Emily Every: Luke De-Sciscio – “Good Bye Folk Boy”
2019 has felt apocalyptic in more ways than I’d really like to get into for an album blurb on a college newspaper, but, to say the least, it’s been a year that’s loomed large over the horizon of popular culture. We’re all philosophizing and deconstructing and screaming in all our art all the time. Nothing gets by without being a metaphor for, a reflection of or a diatribe against 2019, the last year of the decade, the last year of our lives, whatever. That’s fine, honestly. Deserved, even. Art is an outlet — I get it.
Sometimes, though, it’s nice to be in the quiet. As much as I enjoy the speed of opening of the new Rico Nasty, the incredible production of Tyler the Creator’s “IGOR” or the industrial gut punch that is SOPHIE’s 2019 remix album, the weight of so much of the music of the year of our Lord 2019 can be too much to carry. Once again, I get it, the noise and the discontentment: it all means something. It has a point. On the occasion, however, I want something without that sonically sharp edge.
All this to say my album for 2019 is an acoustic singer-songwriter album, which was sort of a surprise even for me. When I sat down and thought about it, though, I hadn’t listened to anything that came out this year more than Luke De-Sciscio’s “Good Bye Folk Boy,” a little meditative folk piece that came out this June.
Recording the majority of his music live, De-Sciscio creates his music in 24-hour sessions: songs are written and performed within the same day, giving them an organic tinge. “Winsome,” the record’s opener is a wonderful track, tilting between the nostalgic and melancholic (two laughably overused words in music criticism, I know, but trust me in saying that it’s an apt description). “Plumb Loco” and “R.O.B.Y.N.” follow; the former is slow and panic-stricken, the latter fluttery and featuring a stand-out, sort-of-circuitous-sounding guitar riff. The eleventh and final track, “New Skin,” reminds me a bit of “Either/Or”-era Elliot Smith, particularly in the way that the low vocals and raw guitar playing meld.
“Good Bye Folk Boy” is a record for the in-between, perfect for putting on in the background. That isn’t to say that it’s not worth a close listen or that’s it’s not exciting or interesting or anything else, but it doesn’t demand that sort of attention from you: you can listen to De-Sciscio’s music on your own terms. Any track off this album would be well worth your time on a slow Sunday, or whenever you like to do your acoustic introspecting.
Brennen Gray: “Active Listening: Night on Earth” by Empath
I had always despised noise music. The idea seemed inherently pretentious, and although I understood its importance, I usually chalked pieces of noise music up to the list of technically good things that I personally disliked but still appreciated, somewhere between Marvel movies and expensive Scotch. Then came Empath and this album.
The extra noise and ambience provides a transient experience that is truly active listening. I’m not in my dorm listening to Empath, but rather Empath and I are outside somewhere in the middle of the night listening to the sounds of the evening. The album starts out with nighttime cricket noises, and then immediately throws down a pulsing bass beat like any night club would have. Then it rolls through all nine songs with a synth and guitar combination that takes the listener through all the sounds of what it means to be on earth in the dark. There is even a prominent singing saw in there, which has a hollow, sad and eerie sound that simply fits with the album’s concept.
It’s biggest accomplishment for me is making me love a piece of noise music with unbridled appreciation. But it accomplished something else for me. I also love this album because it incorporates noise music into an older concept: the garage band.
Many people think garage band-style is a thing of the past. Three or four friends moving in together and making a DIY album that incorporates their individual styles into an unclean low-budget set of bangers? The Stooges, The Descendents and a host of other bands did that decades ago. The earliest garage bands are from the mid 1960’s, and the most contemporary garage rock I listen to is probably the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which has been around for about 20 years.
But the noise music style of Empath creates a chaos that is continuous with the discordance of the DIY ethos of low-budget garage band music. This album embodies this ideal: it’s beautiful without being pretty. Take “Roses That Cry” for example. The unrelenting chaos and high-pitched frequencies that bounce off Catherine Elicson’s voice are so thrown together that they create a maelstrom of complexity that really makes no sense at all. And yet every last sound seems so intentional that it makes you feel like there is not one frequency, drum beat or guitar chord that could be excised without dangerously compromising the integrity of the song. It has a pop music style synth and a loud guitar. It has vocals and just plain noise. And it all mixes together well.
There are bands that struggle to mix pop with punk without creating pop punk. There are bands that struggle to mix noise with melodic music without creating something that is too much one or the other. And then there’s Empath who just said “I don’t give a damn.”
Anna Johns: Orville Peck – “Pony”
After years of saying, “I’m into all genres but country,” I have officially been approved for my government-sanctioned clown nose, squirt flower and some funky, oversized shoes. Orville Peck’s debut album “Pony” has changed my entire perception of country music — through a fiddling of the genre, a morphing of what old country once was and what it could be — and offered a queer perspective in a genre that lacked marginalized voices.
Where to start? Peck is a mystery. He came to the scene under a fringe-mask, equipped with a rich drawl and brokenhearted ballads. Although he performs under a masked persona, he allows us insights to the tall tales he gathered. He is gay, a South-African born Canadian, he performed on the West End and recently transplanted from being a punk drummer to a country crooner.
And, even with these shallow, biographical details in mind, there is nothing compared to the emotion in his music. The mask is a means for him to find comfort in being vulnerable as he sings close-to-home lyrics and reframes his own past heartbreaks and collected identities. There’s “Big Sky,” where he sings of failed relationships and an inescapable loneliness, shattering his bravado with broken-glass candor when he goes, “Heartbreak is a warm sensation when the only feeling that you know is fear.”
There’s something truly remarkable about Peck; while he performs in a theatrical aesthetic and hides his identity behind a mask, his act is still parallel with his sincerity. He doesn’t need to tell his listener he’s genuine. His lyrics speak for him.
“Pony” is experienced through carefully plucked banjos, rattlesnake percussion and dramatic vocals that sweep from a hollow baritone to a striking belt that suggests every sound heard — even the campy, wink-to-the-audience “yeehaw” in “Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call” — is purposeful. His drawl evokes a road wariness, accented by gritty references to a western landscape: Malboro reds, Johnny Cash and the innate Lone Ranger quality to his words. The standout track, “Dead of Night,” is a romantic ballad about two male hustlers on the run, and there is something aching in his voice when he gets to the chorus, something entirely longing and delicate, a lament to lost love in the suffocating vastness of a desert.
As he reframes traditional country stereotypes with tales of drag queens and falling in love with men, Peck breaks down the gatekeeping of country music and revitalizes the space for his queer expression. “Pony,” ultimately, is a country record of tearful melodies, cheeky, careful posturing and melodramatic vocals. He tears away songwriting tropes with his own saccharine romances and identity as an outsider, and there is something so refreshing about someone so unequivocally himself — even if he doesn’t know who he is.
Emma Palmer: Billie Eilish – “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”
In a lot of ways, my college experience has been about reclaiming adolescent experiences I didn’t have access to before. That is to say, had I been in high school when this album came out, I a) would have known about it, and b) would have given it the time of day. In all honesty, I probably would have been a little scared of the teens that liked Eilish’s spooky aesthetic. In my old age, however, I can say with confidence Billie Eilish goes off.
After releasing several singles and a hit EP, Billie Eilish finally released her first album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” this year to staggering success, and I, now a connoisseur of more mainstream pop music, enjoy it immensely.
Sure, lyrically, there’s not much substance, but in terms of sound? The drums and synths and snaps and samples from the “The Office” all mesh into something lush and light and so quintessentially teen. Eilish is at the same time funny and weird and morbid and melodramatic, and all these traits come through in her music.
Eilish’s style of singing and the warping of it within the music turns her voice oftentimes into just another instrument. This means that “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” will probably end up on my most listened to on Spotify simply because it is easy study music.
Don’t get me started on listening to this album in the car, walking to class or in the reading rooms. There is something forever powerful to me about playing music loudly, while presenting oneself as being a paragon of normalcy. As I sit typing quietly, Eilish provides the attitude of “you should see me in a crowd.” I feel cool, but in a secret way.
Piper Prolago: Omar Apollo – “Friends”
After hearing the first track on Omar Apollo’s EP “Friends,” my friend told me he thought it sounded something that would play behind a scene of an ill-advised shopping spree. Since this revelation, I’ve found myself walking with an air of unwarranted arrogance whenever “Ashamed” plays. The layers of sound are engaging. The beats make me want to step along with the rhythm. The drama of Omar Apollo is transformative.
With his innovative melding of styles and tones, Omar Apollo’s “Friends” is an incredibly eclectic EP. Apollo is a self-made artist who burst onto the scene when he uploaded “Ugotme” in 2015, which immediately made it onto Spotify’s “Fresh Finds” playlist. Since then, Apollo has released about a dozen more singles and two EPs. Combining funk beats, acoustic ballads and smooth melodies, “Friends” showcases that Apollo is not just vocally talented, but also compellingly theatrical.
“Ashamed” jump-starts the EP with the almost effortless tonal shifts that make his body of work so compelling. Starting with a funk beat overlaid with Apollo’s (dare I say) Prince-esque vocals, he moves in and out of falsetto and a lower range in the rhythmic verses. He flawlessly transitions into a smoother, melodic melody that showcases his undeniable vocal talent. About two-thirds through the song, the track entirely changes character, transitioning into a slower, groovier beat that abruptly ends in Apollo’s haunting falsetto ringing in silence, “Can’t live without you by my side.”
The energy of the first track is revived in the next song, “Kickback.” While “Ashamed” jumped around in character, “Kickback” seems to slow down throughout the course of three minutes. While this transitions into the acoustic “Friends,” the same groovy beats and compelling style later reappear in “So Good,” as Apollo experiments with synth effects, melodies and harmonies reminiscent of discoteque.
The titular track shifts the personality of the EP, revealing a more intimate side of the artist. Moving away from the funk beats, “Friends” starts with a haunting guitar melody. Apollo’s raw vocals move in and out of a chilling falsetto, singing a more emotionally vulnerable story, repeating “you just thought I just wanted to be friends.”
This acoustic sound is continued in through the interlude and into “Hearing your voice,” in which he sings about a troubled relationship. Describing various arguments in the verses, he concludes in the chorus, “You cut your hair / Change it all except for me,” illustrating the difficulty of change, but hoping to still hold onto the relationship.
Apollo ends on this same intimate acoustic sound in the angelic final track, “Trouble.” The airy background beats and simple guitar tune almost completely dissipate during the bridge and are dwarfed by Apollo’s delicate vocals. His singing falls away in a sound wall toward the end of the track, which suddenly stops, leaving the quiet guitar tune to close out the EP in a cathartic release.
While the EP is somewhat disappointingly comprised entirely of love songs — surprising for an EP titled “Friends” — they are removed from the doe-eyed naivety that I’ve come to expect. Instead, he seems to focus on the idea of change and transition within that stereotypical love story. More playful tracks like “So Good,” ask “So why you walk away? This love is like a dream.”
Alternately, “Trouble” explores a more vulnerable aspect of this idea of transition, singing, “It’s just nice to meet you anyway / Didn’t mean to scare you yesterday.”
Apollo seems to speak to his own growth in “Friends,” singing. “And I’m older now, but I’m still young.” This, for me, perfectly situates Apollo’s EP. He has grown as an artist, creating a more cohesive and exploratory set of songs than he had in the past. Yet, at only 22 years old, Apollo represents a new generation of innovative artistry that experiments with genre, style and sound.
Ethan Veenker: Weyes Blood – “Titanic Rising”
If Joni Mitchell were making indie rock today, I imagine it’d sound a lot like Weyes Blood, which isn’t to discredit the musical stylings of Natalie Mering’s solo project. I’m merely attempting to collect the feelings and sound of “Titanic Rising” in a single sentence. It is, of course, impossible — the record is as massive as the ship it’s named after. Mering, rather than flouting her supremacy at the ship’s helm, maybe shouting that she’s “queen of the world” or something, celebrates the sinking. She gives us a soundtrack as the Atlantic bubbles up, as lives pinch out of existence and as a final resting place hurries toward us. “Titanic Rising” is a revelation.
Highlights include “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” a tone-setting track if there ever was one, beginning with a lone, waterlogged piano before a mellow string section enters the mix, a solid drum beat moves the track along and Mering, aided by backup singers, belts out a beautiful, pining chorus. “Try to leave it all behind,” she sings, and for a moment the listener feels that maybe they can.
“Everyday,” meanwhile, sets in with a dark intro (again from a lone piano) of monstrous, deep chords, before immediately shifting into an easygoing ballad aided by simple, on-beat clapping. The formula complete, Mering just keeps adding to it. A synth tumbles in, dragging the song heaven-ward; a combination of wind instruments play a single note on every other beat; then, a refrain from the refrain, Mering cries, “I need a love everyday,” over a spiraling arrangement of voices from the lowest registers of the human voice.
The inarguably best track of the record is “Movies” (honestly my favorite song of 2019). It’s easily split into two halves — two movements, if you will — opening with Mering’s echoey, lone voice. She’s backed by a simple, compressed arpeggio from a synthesizer and the occasional chord from a cello or viola, or maybe both. The music is impossible to separate from the imagery in the music video, in which Mering floats placidly underwater, drifting back and forth. Then, as if ascending (“rising”), Mering’s voice duplicates itself into monstrous self-harmony; the synth’s compressor fizzles away; the notes sound ouy with renewed vigor; the strings become more numerous.
The song would be sublime enough with just this, but it suddenly shifts into the second movement. Crisp, sharp violins. A compressed drum beat. A backing track of women harmonizing that seems almost otherworldly. The deeper strings again take up the helm, rising ever upward like an inverted Shepard tone, and on top of it all: the most impressive vocals on the entire record. Mering’s voice soars. “I wanna be the star of my own movie,” she cries again and again, the superficiality of the request clashing with the utterly transcendent mode of its delivery. She finishes on a beautiful high note, then the song ends suddenly, like a film projector switched off.
This is a motif of “Titanic Rising” — Mering finds a groove early in each track, an easy and inoffensive pop melody that anyone could bob their head to. Ever unsatisfied, she tosses more into each track, filling it to the brim with vocal harmonies, strings and woodwinds. Just beneath the surface of nearly every song, her piano drives the music onward, seeming so distant that it would be nearly forgettable if it didn’t splash up at unexpected moments, grabbing the listener and yanking them back down. And, as we sink, Mering floats with us, serenading, reminding us that even colossal things die eventually. Even so, I can’t see this record disappearing any time soon.