perhaps it's no surprise that this next song is something totally different, a sweet, singsong melody addressed to none other than Death. "Hey Grim Reap", sings the singer, as the keys chime in with a syncopated house rhythm and the band gets ready to move.  And then, with the verse, the band pulls back, the drums subdividing the beat into almost infinitesimal segments, with the keys and the bass interjecting in a playful unison. I don't know if this is the band doing hyperpop or glitch or chiptune, but whatever it is, it's never grooved so hard.  This is music that relishes in being stylistically all over the map, but if it has one consistent quality, it's an aesthetic of flexing, of showing that it can take any musical idea, no matter how wacky or crude, and make it sound like the coolest thing you've ever heard, just by sheer force of musical will.  But let's go even bigger. And what's bigger than a punchy bass line? How about a bass line played by a full brass section? How about a song about what it's like to be the President?  Yet again, this music is a ludicrous mash-up. The singer's mellifluous voice is paired with impish lyrics, as funky rhythms are punctuated by grandiose fanfares. And then, without missing a beat, the band transitions into this harmonically dense pre-chorus. Has anything this tongue-in-cheek ever sounded so nice?  This is the band at their purest and most irreverent. It's audacious and bombastic and larger than life – kind of like a certain you-know-who.  This band feels to me like the trickster gods of acid jazz, using their musical omnipotence not for good nor evil but rather for play – to shake us out of our musical conventions and show us that true virtuosity knows no bounds. After all, if you're this talented as musicians, why not use your powers to have a little fun?  So let's all rise and hail these musicians and send them off with one final, epic salute.
    10m 50s
  • 029 :: FREE

    29 FEB 2024 · FEATURING "Free From the Guillotine" by Ryan Davis & the Roadhouse Band, from Dancing on the Edge, released by Sophomore Lounge in 2023. / TRANSCRIPT I want to do something that's not easy for me to do on this show: I want to talk about an artist who's first and foremost a lyricist. Which means I will be talking over the very lyrics I want to highlight. It ain't gonna be pretty – but hey, life isn't always a walk in the park now, is it? What a perfect opening couplet. Someone in the singer's life just "got a new tattoo of an old tattoo". A friend, or an acquaintance, or maybe a stranger – but at any rate, someone wanting more of the same, or perhaps nostalgic for the past. The singer, meanwhile, and in contrast, has been restless, as they've "hunted and hunted for the dreams [they] thought [they] wanted". It may seem like no more than an offhand observation, but it sets the stage for the rest of the song, which finds the singer again and again sitting on the edge of their community and wondering if now might be the time to jump off. The song is filled with these gem-like, off-kilter aphorisms – wry turns of phrase that always get at something deeper, in the way that only metaphor can, like "we are busted stitches in the patchwork of the flag" or "I'm doing 25-to-life just waiting on a friend to get back from a piss". How better to encapsulate those twin feelings of unbelonging and captivity, of alienation and familiarity? You can almost see the singer leaning over a bar, looking out at the crowd and contemplating that next round, wishing for something different, while for the moment having nowhere else to be. But I don't want to be too reductive here. I don't want to suggest that these lyrics mean any one thing. The language is figurative, not literal, and that means it's less about what the lyrics are saying and more about all the things they bring to mind. It's about that free play of the imagination that such imagery stirs up inside us. And that's why, I suppose, the song feels to me at its best when it's at its most enigmatic and gnomic. Like what does that mean – "a negligible fraction of the holy trinity"? I love it, but not because I can decipher it. I love it for all the associations it conjures up – of cosmic insignificance, of a fall from grace, but also of the divinity still within us. In a word, it's poetry. And that brings us to the song's leading image: "to be free from the guillotine" – another resonant metaphor, suggestive of so much: the sharp bite of social ostracism, the spectre of retribution, and the shining promise of liberation on the other side. But the singer is always quick to undercut their own triumphalism. They're breaking free, sure, but they're not quite there yet. As they put it: I'm here halfway through at best With no clear pathway through the rest Playing contract tambourine in a shipyard plumber's band The singer doesn't know where they're headed; they just know that they've gotta go, and that they're gonna ruffle some feathers along the way, becoming "a willingly endangered bird of prey". It all feels so relatable, even if I'd never think to put it in precisely these words. It's that feeling you get when you recognize that you need to get out, to turn your back on the world you've known and make a better life for yourself, even though you have no idea what that life will be. And it's here that the song's persistent specificity starts to dilate and expand. The singer isn't just singing about themselves; they're singing about all of us – about the fixes we've all been in, the doubts that've held us there, and the dreams we're all hunting of finally being free.
    10m 18s
  • 028 :: FAIRYTALE

    29 JAN 2024 · FEATURING "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl, from If I Should Fall from Grace with God released by Warner Music in 1988. TRANSCRIPT Here's another one that fell through the cracks, another song I have no right not to have heard until now. And I couldn't even get to it in time for Christmas. But like the song's narrator, let's pretend that it's an earlier time and take this as an opportunity to reminisce on Christmases past, on better and worse years, and on dreams once held. If you, like me, are new to this song, it's a parable in three acts, the story of a couple of immigrant kids finding their way to New York City and each other. And it begins here, in the way young love often does, with tenderness and hope, a feeling that makes everything seem ready to burst open with excitement and anticipation. The song seems to understand so much about life, like how falling in love with a person often coincides with falling in love with a place. Or how nothing makes a new place feel more like home than coming across a piece of where you came from, like seeing the local police choir singing an old Irish tune. But the song also understands that new love never stays so pretty, and in its second act it shows how quickly those initial feelings of jubilation can sour, as the young lovers viciously bicker back and forth. And there it is again, that reminder of where they came from, now seeming like a symbol of the inescapability of who they were and still are. So how does it all end? In a word, ambivalently. Our lovers are civil again, but not without grievance. Because the song understands that the most powerful relationships in our lives are never simply one thing, but those where tenderness exists alongside bitterness, where the things we cherish most dearly are also those that break our heart. It's no fairytale romance, but it's all the more poignant because of that. It's no cheery Christmas carol, but it's none the lesser for it. And the song itself is no pristine composition, either; it's imperfect, and weird, and rough around the edges. But that's precisely what makes it so affecting. It's a celebration of life in all its messiness and complexity, and what better to celebrate on Christmas Day than that.
    6m 31s
  • 027 :: SWITCH

    27 DEC 2023 · FEATURING "Psychedelic Switch" by Carly Rae Jepsen, from The Loveliest Time, released by 604 Records in 2023. TRANSCRIPT This is an ode to my song of the year – the song I played more times than any other song, and that played in my head countless more times than that – a perfect song, an electric song, an unstoppable, irresistible song that never failed to sweep me up and carry me away. This song's pleasures are immediate and undeniable. But like the last time I talked about this artist, we must be careful not to overthink this music. Because what it's really about is that feeling that it stirs up inside us – that euphoria, that release, that palpable satisfaction. This isn't music to analyze; it's music that's here to make us dance and laugh and throw all our other cares away. But there is, I believe, a little more to this song, and so at the risk of flouting my own advice, I'm going to overthink it a bit. Because I do think this song is telling us something, or at least discloses it by the by amidst its revelry and exuberance. On its surface, this is a song about the transformative power of love: its capacity to act as a "psychedelic switch", to flip our minds into a new mode and change the very way we see the world, such that all our prior worries dissipate in the face of this new feeling. But this song is also unmistakeably a song about the transformative power of music, and its capacity to act upon us in precisely the same way. More than any other art form, music has the ability to lift our spirits in an instant. More than any other art form, the experience of music can be as euphoric and intoxicating as the experience of love. More than any other art form, music can even be indistinguishable from our emotions themselves. Like the singer says, they were "a sad, sad song" before. But now, with this song, it's like a psychedelic switch. And what is it like to be in such a beatific state? The singer sums it up in a single lyric: they'd be "satisfied forever with a couple of years of this". Like love, music doesn't need to be timeless to be worthwhile or meaningful or even life-changing. Some of the most important pleasures we feel are ephemeral ones. And music doesn't let us forget that, because music, in the best cases, makes us feel it. So here's to my song of the year, which even if it's just for this year and no others, is more than enough to keep me satisfied forever.
    6m 30s

    1 DEC 2023 · FEATURING Motewolonuwok by Jeremy Dutcher, released by Secret City Records in 2023. / Buy direct ( | - TRANSCRIPT The first sounds we hear are the music of nature: the harmonies of birdsong, the rhythm of the land underfoot. The next sounds we hear are the music of language: poetic speech in a seldom-heard tongue. It's like an invocation of the music that is always everywhere all around us, if only we learn to listen, even if we don't understand. And so begins the music proper, which feels like an invocation of a different kind, an invocation of the magical power inherent in sound, that's always there just waiting for a maestro to pick up the right threads and weave them together and make something beautiful that shakes us to the core. It's often said that music transcends language, and that's certainly the case here. I, at least, do not understand this music's lyrics, but that does not at all stop me from recognizing the pathos in these words. Yet something deeper is also going on. It must be said that this music is sung in a language whose living speakers number only in the hundreds – an "endangered" language, which is to say, a language that has historically been persecuted and suppressed and is now being intentionally revived and carried forward. In singing in this language, the artist isn't just translating it into a medium that all can understand and feel; they are breathing life into the language itself. And just as the language is animated by this music, the music is animated by this language, giving birth to a musical idiom all its own, melding the contemporary with the classical, the anthemic with the intimate, and the rousing with the hypnotic. It's a performance that's positively brimming with life, leaving us to wonder at what other music there must be in sounds yet unheard, in songs yet unsung, in words yet unspoken, and in acts yet undone.
    6m 52s
  • 025 :: TAMBURIUM

    10 NOV 2023 · FEATURING "Solo for Tamburium" by Catherine Christer Hennix, composed and performed for MaerzMuzik in 2017, and released by Blank Forms Editions in 2023. / TRANSCRIPT A constellation of notes slowly comes into view, filling up the night sky with light. From darkness comes illumination; from silence comes reverberation; from nothing comes, seemingly, everything – every pitch, every harmony, every resonance, all at once. We are abruptly thrown into a swirling cosmos of sound, surrounded by an unfamiliar polyphony. We are momentarily lost in a foreign musical landscape, unmoored from the customary landmarks of melody, rhythm, and thematic development. And then, with time, we are gradually transformed, as this music works its magic upon us, bringing us into its mesmerizing world, inducting us into its greater mysteries, elevating us to its astral plane, and allowing us to come in contact with its musica universalis, the harmony of the spheres. In the common parlance of musical typology, this piece would most commonly be labelled as "minimalist", for how it eschews music's conventional variety of timbres, textures, dynamics, and themes. But for all its minimalism, this piece feels like it contains everything within it and encompasses the totality of harmonic space. It would seem just as appropriate to label it "maximalist". And fittingly, for all that this music feels utterly unique, it was not in fact fashioned ex nihilo. It speaks a new, distinctive vernacular, but it's a vernacular in conversation with other, well established traditions, like the Indian raga and the Arabic maqam. It is played on a new, synthetic instrument, but it's an instrument that was constructed entirely out of other, acoustic instruments, meticulously sampled so that they could be reworked, recombined, and replayed. It's like this music was already there, in potentia, in these other sounds, just waiting to be discovered, a shimmering universe hidden within. The piece will go on like this for seventy-eight minutes, but seventy-eight minutes doesn't feel like its true length. It doesn't really have a beginning, middle, and end. It fades in at its start and fades out at its close, as if the piece in fact goes on forever, and we are just catching a glimpse as it passes us by, like a satellite crossing the heavens. And so it continues, slowly unspooling and imperceptibly changing, deepening and expanding but staying fundamentally the same. The piece will go on like this for seventy-eight minutes, but what strikes me most about this music is how it seems in every instant to be self-contained, as if it doesn't need to play out over time at all, as if every moment holds within it the potentiality of every other moment, like a musical fractal geometry, infinitely repeating no matter how far you go in. It is music that is in time, but not of it; music without any essential duration; music that transcends the temporal dimension; and music that lifts us out of time as well, to share in its eternal present. It is music that recalls that line from William Blake, showing us what it's like to: Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour The piece will go on like this for seventy-eight minutes, but by the time we finally reach that point that number will lose its meaning. It will feel like we've been listening for all of time and for no time at all. Because infinity cannot be contained in any length of time, and thus is equally imperfectly contained in all of them. We may never be able to truly comprehend this music; like infinity, it's too much for us finite beings to take in. But we can listen and allow ourselves to be in its presence, to let our sense of time dilate and our consciousness expand as everything else evaporates into the ether and only this music, in its limitless potential, remains.
  • 024 :: SUFJAN

    18 OCT 2023 · FEATURING Javelin by Sufjan Stevens, released by Asthmatic Kitty in 2023. / - TRANSCRIPT The first thing I noticed was how familiar it all felt: this fingerpicking, these harmonies, this dear little voice. And more than that, the distinctive flood of emotions that was instantly stirred up inside me. This music felt – and still feels – like reuniting with an old friend, or revisiting an old home, or catching sight of an old lover, or recalling a loved one now lost – a resurgence of suppressed feelings and memories, suddenly foisted upon you. I've been listening to this songwriter for nearly twenty years; I can no longer imagine what it's like to hear them for the first time. I can only experience this music as a return, to a place of unbridled emotional vulnerability, that place this songwriter has brought me to so many times before. Though I'll admit, it is not somewhere I always wish to return. The thing about these songs is that they can almost be too tender, too fragile; and a heart can only endure so much ache. Listening to this music is like staring at the sun, a direct confrontation with the strongest and rawest of our feelings, feelings we typically don't dare to express. It can be tempting to avert one's eyes. But it can also be gratifying to be reminded of this capacity within us to hurt and to long deeply. In a way, this music is more honest with ourselves than we are, letting us feel what we so often don't allow ourselves to feel. Every time this songwriter comes to us with more of these songs, it's like a reaffirmation of life's true emotional weight – how it can wreck us, how it can humble us, and how it can, occasionally, show us grace. It is not a place we can bear to remain for too long, but it is comforting to allow ourselves to be held here for a moment, in the songwriter's delicate embrace.
    6m 11s
  • Explicit

    023 :: FOUNTAIN

    25 SEP 2023 · FEATURING Fountain Baby by Amaarae, released by Interscope Records in 2023. / - - - TRANSCRIPT I loved this music from the moment I heard it, from the very first notes of its opening melody, with its haunting oscillation between dominant and tonic, and this ghostly choir of distant voices gradually surfacing amid a groundswell of strings. And I'll admit, I can't quite say what it is about this music that enthralled me so immediately, or what strange magic flows within these sounds, but I knew, instinctively, from the moment I heard it, that this would be music like nothing I'd ever heard before. This song throws so much at you all at once, it's hard to know where to begin, but let's start with the rhythm. The beat is all syncopation, hitting hard on the one and then subdividing the rest of each measure in a mix of threes and fours. It's urgent and aggressive and unrelenting, like waves crashing down on you while you try to gasp for air. Then there's the percussion, which forgoes the typical pop and sizzle of snares and hi-hats in favour of an ensemble of pitched drums and rimshots, lending an acoustic warmth and energy to a song that is otherwise a club banger. But what we really need to talk about is this voice: this whispery soprano that, for all its delicacy, stands toe to toe with the drumline and somehow commands the whole performance. It's not at all what you'd expect, especially for a song that's so raw and raunchy, with such memorable lines as "I want to fuck a puddle" and "I'll Lindsay a Lohan". But that's the beauty and the genius of this song. It's absolutely singular in its sound, and it all works because it says it works, because it fully commits to being fully itself, and because it knows that it's an unstoppable force of nature. And like nature itself, it can change in a flash, turning from a downpour into a drizzle, as light as raindrops bouncing off your skin. Now, everything feels playful and buoyant, as bouncy as the bass synth and as feathery as the harp's arpeggios. The music has metamorphosed from a heavy rain into a misty vapour, while somehow remaining, in its essence, the same. This is a multitudinous music – music that can, at one moment, inundate and overpower, and then, in the next, refresh and rejuvenate. And that's why it's so fitting that the overarching metaphor of this record is water, in all its elemental guises. It floods and it cools. It drowns and it hydrates. It makes waves and cuts canyons. It gives life and brings death. It's the sweat on your chest and the shower on your face. It's a symbol of tranquility and a symbol of devastation. It's a symbol of arousal and a symbol of rebirth. And all the same could be said about this music. It overwhelms, it revitalizes, it makes us wet. It's an unending stream of musical styles and ideas, cycling between countless different forms and textures, swelling and receding, ebbing and flowing, spilling over in abundance, and ultimately leaving us to float on its endless fathomless sea.
    7m 50s
  • Explicit

    022 :: MAPS

    7 AUG 2023 · FEATURING Maps by billy woods and Kenny Segal, released by Backwoodz Studioz in 2023. / - - - - TRANSCRIPT Here's a little secret: When I listen to music, the lyrics are typically what I hear last. I am drawn to the sounds and harmonies and rhythms; but the words often pass me by. Which may make a lyrical genre like hip-hop seem like it'd be a nonstarter for me. But of course it isn't; for how could you pass up music like this? Though actually, maybe hip-hop is an easy sell for a listener like me, because hip-hop is about so much more than the literal words. Even before you can make out a single lyric, you can feel what this music is expressing. It's in the MC's voice, with its sure-footed delivery and breathless flow. It's in the DJ's production, with its languid boom-bap and far-off horns like sirens. It's tuned every aspect of its sound to create a feeling that is at once laid-back and confident and filled with a sense of underlying dread. And what could be more musical than that? But this isn't just music that you can vibe to. This is lyrical music at the end of the day, and it's in its words that it truly distinguishes itself. Its verses are densely packed poetry, and even before you can start parsing their content, you can luxuriate in the pure sound of the language – the effortless flurry of assonant syllables ricocheting off each other in syncopated slant rhymes and the way each phrase seems to fall out in a natural rhythm as it rolls off the tongue. The words just sound good, independent of what they mean or what they're being used to say, showcasing the musicality that's always there in language, just waiting for someone to coax it out. Or maybe this is just me, continuing to avoid actually hearing the lyrics, and picking up on every other musical element instead. Not that the MC makes it easy to follow along. Even with a lyric sheet out in front of you, it can be hard to decipher what's being said. Lines shift between perspectives and timeframes and locales, feeling less like a sequential narrative and more like a stream of consciousness, a pastiche of vivid images flashing before the mind's eye: The sunset in the desert... I sip Mexico's best slow... Unbroken wild ponies... Only the lonely big tree like a sundial But the fragmentary quality of the lyrics is by design. Because if this record is about anything, it's about being on the road – and not just in the sense of living an itinerant lifestyle, but more deeply in the sense of the state of mind that that life puts you in: how the continuous bombardment of unfamiliar sights and sounds can make you turn inward and how the constant movement from one place to another can end up grounding you in where you're from. That's why we find the MC, in the middle of a crowded party... Smoking alone in a cardigan Thinking of home It's that feeling of double consciousness, of being physically in one place while being mentally in another, of being uncommonly receptive to the world around you while being trapped in your own thoughts and interiority, of being on the road while feeling like you've never left. It's a vibe, to be sure, but more than its particular vibe, what I appreciate most about this music is the power of its language: its specificity, its creativity, its evocative nature. Even when I'm only catching passing glances of the lyrics as they zip by, I feel transported by the potency of the imagery. These are words that you can see, taste, and smell. The MC isn't just telling us about being on the road; they're bringing us along for the ride. But all odysseys must come to an end. And so, in this last song, the MC returns home – but as they take in the sights of their New York City streets, nothing is how they remember it. All they see are new people, new buildings, new shops, new goods – and all they can think of is how things used to be. As they say, "I'm home, but my mind be wandering off." Because home isn't a place you can actually go back to, or rather, home is only a place you can go back to in your mind. And really, this is how we've been travelling all along. It's not about the places we go; it's about where those places take us – the thoughts they occasion, the memories they bring up, the way they direct and divert our attention, and the poetry they help us see in the world around us.
    10m 56s
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