<![CDATA[Cellar Door Music Group - Music Blog]]>Thu, 18 Jan 2018 14:25:36 -0600Weebly<![CDATA[On Location: COOP Showcase @ Tower Theatre, 11/30/17]]>Wed, 10 Jan 2018 06:00:00 GMThttp://cellardoormusicgroup.com/music-blog/on-location-coop-showcase-tower-theatre-113017Article by Evan Jarvicks
Photos by Sean Carr
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Cavern Company performing at November's COOP Showcase
Of the three new mid-level venues in Oklahoma City, Tower Theatre has proven to be the most engaged with the local music scene. From an early open house it held for local musicians to its continued use of local openers for big touring acts, the historic Uptown OKC venue has done impressive work to cater to its music community.

With its COOP Showcase series, Tower doubles down on local talent with support from local brewer COOP Ale Works. The series kicked off in late October with major homegrown talents Junebug Spade, Gum, and The So Help Me's, and it aims to offer similar showcases about once a month.

On November 30th, Cellar Door Music Group's blog team caught one of these showcases, this time featuring Local Man Ruins Everything, Space4Lease, and Cavern Company.
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Local Man Ruins Everything
Opening the night on a high note was Local Man Ruins Everything, a recently formed rock fusion trio consisting only of scene veteran virtuosos. The instrumental band dazzled with technical ability and mind-bending song structures the likes of which one rarely sees outside of metal and jazz music, though those styles do seem to have some part in Local Man’s unique blend.

Slap bass and ride cymbal were peppered throughout as the band jammed with acute precision, ending almost every joint with a surprise, uniform finish. Most noteworthy, perhaps, were the guitar solos, which shredded and had at least one audience member asking, "Are they local??"

Admittedly, an entire set of this can get monotonous to those outside of Local Man Ruins Everything’s niche fanbase. Half of the crowd had devolved into chatter by set’s end. For the rest, though, the band’s repertoire of mood shifts and occasional loop pedals were more than enough to entertain, if not outright blow minds.

The trio expects to release its debut EP soon.
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Space4Lease
Space4Lease went on second, taking a more introspective and atmospheric turn from Local Man’s all-cylinders bare musicianship.

With its trademark piano keyboard front and center atop an antiquated television set, the now five-piece band played songs from 2016's debut, Hiraeth, as well as its 2017 single-series-turned-EP, Drifting. The pianist and lead vocalist grounded the presentation as guitars and drums filled the space of the venue.

Appropriately, reverb from the soundboard and smoke from the stage’s fog machines captured the band’s slow-burn, spacey approach to indie rock music, though in this case, more of both would have been welcome.

Of the three acts, Space4Lease seemed to take the greatest advantage of Tower’s fully-equipped stage. All performers were treated with background moving images, taken from a stock reel of some sort. Space4Lease, however, snuck in a photo of the band’s dog wearing a ball cap, an image which hurtled through some particularly cosmic backgrounds. It captured both the quintet’s performance aesthetic while retaining a down-to-earth personality that many young rock bands rely on for relevancy in the social media age.

Space4Lease also had a great light show. Some of its closing numbers featured big musical builds, and the lighting department made use of blackouts, color palettes, and audience lighting to mirror the band’s dynamic material.

PictureCavern Company
Closing out the night was Cavern Company, an alternative rock trio that has been impressively pushing through the ranks of late. With the most decked out wardrobe of the bunch and a big, handcrafted stage prop, the band came to make an impression. Similarly, its members offered the night’s best stage presence. Taking command of the stage’s entire length, the two guitarists showed off and interacted with each other as well as the audience, working up a sweat and growing audibly short of breath between songs but never during.

Cavern Company appeared to maximize its sound with pre-programmed backing tracks, which freed the band from always needing a live bassist and helped fill the sound beyond the three-piece lineup. On a couple of early occasions, this resulted in an unbalanced, slightly abrasive mix, but the sound team with Tower quickly smoothed out the kinks in time for some of the trio’s biggest numbers from its 2017 EP, Tension.

Though the crowd had mostly thinned out by the end of Cavern Company’s set, a dedicated remaining 25 or so people stood enraptured up front and even got a stripped-down solo encore out of the band’s frontman.


The COOP Showcase music series is a way to see local bands like never before. Most venues available to locals are bar stages that don’t get going until many music fans are in bed, so it’s nice to see a primetime, smoke-free showcase giving homegrown talent the setting it deserves. Given the production value that Tower Theatre affords, the $10 admission is a steal as well.

The next COOP Showcase happens again this week with major hitters Annie Oakley, Special Thumbs, and Kyle Reid offering a combined collection of folk and rock tunes. Be sure to show your support for local music this Friday, January 12, at 7:30 pm, and check out the venue if you haven’t already.
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<![CDATA[Top 20 LPs of 2017: 10-1 (Jarvix's Big 50)]]>Fri, 29 Dec 2017 06:00:00 GMThttp://cellardoormusicgroup.com/music-blog/top-20-lps-of-2017-10-1-jarvixs-big-50by Evan Jarvicks
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For more info about this list, see the Big 50 introduction here

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10. Into the Clouds by Sativa Prophets
There ain't no party like a Sativa Prophets party.

After years of solo projects and guest spots, Oklahoma City's foremost crossover hip-hop collective finally puts out a full-length debut album together, and it's worth the wait. Now a quartet of three emcees and a DJ, Sativa Prophets are practically a supergroup with Huckwheat, Rod Malone, Mars Deli, and Igloo Panda, a core lineup that took a few years to officially lock in. The chemistry at this point is undeniable.

Every member has a distinct personality, and together, they play off each other wonderfully, trading lead and supporting roles in smooth rotation. Producer Igloo Panda even gets a bit of the spotlight on intermission instrumental cut "Inter-Clude".

In terms of lyrical content, the Prophets rely a lot on its cannabis namesake to offer any sort of distinct angle. Fun track concepts like "Bob Ross" offer plenty of winks and nods to the culture thereof. Outside of that angle, most other lyrics don't bring much new to the table, crossing off the usual brags about having money, being the best, and getting all the "bitches", which come off fairly generic on their own merits. What makes all of it work, though, is the on-point execution.

Fun, quality rhymes and stylish delivery come together with catchy beats in such a way that even the album's dated Harambe reference sounds cool. Furthermore, overlying track concepts on cuts like the cleverly produced "X-Files" help save the material when it hits the rare slight misfire. Each track also clocks in under the four minute mark, ensuring that the momentum of the album stays high throughout. Into the Clouds flies by and leaves no opportunity for a moment to grow stale.

The full-throttle energy of the collective's much hyped live shows comes across on the album, but the studio also offers a curated, composed take that really helps every member shine. Together as one, Sativa Prophets are an almighty force of rap music, bringing out the best in each other to elevate the whole crew Into the Clouds.

Recommended tracks: "Hank Moody" / "Cloud Dancer"

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9. Violent Sun by Haniwa
Full of overcast indie rock arrangements and heartfelt melodies, Haniwa's Violent Sun is a remarkable concept album with some of the most dramatic songwriting one is bound to find.

The memorable instrumental performances, dual lead vocals, and catchy songwriting are enough to reward repeat listens, but it's the underpinning substance to the typically reverbed, atmospheric music that ultimately enables it to hold up over time. Haniwa describes the album title as a representation of love as a deconstructed paradox. The sun, see, is a great, glowing energy that provides light and warmth to the world, something that is necessary for life to exist. However, the closer one draws in space to the sun, or the longer one stays out in its UV rays on Earth, the more it becomes something volatile and destructive. Like the sun, love is a beautiful, burning flame, but it burns all the same.

The album title is explicitly mentioned in opener "You Brute", which says, "You grab my cheeks and force me to the sunrise / That violent sun you say is all for me." Beyond that, though, lie repeated references to day and night as well as all of the celestial bodies and weather conditions that populate them. There are multiple poetic mentions of moonlight being a reflection of sunlight, for instance. Furthermore, many of the lyrics echo the album's central paradox. Take the gorgeously empathetic "Tremble and Pulse", which toward the end says, "Violent storm and thunder / Fall on lily white lovers / I'd offer them cover / As a termite in the beams / My love."

The performances on Violent Sun are charged with this tension, full of passion and angst, all balled into one. Electric guitars and keyboards are angelic at times, caught in a bittersweet, introspective lull. At others, though, performances are, while not distorted, as heavy and loud as a heated argument between two lovers refusing to give up on one another.

This blog had the pleasure of debuting "Absolutely", the album's first lead single, earlier this year and said the following:  "Haniwa has dealt with big, emotional ideas before, but on 'Absolutely', the music more than matches this, especially in its grand third verse. The overlapping male/female lead vocals counterpoint each other for a vibrant, imagery-filled moment before finding harmony in one another, building to a powerfully delivered closing line, 'You and I absolutely.' It's a beautiful arrangement that is fittingly bittersweet, at once clamoring for an emotional truth while knowing its ultimate fragility."

On top of all of this, Haniwa has done an impressive job streamlining its tracklist such that every song flows into the next seamlessly. The thought and care that went into this project is not always obvious from a distance, which could see the LP as just another overly dramatic indie pop/rock outing. On closer observation, though, Violent Sun reveals itself to be one of the most passionate, exquisitely crafted, and ambitious records of the year.

Recommended tracks: "Feels" / "Absolutely"

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8. Sophisticated Slabs by L.T.Z.
L.T.Z. is easily one of the most original voices in Oklahoma hip-hop. His lyrics recount down-to-earth life experiences that border on suburban, and his funny, confident personality can't possibly be mistaken for anything other than authentic. In a music scene with hundreds of rappers gunning for the same prize of breakthrough fame, it's nice to see a guy who doesn't fit the mold legitimately creating his own lane and catching recognition that few even consider an option.

The new album from L.T.Z., Sophisticated Slabs, sees the rapper truly giving it everything he's got. Its conceptual framework--his thoughts and stories told through the cars he has owned over the years--is inspired and useful. His continued collaboration with laid back producers Chips and WoRm deliver sample-based beats that are homages to the classics, not copies of current trends. His features and collaborators are high-minded picks that pay off in unexpected but gratifying turns. His hooks are inescapable, his quips are memorable, and his verses are the best he's ever written.

Earlier this year, this blog put out a lengthy, highly critical review of L.T.Z.'s new album, Sophisticated Slabs, at the artist's request. It nitpicked a number of details but ultimately found that its biggest flaw was its unnecessarily long runtime, which is nearly an hour and a half. In retrospect, though, this is not out of line with of a growing trend in music. In hip-hop alone, 2017 saw releases like the triple album Saturation trilogy from Brockhampton and the two-and-a-half-hour behemoth that is Chris Brown's Heartbreak on a Full Moon. If anything, L.T.Z. is simply on the pulse of what's big in music right now, which is apparently to drop huge, impossible-to-miss recordings.

If one can step back from Sophisticated Slabs in all its 20-track glory, it starts to look and sound like a double album, with a more energetic first half and a more laid-back last half. In this context, the new hip-hop album actually works quite well. The aforementioned blog review suggests that the last half is less essential and somewhat beefed up with filler, and that criticism stands, but as a half unto itself that can be enjoyed separately from the first, much of the fatigue evaporates.

L.T.Z. has an established brand and an enthusiastic following, but he's still often seen as the estranged kid brother of OKC hip-hop. That's honestly fine. That's part of his appeal. He doesn't really freestyle or rattle off a hardcore flow. He raps about girl problems and Green Apple Gatorade. He's not out to prove anything that he isn't. What really makes this noteworthy is that this is a time when rap is saturating the pop charts like never before, and audiences who may not be hip-hop heads are tuning in at an unprecedented level. The crossover potential of an outsider artist like L.T.Z. is huge right now.

He has carved out his own niche, trusting himself but still allowing for criticism and room for improvement. In doing so, L.T.Z. has put together his best album yet and possibly one of the more distinguished Oklahoma hip-hop records of the decade. There simply isn't anything like it, and it's worth the time to experience.

Recommended tracks: "Warm It Up (feat. Beetyman and Frank Black)" / "Used Up Depresseuren (feat. Cid & Shraz)"

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7. Names by Judith
Beautifully perfected folk harmonies are the lure, but truly inspired songs are the hook. Judith’s debut album is a revelation of empowering anthems and meditative insights. Though its themes are often heavy, Names is exceptionally approachable thanks to its warm, loving presentation.

With only a guitar, a fiddle or two, and the occasional hand drum or tambourine, the folk/Americana trio brings its intimate stage show to the studio. It might have been fun to hear the group expand its palette on more energetic cuts like "Bound To," but in truth, none of the recordings need elaborating. Each song is thoughtfully and efficiently arranged to provide more dimension than many full band experiences, and it’s all in subtle service of Judith’s sun-kissed vocal work.

Names is an ironic album title, as none of the ladies in Judith are actually named Judith. What this could mean, though, is that knowing a name is not the same as knowing the person or thing that wears that name. Similarly, Names encourages the listener to dwell thoughtfully with its poignantly delivered wisdom on life and love. Some musings are more clever than they at first appear, and others pack a gut punch that takes a minute to sink in.

Judith is a band that has a stronger backbone than plenty of "tough" rock bands out there, and a lot of that comes from a willingness to be vulnerable. Like the tree that bends so as not to break, Judith is accommodating to multiple perspectives but at the end of the day stays rooted in its own.

Few records hit the way Names does. It's empowering but delicate, brutally truthful at times but still endearing. There simply isn't another band that deals in the complicated, sometimes harsh realities of people and situations with such gracefulness as Judith, and that makes the trio's debut one of the most rewarding (and character-building) listens of the year.

Recommended tracks: "Same Boat" / "I Will Love"

Full album stream available at http://whichoneisjudith.com/album/names

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6. If There Were Water by Endless Forms
In the two years since releasing its excellent debut, Lazarus, Tulsan ambient rock act Endless Forms has evolved. Presuming the musical project's name comes from the Charles Darwin quote, that's not merely fitting. It's prophetic.

Compared to its first album, which was conceived as a solo endeavor, If There Were Water is a profound expansion, bringing in new artistic voices as well as a greater breadth of scope. Now a three-piece band with lead vocal duties traded between two members, Endless Forms reaches into the farthest unknowns and deepest recesses of the universe to meditate with the human condition.

If There Were Water is probably the most philosophical record to come out of Oklahoma all year. From the very start, opener "No Genesis" muses, "To live is to learn how to die / To forgive is to grieve," and it only gets headier from there. Thoughts range from disembodied observations of nature to very specific personal conflicts reflected against a sort of primordial mirror. The boundless, poetic lyrics are more than mere fortune cookie wisdom, though some listeners will probably disagree and discount the band as pretentious. That would imply a level of ego that doesn't quite come across on If There Were Water, though. 

Musically, the band allows itself an open-ended sense of time and space, working on deeply considered instincts to craft its ebbs and flows of rich, atmospheric rock music. The tone of the album alone is arresting on its own merits, not unlike great new age and ambient monoliths of the past. In working with a rock band setup and loose song structures, though, the band offers more grounding, more direction to its soft guitar swirls and resonant room effects. Drums, when they do appear, are the most obvious example of this.

Where tracks like "Papering Over an Abyss" are purely instrumental with only a vague chord progression to hold its center, others like "Every Temple Curtain" adhere to a traditional songwriting structure, albeit a softspoken one that floats at the will of the sea of music surrounding it. Focal points like these keep the album from completely drifting beyond its gravitational pull, but they also ensure that nothing on If There Were Water finds easy resolution. As the final line in the aforementioned "Every Temple Curtain" states, "There's freedom out of Egypt, but it's straight into wilderness."

For casual listeners, Endless Forms has provided a brilliant rock album that will make for incredible background workspace music. For those looking for something deeper and more meaningful, though, If There Were Water also offers plenty of food for thought. It's not a work that is necessarily happy or sad, but rather one that rests in a plane of neutrality, seeking to draw all variables back into a point of origin, a point of clarity.

Recommended tracks; "The Next Age" / "Take Me Home"

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5. You Had Me at Goodbye by Samantha Crain
Without a doubt, You Had Me at Goodbye is the bravest album of the year. That may seem a weird notion for a record that taps into a somewhat familiar indie pop sound for a significant part of its runtime, but think about it. The unknown is the singular greatest cause for fear, and besting it requires risk. Samantha Crain took chances like nobody else in 2017 by exiting the safe zone of her wheelhouse and catching a boxcar for the musical wild west with just the clothes on her back.

Known for her acclaimed folk songwriting and vocal gravitas, her work has typically been guitar strumming, brushed drumming, banjo picking affairs. However, on her last album, Under Branch & Thorn & Tree, Crain showed some interest in changing the formula by writing stories from new perspectives and playing with background soundscaping.

If 2015 saw the artist dipping her toes in creative experimentation, 2017 sees her taking the big leap. You Had Me at Goodbye takes so many chances that its own chances are even subverted with chances.

The album opens with highlight "Antiseptic Greeting", which includes little touches like castanets and something resembling a bicycle bell to clue the listener into its air of levity. It's a soft, upbeat number that expresses a self-deprecating insecurity with the dating world and its shallow pool of misunderstandings. Her delivery of the chorus, which says, "You say I can do better, but I don't think I can," laughs along with the subject matter and brings out a tongue-in-cheek element in the pop music arrangement that one simply can't get from traditional folk music.

Other cuts that explore some pop, even electronic sounds, include "Smile When" and lead single "Oh, Dear Louis", the latter of which notably includes violin playing, not fiddles. None of these fit a pop music mold, though. Between Crain's singing style and her unusual choice of rich woodwind instrumentation, even a sing-song outing like "Wise One" gets strange and hard to acclimate to for myopic listeners.

Those woodwinds appear frequently on the album and most strikingly on the latter half of "When the Roses Bloom Again". This stark, drumless track tells a story of young romantic love cut short by the death of wartime, and the woodwind arrangement that comes in completely overtakes what little piano there was in brambles of dissonant notes. It's reminiscent of avant-garde modern classical compositions and experimental beat poetry, and that's something one doesn't expect to say of a Samantha Crain recording. That's not to mention that she doesn't even play her trademark acoustic guitar here, and this track isn't the only case.

On the national scene that Crain has cracked into a few times, only "Red Sky, Blue Mountain" is getting any sort of acclaim. It's a more traditional, organic folk number with the twist of being sung in a Native Choctaw tongue, and it's the one everyone is clamoring to because it is, interestingly enough, the most familiar song on the entire record. Not only does this indicate how different her new album is, but it also shows how hard it can be to make a drastic creative change. Crain took a big risk knowing that the folk community would probably give lukewarm reception to You Had Me at Goodbye, but she did it anyway in pursuit of a richer personal creative fulfillment.

Critically, it has to be said that all of this experimentation results in a somewhat messy album. It doesn't decide to pursue any one direction, so it goes all over the map. The artwork seems to indicate that this is the point, though, and for everything Crain seems to have set out to do, she accomplishes with flying, enthusiastic colors.

You Had Me at Goodbye is a brave, staggering piece of work that, while not for everybody, pushes the boundaries and promises exciting new art in the future from one of Oklahoma's most exciting and now innovative voices, Samantha Crain.

Recommended tracks: "Antiseptic Greeting" / "Loneliest Handsome Man"

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4. The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider by doubleVee
Easily the most topsy-turvy release of the year, The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider reaches into an eclectic bag of musical tricks to concoct strange and delightful songs. Led by alternative pop/rock whims, the album assembles a laundry list of inspired moments that adhere more to a specific creative energy than an outright concept.

Each track has its own oddly curated collection of instruments. "What You Deserve" boasts sweet string sections, whimsical whistling, ukulele, and lighthearted trombone. "Dangerous World" combines sci-fi synthesizers, basic rock drums, funky bass, and tambourine. "Bumper Car Parade" includes upright bass, haunting string voices, smoky trumpet, and minimal honkytonk upright piano. While its array of sounds are remarkably diverse, doubleVee does tend to like its rhythmic acoustic and electric guitars as well as its wacky synths, even though they are frequently in supporting roles.

In spite of the album's unpredictable arrangements, though, the duo's shared lead vocals always sit in the spotlight. They offer performances that are in turn quirky, deadpan, and understatedly melodic, and they rarely cohere to a familiar continuous song structure. Much like the music's potpourri nature, the songwriting can sometimes be fragmented and repurposed at odd angles.

If any of this is reminiscent of an acclaimed indie band called Starlight Mints, that's because they share a creative soul. That former band made waves in the 2000s and garnered descriptions like "immaculately crafted" and "mutant pop", and those also fit doubleVee, which is comprised of Mints lead Allan Vest and his now wife Barb Vest. Allan's Starlight fingerprints are all over The Moonlit Fables of Jack the Rider, though his more recent forays as an outright composer also help shape doubleVee's one-of-a-kind identity.

On that note, it is occasionally apparent to discerning ears that the orchestral elements aren't all from actual instruments, though Allan's equipment does a fabulous job mimicking them. Given how pop-centric much of Jack the Rider is, any artificial shades that may possibly slip through actually fit in perfectly with the otherworldliness of doubleVee's music.

There is simply nothing happening anywhere in the world of music right now that is at the creative level of doubleVee, and it's debut album is not only essential listening to local ears in Oklahoma, but to anyone who considers themselves a steward of experimental pop music.

Recommended tracks: "Jack the Rider" / "Dangerous World"

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3. Undivided Heart & Soul by JD McPherson
When JD McPherson splashed onto the scene with 2010's acclaimed debut, Signs and Signifiers, it was obvious that the Broken Arrow artist knew how to faithfully replicate a roots rock, rockabilly record of a bygone era. It was an incredible effort that somehow managed to studiously capture that sound while not sounding stuffy. For all of its brilliance, though, it posed the danger of McPherson being boxed in the past or typecast as a purely retro act.

While 2015's Let the Good Times Roll made some progress evolving from that record, it's McPherson's third LP that really establishes him as an artist with his own sound and perspective. Undivided Heart & Soul branches out into all sorts of new territory while still staying true to its roots.

McPherson's influences get broader, for starters. While tracks like opener "Desperate Love" and "Bloodhound Rock" are sure to wear his established style in full, others like "Let's Get Out of Here While We're Young" and the title track draw from later decades.

"Lucky Penny" is probably the biggest banger of the bunch with its inventive, buzzy guitar riff supported by swing hand claps, and bouncy bass. For dynamic's sake, the tracklist also includes slower but just as catchy doo-wop styled numbers in  "Hunting for Sugar" and "Jubilee".

What's probably the biggest indicator of McPherson's willingness to explore new territory is the striking "On the Lips", which features a surprisingly laid-back singing style. On most of this album and his repertoire in full, he rocks a distorted vocal emblazoned with rock and roll flash, but this track sees him more delicate and endearing, proving that McPherson could be a great pop singer if he were so inclined. As if the album weren't versatile enough, its nooks and crannies indicate plenty of further untapped potential.

While Signs and Signifiers was quite possibly a perfect record in its meticulous craft, Undivided Heart & Soul is very nearly a perfect one in a different sense. With abundant grooves, incredible performances, a tight tracklist, and fresh melodies, JD McPherson and company strike a flawless balance of new and old that is both artistically progressive and infectiously, endlessly listenable.

Recommended tracks: "Lucky Penny" / "Under the Spell of City Lights"

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2. Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts by Sun Riah
Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts is the sophomore release to Sun Riah's 2015 opus, Firefly Night Light. On that record, the experimental singer-songwriter purged deeply vulnerable emotions into uncompromising, beautifully fractured art. In a sense, it was a purge that made an album like Sitting with Sounds possible.

The new album shares the same methodology, but free of Firefly Night Light's baggage, it turns to a gentler, more universal subject that is more directly relatable without being any less profound.

Over the summer, this blog had the honor of premiering lead single "Grandma's Room and Trains in the Distance" and said the following:  Sun Riah "is known for her dark, mesmerizing harp arrangements, but on 'Grandma’s Room', she lets some light in. The song threads in a soft major key, something she uses sparingly in her work. Spacious, golden reverb fills out the slow-paced, minimal harp arrangement, and it perfectly captures the song's premise.

"With a beautifully sad melody, she reflects lovingly from inside her deceased grandmother's room, combing through leftover items and warm memories. She finds inspiration in these things, but she is also troubled by lost moments and strives to reconnect with a spirit of the past.

"Intimacy is a defining trait of Sun Riah's music, from its meditative creation to its vocal performances, the latter of which draw so close and bare that the listener can make out every breath, click, and pop between words. It makes sense that the woman behind the project, M. Bailey Stephenson, would choose to tackle the big ideas she revealed last year through such a sincere and private lens."

The rest of the album follows a similar path, though some tracks are much more painful than others. Together, these songs seamlessly fade into one another as they explore a home full of memories, space by space. There are remnants of loved ones that linger through the physical spaces to which they tended, but it is the memories that bring those remnants back to life as ghosts of the past, still affecting the present through those who have not forgotten them.

The album's closing track, "Listening for Changes", is a capstone to the project. After all of the lessons and slices of life recounted throughout the album, Sun Riah comes to a stark, inevitable crossroads of having to accept loss. There is a sense of frustrated rebellion laced into the song, a refusal to let go. A repeated line utters that she is "learning to say goodbye", which is one way of saying that she seeks peace in the aftermath, but that it is a long process.

In many ways, Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts is that process. It finds a way to memorialize those held dear so that they are still a part of this world, whether it be through a piece of art or through a way of living that proudly wears their fingerprints. Not all goodbyes have to be disappearances.

Recommended tracks: "Grandma's Room and Trains in the Distance" / "The Cellar"

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1. Big Bad Luv by John Moreland
2017 has been a tense year, and for many, it's been a breaking point of endurance, trust, and hope. Thank God for Big Bad Luv.

There's a subtle nod on the cover art of John Moreland's latest Americana album that prepares for the experience, which isn't quite like any before. The car faces left. In design, right-facing objects tend to be used for a sense of forward momentum and progression. Why, then, would this vehicle face left, causing a subtle dissonance in its viewer? Simply put, it represents change, even a U-turn to some extent, in the perspective of Moreland's new material.

On Big Bad Luv, Moreland hits with the same sky-high bar of emotional songwriting that listeners have come to expect from the Tulsa marvel, but this time around, he's putting some demons behind him and finding a way to trust love. Arguably, his claim to fame has been a penchant for devastatingly downbeat numbers like ""Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore" from 2013's In the Throes and "Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars" from 2015's High on Tulsa Heat to name just a couple. That makes it a big deal when one of music's biggest and heaviest hearts finds some solace at long last.

On much of Big Bad Luv, Moreland relates to his struggles in the past tense, relating to an old self that no longer quite identifies with or believes in hopelessness. With a warm spark of renewed heart and soul, he grows out of his shadows ("No Glory In Regret", "Slow Down Easy"), but keeps them in memory to best appreciate his newfound sunlight ("Sallisaw Blue", "It Don't Suit Me (Like Before)").

The love he finds with the new record is notably rugged in its authenticity, as Moreland's specific poetic choices brilliantly convey. Just one of many such moments comes on "Old Wounds", which has the chorus, "Don't forget to love me in damnation / For the living I have earned on love gone wrong / And we'll open up old wounds in celebration / If we don't bleed, it don't feel like a song."

Musically, it's much the same story as with other releases. There are full band tracks that fluff out Moreland's songs with modest, familiar arrangements, and there are stripped solo tracks that may occasionally have an instrument or two added for accentuation. Where many albums use stripped tracks to add dynamic range and help highlight the big, full band numbers, Moreland's albums do the opposite. The highlights are always his most intimate performances because those are the ones where his songs hit most directly.

The closing track, "Latchkey Kid", is one of these, with only piano and distant organ in the periphery of Moreland's second-nature guitar picking and emotive voice. It ends on a beautiful note that says, "When I look into the mirror, now I see / A man I never knew that I could be," While quaint and almost trite out of context, when one considers this simple image as a moment that entire albums of distress and doubt have been leading toward for years, its pitch-perfect simplicity hits like a ton of bricks. It's one thing to tug the heartstrings with sad songs, but it's quite another to do the same with happy ones.

Big Bad Luv is full of quotable lines and masterful phrasing, but it's all ultimately in service of a personal truth. Right now, for John Moreland, in 2017, that truth resides in the life-changing power of love, for where there is still love, there is always hope.

Recommended tracks: "Love Is Not an Answer" / "No Glory in Regret"
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<![CDATA[Top 20 LPs of 2017: 20-11 (Jarvix's Big 50)]]>Thu, 28 Dec 2017 06:00:00 GMThttp://cellardoormusicgroup.com/music-blog/top-20-lps-of-2017-20-11-jarvixs-big-50by Evan Jarvicks
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For more info about this list, see the Big 50 introduction here.

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20. Eastside Delicacy by Grand National
Grand National’s love letter to Oklahoma City’s Eastside is every bit as smooth and delicious as the dessert on its cover. Leo’s Famous Strawberry-Banana Cake hails from the legendary Leo’s BBQ restaurant, located east of I-235, and it is a blissful experience of flavor, melting into the senses for a momentary slice of levity. So, too, is Eastside Delicacy.

Grand National pairs smooth, saxophone-accentuated beats with smart rhymes to celebrate the highlights of his neighborhood ("Leo’s Cake") while acknowledging its shortcomings ("Black Star").

In the couple of years since his debut, Grand Prix, the local hip-hop staple has improved substantially in the studio. On Eastside Delicacy, his output is less influenced by rap trends and more focused on a sound, a concept, and a narrative bigger than self-promotion.

Features range from up-and-coming R&B singer-songwriter Ellesse to a Jabee and Chris "The God MC" Cain heavyweight double header. Additionally, however, tracks are interspersed with on-location audio clips of everyday conversations had in the Eastside. Altogether, these help embody the album’s communal angle.

On many of the cuts, he makes reference to living the high life while keeping it grounded in the context of the album ("Khufu", "World See Us"). He uses such references to celebrate the people and places of his predominantly black community and essentially asks them to join in his self-confidence in Eastside residency. With exports like Eastside Residency, there is much of which to be proud.

Recommended tracks: "Leo’s Cake" / "Black Star (feat. Ellesse & Kemp)"

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19. Pieces of Schema by Seph(ra)
Pop folk artist Seph(ra) experiments with a DIY spirit that finds creative, exotic uses for common musical tools. Perhaps the most common of these is the human voice, and Seph(ra) uses it abundantly on Pieces of Schema.

Described as an antithesis to a concept album, the 12-track collection hops from song to song, writing from different perspectives and trying on different sonic environments. Many of the tracks eschew traditional drums in favor of found objects or a lack of percussion altogether. Guitar is also refreshingly not relied on. Though other instruments like piano, synthesizer, and ukulele have their moments, the common thread is actually Seph(ra)’s voice.

Putting years of acapella experience to good work, she weaves sweet and well-considered harmonies into lead melodies and background tapestries alike. Even more overt vocal parts like the backing "oh" lines on "Zero" and "Lie" would be played by physical instruments in the hands of most arrangers.

The songwriting is far from cliche as well. Cuts like "Drip Drop" and "Zero" have interesting abstract ideas that many wouldn’t think of as song material, while devastatingly intimate moments like "Come Over" hit with hard words and soft, graceful music.

Others subvert pop cliches. The hand-holding lovebird tune "Paris" says "We both agree it’s not forever / When all our hearts will one day sever." "Love Isn’t" has all the makings of a bubbly ukulele love song, but all of the sweet, cute thoughts that are listed off are said to not really have anything to do with love at all.

On closer "Free", Seph(ra) confesses, "I could never write like that girl who writes love songs for you," and that line quite captures the album’s charm well. Pieces of Schema is anything but a standard quote/unquote quirky indie pop affair. It’s genuinely offbeat, and it wears it with pride.

Recommended tracks: "Zero" / "Love Isn't"


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18. Trials and Truths by Horse Thief
In the days before Horse Thief was a signed act touring the nations of Europe, it was a local Oklahoma City band. At the time, the group's identity felt more like a cobbling together of its indie rock influences and the trending folk music revival of the time. Since then, it feels like the band has been on a constant mission to hew its own indie folk rock perspective out of those influences into a truly signature breed.

Arguably, 2014's Fear in Bliss accomplished that, crafting an atmospheric, neo-rustic sound and producing memorable singles like "Devil" and "Dead Drum". Still, though, the band's artistic identity seemed to be a work in progress.

On Trials and Truths, Horse Thief continues its musical journey, choosing to explore much the same berry patch of sound but with a more discerning pair of landscaping shears. Some of the more overgrown synth keyboard sounds that crept into Fear in Bliss, for instance, are clipped away, and vocals are kept to a more stable mid range.

What this ultimately means is that Trials and Truths is less adventurous than its predecessor. In exchange, it offers a more focused, detail oriented presentation. Take the very delicate "Falling For You", which has a barely audible electronic bass line and peppers its fluid guitar and organ sustains with a sparing piano trickle. Its choices in arrangement tend to be subtle, hoping to affect the listener more in a subconscious way than an obvious one.

The title of Trials and Truths is said to be a reference to the band simply working hard together to overcome bad fortune and industry tensions to continue functioning as a band. It's well-documented that Horse Thief has faced both illness and robbery while on demanding touring schedules. In a similar way, the album seems to be caught up in the gears of its process somewhat, such that the creative light bulb of inspiration flickers rather than flashes.

That said, Horse Thief still delivers a number of great moments on the record, most notably with "Drowsy", "Evil's Rising", and "Another Youth". The songwriting and performances still capture the band's laid-back feel to major ideas and troublesome situations, relying on poignant lyrics to bring out the weariness of its musical arrangements. Some critics have accused the band of being too pleasant, but it's actually the pleasantry that most causes Horse Thief's music to hit the bittersweet nerve that is the very essence of the band's material to date.

Trials and Truths is a reliable installment in the growing Horse Thief repertoire that narrows its focus while still managing to deliver modest melodies and nuanced performances. If the band can just catch a break in the coming album cycle, the level of dedication and finesse shown here could serve a stroke of inspiration very well and give LP number three all the support it needs to truly ignite.

Recommended tracks: "Drowsy" / "Falling for You"

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17. Redneck Nosferatu by Redneck Nosferatu
A furious flurry of murderous ragers await those who enter the horror punk of Redneck Nosferatu. On its self-titled full-length, the band tackles the dark underbelly of human civilization with song titles as gruesome as "Dead Girls" and "Papa Kills Babies".

Don't judge it too harshly by that, though. Redneck Nosferatu is pretty mild compared to the shock value acts that dot the outer recesses of the music scene. Additionally, the album is less gimmicky than the band's name might suggest. The fatal stories seem to represent backwoods killers and victims alike, sometimes with a vengeance and often with an acceptance of hell's condemnation.

Redneck Nosferatu offers plenty to satisfy a punk rock or metal hunger pang with its high-speed assault of drums and harsh three-chord progressions. What really sets the band apart, however, is its vocals. The lead female vocalist snarls and sneers with a scratchy throat and loud projection that absolutely steals the spotlight. She is joined occasionally by a supporting male vocal that matches her punky, devilish delivery beat for beat, and the two work together remarkably well as music flies by in a high-octane race to the finish.

At nine tracks, the LP barely clocks over 20 minutes of material, which isn't atypical of punk music. What's impressive is that the album could have easily gotten away with just drilling home the same sound from track to track, but it still takes the opportunity to explore a couple of different ideas in its tracklist while attention spans are full. "Dead Girls" actually starts with an acoustic guitar and develops into something that often resembles southern rock or outlaw country in some ways. "Stalker" also takes some chances with a more traditional rock style and a fairly sickening back-and-forth narrative between a girl and her stalker.

The mixing is a little rough around the edges, and the vocals tend to be a little too buried. Furthermore, there's a little tidying up to do with the actual distribution of the album. An earlier version has a chilling opening track that is missing on the wider release, and there seem to be two album covers floating around--the one not used here pictures a black feline. If anything, though, this adds to the band's independent, underground integrity.

Redneck Nosferatu is a lightning rod of a punk band that rocks as hard and fast as the best of them. For fans of gnarly, energetic rock music that hits hard without being excessively abrasive, this album is an absolute can't-miss.

Recommended tracks: "Love and a .45" / "Dead Girls"

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16. Big Wheel by Taddy Porter
Taddy Porter are back with 12 new tracks of pure rock 'n roll fire. The band's third LP, Big Wheel, cuts the fat and keeps the frills strictly to showboating guitar solos, a move that seems calculated in response to some fan backlash against 2013's Stay Golden.

A visit to that album's Amazon item page reveals a littering of one-star reviews (as well as a show of how fickle and close-minded some rock audiences can be) that accuse the rock band of going soft. Whether that's a valid criticism or not is debatable, but Taddy Porter correct the ship with Big Wheel, arguably its best album to date.

Big, hearty rock vocals are backed by seriously groovy rhythms and large-and-in-charge guitar riffs. Really nice hooks show up on most of the songs, including the brazen "Tame the Wolf" and the rebellious "Wild Ones", the latter of which has some interesting guitar work that shakes things up in the record's back half.

From cover to cover, the album is a non-stop rock 'n roll party. It only takes a slight break on "California Bound", which briefly indulges in some of the band's maligned indie rock exploration. This, of course, makes it one of the most interesting cuts, but no matter. Within the context of the full record, it serves as more of a dynamic lull, a segue rather than a destination. Even without it, though, the LP wouldn't get old. Taddy Porter has a nice way of keeping the rock energy flowing across different styles without falling into rote monotony.

Much like its name, Taddy Porter's new album doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it sticks to what works and does it exceptionally well. Big Wheel is a fantastic time.

Recommended tracks: "Stone Won't Roll" / "Tame the Wolf"

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15. To Have You Around by Zach Winters
The modern indie-acoustic folk sounds of Zach Winters are as soothing as they are welcoming. On his latest effort, To Have You Around, his soft, alluring voice is accompanied by organic blends of acoustic guitar, piano, strings, and drums played not by drumstick but by brush. Like an artisanal pot of tea for a houseguest, it is warm, stimulating, and hospitable.

Full of lyrics that reference the natural world, the LP is as rich with poetic phrasing as with gorgeous musical arrangements. The second track, for instance, includes the chorus, "And the wind plays across the tall grass in the fields / And the fruit of the orchard how it tugs / And the trees they all know how to dance one together / But as for me, I'm knock-kneed and lead-lunged." Some lyrics are less cryptic than others but are no less poetic on To Have You Around.

Winters' hypnotic and meditative musical wellspring fuels the album, but some cuts find it overflowing into new places. Particularly, the tracks "If the Sun is Shining" and "Love My Woman" are bright, groovy numbers that shake up the tracklist nicely in a surprise turn for the musician.

Many years into his career now--this is his fifth album--Winters has developed a loyal following, largely within the church. His reputation as a Christian artist has certainly served him well, but To Have You Around stands completely on its own merits. In fact, it doesn't come across as a Christian album at all.

Much like the works of presumed influence Sufjan Stevens, any spirituality is implied and can only really be seen under a microscope. His topics on To Have You Around tend to involve love and companionship and are framed in a way to indicate that he's talking about a mortal friend or spouse rather than God. To staunchly religious listeners, this could seem watered down compared to more overtly Christian songwriting of years past, but such would be a narrow view of what inspirational art can be. Additionally, work like this is far less likely to turn off nonbelievers.

All listeners are welcome to have a comforting taste of To Have You Around, which boasts some of the most beautiful soundscaping of any album this year. Winters, who plays no less than 16 instruments on the album yet still collaborates with other musicians, knows his way around an inspired chamber folk swell. By the end of breathtaking closer "Ocean Sunset Motorcycle", it's hard not to feel refreshed.

Recommended tracks: "Everything a Part of Me (Sweet Companion)" / "If the Sun is Shining

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14. Welcome to the Weird Kids' Table by The Big News
Oklahoma's uncontested ska kings of the year knock another record out of the park with Welcome to the Weird Kids' Table, The Big News's sophomore follow-up to last year's Have You Heard?.

Not only is the new album a fun time, but it is also proof that the band has not painted itself into a corner creatively. Where the band's debut was a light-hearted affair with tracks about walking off the job and goofy urban legends, Welcome to the Weird Kids' Table proves that ska has the depth to handle topics as downtrodden as the sting of rejection, the dearth of political decency, and even depression itself. It's counterintuitive to the upbeat genre known for its corny dances and checkerboard fashions, but remarkably, The Big News pulls it off.

The band continues to incorporate elements of punk and garage rock into its sound and keeps arrangements from falling into the cookie cutter traps of routine ska. Furthermore, it blends minor keys into many of the songs without turning them sad or sour, something that can largely be attributed to the enthusiastic performances. The lead vocalist in particular nails the tone of his delivery on tracks like "I Don't Care" and "Something Else", both of which deal with feeling in a rut. The vocals strike a balance between embodying that angst while still being carefree enough about it that the uptempo guitars and horns still make sense with the songs.

"Fell in Love with a Stranger" probably does the best job of pushing the ska genre well beyond its boundaries without losing its roots. On that cut, the singer grapples with the loss of a potential romance but seeks a resolute understanding of the situation, even hammering in a refrain towards the end to remind himself that "A volatile situation can end in a violent conclusion." Again, this isn't the mature songwriting one often expects from fun-loving rascals in a ska band.

There is no shortage of moody contemplations on Welcome to the Weird Kids' Table, but the band insists it wasn't intentional. Like many great artists, The Big News uses music as an extension of itself, collaboratively writing about life as it happens and working to frame it until it feels right.

More than anything, the band just wants to have fun and spread joy through its music, and that comes across in the new album. When faced with adversity, The Big News essentially looks trouble in the face and beats it down with the c'est la vie positivity of music. For listeners looking for some solid ska therapy or even just a good old fashioned rock 'n roll time, Welcome to the Weird Kids' Table is the huge gift in a small, weird, checkered package that keeps on giving.

Recommended tracks: "She Said No!" / "Fell in Love with a Stranger"

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13. Backyard Carnival by The Dirty Little Betty's
Adventurous, laid back, and often whimsical, Backyard Carnival more than lives up to its name. The debut album from recent upstart The Dirty Little Betty's [sic] is a lively collection of songs that find a comfort zone in bluegrass jams but explore beyond to include a myriad of styles. Forays into psychedelic, roots, and even noirish swing music are par for the course within the band’s smorgasbord of flavors.

Led by a versatile vocalist and supported by a sure-handed banjo picker, The Dirty Little Betty's cover a lot of territory in only 11 songs. Premises include: blurry recollections from a topsy-turvy bar outing ("Hilo"); absurd framing devices used to celebrate maternal beverage making ("Sweet Tea"); and perhaps most surprisingly of all, straightforward thoughts on the dynamics of life ("Please Come Home"). From a songwriting vantage, multiple approaches to the craft manifest, telling tales with one breath and musing philosophy with another.

Though this is a debut album, it's clear from the level of musicianship and album intuition here that The Dirty Little Betty's are comprised of seasoned artists. Silly cuts like "Backyard Carnival" and "Sweet Tea" might set a precedent to not take the album too seriously, but it stands up incredibly well under scrutiny.

Take "Parachute", a seemingly inconspicuous track that kicks off with a playful banjo lick. As the song carries on, however, it opens up into a reflective passage that makes one question what the titular parachute might represent. The arrangement also carries a couple of musical turns that smartly capture the song's transformation of perspective, then closes with a third-act instrumental that literally recalls the opening banjo line as the lyrics state "Get back to the place where this all began." Backyard Carnival is full of mid-song progressions like this.

Leave it to The Dirty Little Betty's to make an album that--no lie--makes use of the musical saw on multiple tracks without coming anywhere near the trappings of novelty. From its unforgettable details to its thoughtful musical choices, Backyard Carnival is easily one of the more adventurous album experiences of the year.

Recommended tracks: "Backyard Carnival" / "Sweet Tea"

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12. Mama's Boy by The Lunar Laugh
Repurposed from this blog's full review earlier this year:

From the opening moments of Mama's Boy, which kicks off with its title track, The Lunar Laugh invokes a softie image of sunny melodies and sing-song harmonies. The first lines, however, reveal the album's added dimension when it says, "Mama's boy comin' at you with both arms swingin' / He's gettin' tired of turning the other cheek". Not only does this clue the listener into the darker roots of many of the album's songs, but it also surprises with a self-aware, almost comedic take on itself. The Lunar Laugh knows that it makes straight-laced suburban music that draws inspiration from old-fashioned places, and the band embraces this identity, even going so far as to entrust the entirety of its front cover to a disinterested house cat.

Mama's Boy is the sophomore LP from The Lunar Laugh, following 2015's acclaimed Apollo. Where that album found the lead singer-songwriter often delving into world-minded topics, this one finds him in a more personal, vulnerable place. The music plays into this progression as well, with Mama's Boy less of an exercise in vintage sounds and more tuned to a personal eclectic blend.

The Lunar Laugh's lineup is bigger this time as well. The group is now a trio instead of a duo, and there are many guest musicians in the recordings (one of whom is, in a brilliant move, actor/comedian Lucas Ross on banjo). The core trio is now able to organically hit three-part harmonies, which lends an extra flavor of sweetness to the savory pop/rock affair.

The songs are catchy and upbeat, often with non-verbal melodies a prominent presence. "She Needs More Love" has fun with arranging and layering multiple vocal parts everywhere amidst finger snaps and bouncy drums. "Take A Little Time", by comparison, is a more laid-back listen but is just as bright and busy in its moderate tempo. In addition to non-verbal backing vocals (which run the gamut of ahs, ohs, and doos), this track weaves in quaint mandolin and beautifully fluttering strings. The latter gets a full-fledged solo.

The Lunar Laugh also dips into its more melancholy lyricism on cuts like "Work in Progress" and "A Better Fool". The latter's chorus sings "Is something wrong with me? / Is something wrong with you?", and the forlorn pessimism of its verses include the lines, "You're leavin' me forsaken / This vow was made for breakin'". This is one of the sulkiest songs on the record, yet it remains a breezy listen and is picked up by happier tunes in no time.

Mama's Boy abounds with catchy melodies, moreso even than The Lunar Laugh's last project. The trio traverses many flavors of sound while adhering to a core foundation in the classics of 60's/70's pop and 90's/00's alternative rock. Even with its many influences, though, the band offers a signature sound that is as personal as the stories it tells. Add to that a thoughtful spread of vocal harmonies, and one has a stellar pop record with plenty of replay value.

Recommended tracks: "Work in Progress" / "Nighthawks & Mona Lisa"

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11. Wild Change by Kalo
Bat-or Kalo is probably the best blues rocker in Oklahoma playing today, and that's no small feat. With a smoky, large-as-life voice and a natural proclivity for down and dirty guitar riffs, her swagger is undeniable. As a straightforward rock trio (guitar/bass/drums), Kalo is a full band that showcases the best of these attributes, but no record has ever done the group's live performances justice until this year.

Wild Change is Kalo's best and purest work, truly channeling the energy and skill of its players into a sensational collection of rock and roll numbers. Some hit all the sweet spots with groovy bass lines and feel-good/feel-bad guitar inflections. Others switch up the formula, though, as in the case of the delightful "One Mississippi", which includes hand claps to help it reach crossover single territory. Furthermore "Upside Down" and "Pay to Play" bring in a horn section to lend a classic funk/soul vibe, and "Free" could easily play to the modern country crowd with a bit less distortion and a bit more twang.

For all of its remarkable musicianship, Wild Change never devolves into indulgent jams. Instrumental bridges are common, but they merely tease the trove of fluent solos at the band's disposal. It's the pent up energy in choices like this that keeps the LP charging along, never once losing steam in its efficiently assembled 11 tracks.

Lyrically, the album is often written around an ambivalence towards love, turning its sentiments into big bar-ready choruses on cuts like "Fix" and "Bad Girl". By album's end, however, Kalo takes an intimate turn on stripped closer "Calling All Dreamers", which at last reveals the ounce of hope that implicitly brings such an engaging dynamic to the album's more raucous material.

With electrifying performances and some of the band's best material to date, Wild Change is simply a great rock record and easily one of the best of the year.

Recommended tracks: "One Mississippi" / "Upside Down"
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<![CDATA[Top 20 EPs of 2017: 10-1 (Jarvix's Big 50)]]>Wed, 27 Dec 2017 06:00:00 GMThttp://cellardoormusicgroup.com/music-blog/top-20-eps-of-2017-10-1-jarvixs-big-50by Evan Jarvicks
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For info about this list, see the Big 50 introduction here.

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10. Jose Hernandez and the Black Magic Waters by Jose Hernandez and the Black Magic Waters
Jose Hernandez is one of the rawest performers around town, especially when he powers over a room with nothing but his booming, earthy voice and trusty guitar. His songs are profoundly personal and direct, excavating poetry from pain with a plainspoken demeanor and an introspective weight. This was what made his debut demo tape, Glory, so magnetic in spite of its obvious lo-fi sound quality.

On his proper self-titled studio EP, though, his music takes a turn. Jose Hernandez and The Black Magic Waters sees the singer-songwriter working with a full band to breathe a more atmospheric life to his material. The downside is that the grizzly, diamond-in-the-rough quality of his prior recording is mostly polished away, but in its place is a more clean-shaven Hernandez with a voice as bold as ever and a special spark of musical identity that has been missing until now.

The full band treatment offers pleasing vocal harmonies and an organic collection of guitars, keys, and drums to embellish Hernandez's meat-and-potatoes acoustic guitar strumming. "Kids", for instance, offers simmering organ, emotional guitar solos, and splashes of cymbals to represent the turmoil of its pleading chorus, which rhetorically asks "Aren't we just kids trying to make our way in this world?"

The new EP includes some of Hernandez's best songwriting, especially with cuts like the upbeat but subtly tragic opener, "Good Times". "Searching and Waiting" may hold some of his most beautiful melodies to date. Still missing, though, is a live show staple that has yet to get a recording called "You Say You Want Me". It's arguably his best and most signature of songs in his repertoire, and its continued omission indicates that Hernandez will have to have more studio material in the future so fans can finally take the song home with them.

Until then, though, Jose Hernandez and The Black Magic Waters is a stellar effort that captures strong performances and shines a new light on Hernandez's songwriting.

Recommended track: "Hey Man"

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9. Fugue State by Limp Wizurdz
Norman garage punk rock band Limp Wizurdz have been together for over half a decade, and in punk years, that's practically a marriage past its honeymoon stage. The high-energy musicians have gotten pretty goofy on past releases, but their new release has them putting out their most mature material to date. That isn't to say the band doesn't still have fun with it, however.

Fugue State uses the band's aesthetic, which is naturally rough around the edges, to channel a dysphoric, often existential tone. Opening tracks "Cough!" and "Bike Messenger" drop lines like "Some things you can't change," "I'm pent up with bad intentions," and "The days drag, the years pass." Little pockets in the recording keep a fringe of levity to these proceedings, though. A one-second ukulele solo sits in the first track, a literal fart caps off the last one, and amusing personal audio snippets sneak in here and there throughout.

The ill feelings of Fugue State are triggered by topics that range from crappy office jobs ("Staple Gun") to daddy issues ("Cankicker"). So much of the album is relatable that even its instrumental number, "Nervous Tick", has a lot to say. In this context, the kitschy sci-fi artwork takes on a new light, where impending doom, childhood, and future remnants of today's past all tug at the thread of mortality.

Musically, this is some of the band's best studio work. The bustling energy of its guitars, bass, and drums carry the band's angular, throttling live sound remarkably well, especially when amped up to 11 on the stereo. That's good news for a band that likes to tour as much as Limp Wizurdz do. The lead vocals are rough and dirty, concerned more with conveying raw power than refined pitch while still remaining decipherable for the recordings. Together, the band members lock into a great chemistry, and that's no surprise given their time together.

Fugue State keeps its riffs and melodies interesting, so when the album wraps after seven tracks, it's easy to hit play again. Considering the introspective depth to these lyrics, that makes for an especially welcome attribute. From garage rock heads to Millennials going through a quarter-life crisis, a variety of listeners can take something away from Fugue State. Limp Wizurdz have done something pretty remarkable with an album that still keeps its party-punk cred, and that's what makes it the best Oklahoma punk release of the year.

Recommended track: "Staple Gun"

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8. Clandestine Labs by Sparkpluig
Dazzling with experimentation, Clandestine Labs seems an unlikely place to find some of the best pop tunage of the year, and yet.

There's something vibrant and otherworldly about this music, which hails from a one-man project called Sparkpluig out of the Tulsa area. Warped out synths and hand-style percussion abound to such an extent that when guitars make their entrance and indulge in some sense of normalcy, it's a little jarring. Not to worry, though, as one can expect these brief moments will be shortly eaten over by more weird sounds and enthusiastic hand claps.

The tempos on most of the EPs six tracks are just a tad faster than usual, which in itself lends to a frenetic energy out of the gate. While it catches its breath by the time closer "Goodnight Soundpony" rolls through, it takes an exhilarating detour to get there.

From the start, "Number Yourself (208 & 209)" sets a rambunctious tone with fluorescent synth tones, DIY percussion, and rich layers of nonverbal vocals, some of which are pitch-shifted into other musical dimensions. With the exception of this track and "Crimes Solved", though, Clandestine Labs goes over and above to include lyrics. There is already so much going on that a release such as this would be noteworthy for its backing music alone. Heck, even its tasteful and frequent use of cowbell is noteworthy.

With catchy numbers like "This Song Is Sung" and "Coming Around Again", Sparkpluig bridges his weird worlds into a more accessible context, using fairly simple songwriting to engage listeners. A refrain of "That's what we're gonna say / That's what we're gonna do" closes out the latter of those two songs, for instance.

Sparkpluig shows his cards a bit too much on "The Faintest Glow", which immediately outs the artist as a fan of Animal Collective. Once that influence is revealed, Clandestine Labs suddenly gets a hair more derivative than it might otherwise seem. Still, though, that is high praise. If Animal Collective were so easily copied, the indie music landscape of today would be drastically different. And to be sure, there are a number of other comparisons that can theoretically be made to Clandestine Labs. "Coming Around Again" recalls Paul Simon, for example.

Even with its eclectic influences, Clandestine Labs is a bright, infectious ball of energy that can't help but make Sparkpluig out to be a true original, a crusader on the path of experimental pop music. So far, his efforts are impeccable. If music could be a confetti cannon that doesn't need to be cleaned up between each use, it would be Clandestine Labs.

Recommended track: "This Song Is Sung"

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7. The Ron Jeremy Tape by Knoble Savage
On a technical level, Knoble Savage (stylized "KNOble") is one of the best rap lyricists around. His rhymes are clever, constant, and creative. He pairs them with unapologetic, oft profane hot takes that range from hyperbole to outright troublemaking. Furthermore, he knows how to dodge cliches and draws from unexpected influences, as in the case of two singles he released this year that reference rock experimentalist Frank Zappa and pro wrestler Ric Flair respectively.

From the very start, The Ron Jeremy Tape lets you know it keeps a self-aware sense of humor in spite of its occasional brashness. The two tracks that credit Ron Jeremy do actually feature the legendary porn star, but they are rough audio clips of him awkwardly endorsing Knoble Savage, clearly with no real knowledge of the hip-hop artist. The clips are cut awkwardly, too, ensuring that everybody is in on the gag.

While the mixtape does like to play games, it has plenty to offer beyond the Ron Jeremy gimmick, though not necessarily for sensitive listeners. On blast from start to finish, Savage indulges in verbal boasts and attacks on cuts like "Luger" and "Unfinished, 42" that show no mercy to his rivals. The latter ends on a dark line that says, "I hope your mama dies so you can write a dope verse," for instance.

He also brings in a few choice feature verses from ZuneAfish, Clark Rooseveltte, and Sativa Prophets’ Huckwheat, all of whom prove to be exceptional writers and performers in their own right. Savage could have probably used a singer or two, though, as his own vocals are merely serviceable on the few moments where he chooses to sing. This approach worked better on his 2014 release, Carcosa, when the subject matter was more personal and vulnerable, whereas here it feels a bit like wasted potential.

Any discussion of The Ron Jeremy Tape would be remiss to not mention the beat-making. Producer Sardashhh delivers exceptional work that elevates the project to new heights. From the stylishly gritty "Flawless Victory" to the talkbox sample of "Faberge" to the soulful and breezy "Life, Money", he flexes a range beyond the already diverse electronic musings of his solo albums.

The Ron Jeremy Tape fires on all cylinders and stays relentless from start to finish. Perhaps most importantly, though, Ron Jeremy says you should listen to it, so what are you waiting for?

Recommended track: "Flawless Victory"

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6. The Shelter People EP by The Shelter People
Psychedelic rock is one of many umbrella genre terms, but at its core is a 60s and 70s mentality of acid tripping through music. Since then, the label has been slapped even on music that barely has any rock in it. This is where The Shelter People come in.

Arguably, the band makes psychedelic rock at its purest form by bringing the genre back to its roots. Though the trio behind The Shelter People don't specifically identify with the label itself, it's hard not to apply the term. The band's love of vintage sounds and styles are congruous with the movement, and the music is full of distorted vocals, trippy guitar solos, and great rhythm section grooves. One could be forgiven for assuming the EP is a relic from decades ago getting a remastered vinyl reissue, but no, this is new music from the year 2017.

The four-track release is a staggering tent-pole for Tulsa rock 'n roll. The band's mission to bring back rock is not unlike many waves and attempts before, but The Shelter People EP makes a fine rallying cry. The youthful fire that ignites every cut of the new EP is invigorating. If that weren't enough to inspire hope in Oklahoma's new generation of music makers, perhaps the band's name can do the trick. The Shelter People is a Leon Russell reference, from the late Okie legend's second solo album. Word is that he personally gave the band his blessing to use the name before his death.

From the slide guitar that sneaks into the tail of "Too Many Days Have Gone By" to the opening solo of "Going Back Home", the EP also proves to have some blues cred. The latter of these examples is the closing track, and it carries that blues element into an epic rock 'n roll arrangement that goes for nearly eight minutes. Between vocal interjections and a series of solos, the track stays interesting and justifies its runtime, especially when viewed through a psychedelic lens.

With its debut, though not wholly original, The Shelter People have proven to be well-learned pupils of rock music's storied history, and Oklahoma would do well to take note of the movement they're trying to spark.

Recommended track: "What It Means to Love"

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5. Vernacular Songs by Brad Fielder
The roots of folk music are collared blue, and few seem to retain that notion as well as Brad Fielder. In a present day where folk is an umbrella term for every twentysomething singer-songwriter with a beard, it's refreshing to still see a guy like Fielder rambling about town wearing a cap that presumably did not cost $45 at a hipster boutique for its fashionable fade and tear.

On the aptly titled Vernacular Songs, he yodels through six new socially conscious tunes that speak for the weary and the oppressed. In keeping with his lo-fi approach to recording, the EP is strictly a voice and guitar affair, but the steam rising off of Fielder's songwriting grabs more attention than a full band sound would. These are the most outspoken, thinly-veiled writings in his repertoire.

Like the folk legends before him, Fielder recognizes that when the common people are pitted against one another, the powers that be retain control, and he squares his lyrical sights on the latter. On "Theocratic States of America", he remarks that "While the war machine just rambles, education is in shambles / They make expensive gambles with our luck."

Some songs are subtler about their political stances. "The Brick and the Broom" is a stellar opener, invoking waves of symbolism to recount the many controversial conflicts of today. Though his phrasing tends to give away his personal stance, he seeks unity from both sides that can only be found when a serious, open-minded dialogue is had.

Every song is a highlight, from procedural everyman tale "This is the Hand" to the Trump affected "New Landlord of Hooverville" to "Talkin' Eyeballs on the Ceiling", which closes the album with the lost art of talking blues.

Vernacular Songs displays timeless song structures and smart lyricism that handles protest songwriting with more class and humility than many hamfisted attempts in popular music over the past few years. Brad Fielder's affable presence in the record is key to this, and none of it is for show. Like many in the great tradition of folk music, he's the genuine article.

Recommended track: "The Brick and the Broom"

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4. Mike Dee & Stone Trio by Mike Dee & Stone Trio
New live hip-hop bands seem to be sprouting up everywhere of late, and that's a welcome development. While they can't capture the essence of a highly produced hip-hop beat cooked up in a music program, they offer something else. The spontaneity and in-the-moment energy of a live performance is a perfect match for a full-throttle emcee, and that's what Stone Trio provides for Mike Dee.

On the group's self-titled EP, Mike Dee & Stone Trio opts to record live, and it's a smart choice. Dee gives an extremely passionate performance from start to finish, hurling fiery verses over the mic with technical know-how and a fuel reserve of emotion. Accompanying are a collection of bass, guitar, drums, and saxophone. In particular, the sax and bass conspire to build a smoky, jazzy atmosphere that brings out a dusky noir quality in Dee's hip-hop material.

The album makes no qualms about its subject matter, which tends to be politically conscious. The first track, "Try Not to Fail", begins with an audio clip about Trayvon Martin that essentially says Black Lives Matter. Then Dee leaps into a lamentation about police brutality, pleading "Give them a chance to be more." The recording goes on to climax in a verbal gunshot as the audio clip returns to credit fear as the crux of the issue.

When it isn't specifically railing against race relations, the EP tackles a number of topics ranging from music scene drama to unrealistic beauty standards. They all tend to come back to a common thread of oppression, though. "Ain't Shit" interjects some defensive hip-hop braggadocio, but even it finds its way to the lines, "Supposed to be all for one and one for all / Rather than rise together, they want to see us fall." Moments like the list of marginalized labels in "Hand It Ova" further emphasize that the struggle is more shared than it's often portrayed to be.

The musical dynamics do wonders to drive these points home. Stone Trio delivers some seriously intoxicating grooves that organically build and dissipate with Mike Dee's words, even having the restraint to drop out entirely for some powerful spoken word at the end of "Ain't Shit".

Mike Dee & Stone Trio is a stellar, powerful outing that boasts a unique chemistry of hip-hop, funk, and jazz. For even the most casual fans of those genres, this EP is a must listen.

Recommended track: "Try Not to Fail"

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3. Valencia by Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards
Precisely one lead piano and two trumpets away from a traditional rock lineup, Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards create a kind of rock music that crosses over into a number of styles. It is hard to outright label, and yet it sounds so distinct, so preconceived, that a specific genre tag seems necessary.

That's not to say that the band is out of left field, as many of its traits can be traced. The vocal/lyrical swagger are reminiscent of the emo-alternative phase of the 2000s, while its piano and trumpet flair are similar to many soloists working the contemporary vocal pop circuit. Meanwhile, the rock core of the band is not unlike many indie rock bands of today, and the occasional inclusion of orchestral instruments even has a chamber pop ring to it.

What Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards do so well is blend all of these elements into a particular, signature sound that is wholly accessible. With the right melodic hook and the right opportunities, it could go mainstream.

At least, that's the story with Valencia, the band's debut EP. The Bastards are still a young act that could take many turns from here, but the confidence and sophistication on display here already show much promise. Johnny Manchild and company know what they're doing. All of the choices on Valencia, be it the seamless track segues or the choice use of guitar, sound carefully composed.

The lead vocals do a lot to push the band in the rock direction it ultimately feels most at home in. This blog covered lead single "Annie" earlier this year and said of Manchild, "His notes are clean and precise, but his inflections channel a fiery angst that comes straight from his passionate gut. When combined with his dynamic piano playing, it's hard not to get roped into his state of lament as he painfully wails 'Forgive me' over the closing fanfare of 'Annie'."

Valencia sounds like a young band not only looking to take on the world, but ready to do it. The skills, the talent, the image, and the branding are all there, waiting for the right talent scout to find. Johnny Manchild is said to already be writing for a full-length album, so there's that to look forward to. Until then, though, Valencia is not one to be looked over.

Recommended track: "Annie"

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2. EP by Labrys
Simply titled EP, the new EP from Labrys is a seven-track trip down a nocturnal indie rock rabbit hole. Like its occult-like cover art, the album comes from a place hidden, mysterious, and maybe a little dangerous. For those interested in visiting this secluded place, EP is a near perfect experience, at once haunting, barbed, and beautiful. It won't show anyone the way back out of the woods, though, as its home lies within them.

Full of stark atmospherics, distorted guitars, and moody vocals, the moderately tempoed album tosses and turns in a deep, personal sphere of introspection. The songs deal with the messiness and mistakes of interpersonal relations, but rather than look down from some moral standpoint, Labrys seeks to understand them eye to eye. She avoids going straight for the blames and apologies, allowing herself and others the grace to be imperfect, though moreso the former, as this album is largely a self-reflection.

Practically, too, it's more efficient for Labrys to simply know how to move forward and avoid such messes in the future. At multiple points in the album, Labrys makes reference to how human drama just takes time and energy from more productive endeavors. Thoughts like these may seem cold to some, and it's precisely why her music comes with edges and brambles meant to turn away the closeminded. Again, the artwork is relevant here.

Two of the tracks, "Wicked One" and "Went Sour", were released on a cassette last year, but they are given new recordings on EP. "Went Sour" in particular is much more engaging, replacing some of last year's sulking with a catchy angst that makes it one of the best cuts on the new record. All other tracks are brand new, including excellent lead single "Bitch in a Band", the lyrics of which preempt the volatility of romantic sparks by cutting them at the quick. Labrys's delivery here--and on every recording--is appropriately downbeat, like a cynic that maybe secretly wishes love weren't a cruel illusion, but alas.

None of this takes into account just how much EP rocks when it wants to. When Labrys gets fired up on "Bitch in a Band" and especially on "Wicked One", the EP makes for some of the best local rock of the year. Most of the time, though, it swims in its moody arrangements, which are composed and mixed with excellence.

When the album wraps on "Cold Water", it's apparent that the EP is not just a work of fierce independence, but also one of vulnerability, however cryptic it may sometimes be. Labrys is uncompromising and unapologetic in her art, yet when one is tuned into the perspective of EP, it becomes one of the most emotional and utterly human records of the year.

Recommended track: "Bitch in a Band"

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1. Para Ti by Lincka
Though it’s tempting to call the innovate latin pop of Lincka a melting pot, it’s more accurate to consider it a cultural collage. Its influences are far and wide, blending everything from electronic to rock to worldbeat styles of music. Instead of cooking it down to a homogeneous broth, though, the band creates an eargasmic stew with different flavors in each sound bite. Such music is greater than the sum of its ingredients, and it’s no mistake that the same can be said of diversity itself.

Para Ti is the follow up to Lincka’s 2015 debut, No Shoes EP, and it displays the band in a more vibrant light than ever before. Combining bright, breezy electric guitar parts and colorful sampling, the new EP’s arrangements integrate live performance with DJ-style chopping and remixing to create an energetic hybrid texture. Producer and band member Rat Fink further blurs these lines when he tinkers with the band’s instrumental and vocal recorded parts in post-production. He warps, clips, duplicates, and adjusts moments at will to help craft Lincka’s unique sound palette.

The fresh and exhilarating flavors of Para Ti have been steadily gaining enthusiastic notice in English-speaking circles, and that’s a big deal given the EP’s bilingual lyrics. Lincka Elizondo, the lead singer, songwriter, and namesake of Lincka, embroiders messages into her songs that celebrate Latino culture while taking to task those who seek to smear it. Her unique voice and position as a bilingual pop singer helps bridge the cultural gap through music.

The first and best cut of the three-track EP is "Gardenias", which brings the very dynamic of Lincka’s songwriting front and center. Sung mostly in Spanish, the lyrics take occasional breaks to drop English lines like "Can you hear me alright?" and "I’ll let you Google translate it". By teasing the primary lyrics of the song, Lincka encourages English-speaking listeners to actively partake in crossing the language barrier to better understand the culture she represents. It’s a clever and functional use of music that’s rarely pursued or achieved.

Para Ti is a remarkable work that accomplishes more in its brief 11 minutes than many full albums by adhering to a unique sound and stuffing it to the brim with bells and whistles that can take additional listens to catch. It’s perfect for dancing and relaxation alike, and its artistic perspective is undeniably original, not to mention purposeful. In the Oklahoma music scene, Lincka’s output is absolutely unparalleled, and it holds promise not only for the band, but for the cultural future as a whole.

Recommended track: "Gardenias"
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