Following a harrowing investigative piece on the New York Times back in May, officials in New York have finally implemented new laws following a long period of investigation into the conditions of its 2000+ nail and beauty salons across the city.
The hugely shared article describes some salon workers earning just $30 (£20) per day – if they were paid at all – as well as enduring physical abuse, and living in flophouse-style apartments crammed with bunkbeds for other workers. One…read more »
The world of editions is gaining constant speed as the objects, prints and ephemera around art making becomes ever transitory. Vinyl is one art medium that is seeing a strong return. These are ten of the most interesting recent releases to grab.
JEREMY SHAW VARIATION FQ
When Shaw released his film work Variation FQ, inspired by the stylised monochrome 1960s aesthetic of Norman McClaren and featuring the exceptional vogue star Leiomy Maldonado,…read more »
Amir Alexander is 42 years old, and Love & Fear is his debut album. A former Army brat who eventually settled in Chicago, Alexander has been DJing since 1993 and making music for nearly as long, but he only began releasing records around 2008. In that light, the cover image of a mountain climber scaling a snowy peak at a 45-degree angle has a slight autobiographical tinge: In electronic music, full-lengths always tend to constitute milestones, but for an artist like Alexander, who has made his name later than many, there's a palpable sense of raised stakes.
Appropriate for someone with such a deep and abiding investment in a scene, Alexander uses Love & Fear to contend with the legacy of American techno. Any attempt to extend that legacy raises questions: How do you evoke a classic sound when innovation was central to that tradition? Can you pay tribute to your roots without the music withering on the vine? Making do with the same sorts of synthesizers and drum machines that have dominated dance music for the past quarter-century, his response is to worry less about novel sound design and focus on his machines'—and his own—expressive capabilities.
One way he does that is to explore a far wider range of tempos than most. "A Virtuous Woman!" treads a strange, slow-motion path, stepping and strutting, as a scaly bassline ties itself up in writhing knots, and atonal bleeps suggest the ghost of Kraftwerk's "Numbers". The title track is even slower, with a stately synthesizer melody that braids itself around snapping, deliberate hi-hats and rimshots. Even sitting in your chair, you can tell that it's a track made for dancers, an invitation to move the body in different ways. "The Blues (Never Had)", even slower, offers the opportunity to get horizontal: smeared in jazzy chords, pitch-bent keyboard solos, and meandering vocals, it's a narcotic funk number, while "Tranquility Base!" dials up the tempo to footwork's high-flying range. It's woozier than most footwork, though, with tightly syncopated rimshots banging like a screen door in a storm, and hi-hats spinning like a wheel that can't get traction. "That's how I feel inside," sings a doleful voice, as chilly Juno pads voice even chillier chords, buzzing and bracing as an ice-cream headache. The only tranquility here is an overarching sense of numbness.
He also experiments with instrumentation—"A Child Is Born" pairs the chimes of '90s electronica with the fat, rich tones of a church organ—and with themes not often represented in techno. In "Nordisk Saga!", he looks north for inspiration and overlays his moody synths and sparse drums with a dramatic reading of a Nordic saga, all crisp consonants and alien-sounding vowels and rolled "R"s, and references to Freyja and Ragnarok. He presumably got the idea from his time in Malmö, where he lives for part of the year. But given how often white European producers have appropriated African-Americans' voices—all those tracks made with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, for instance—Alexander's Scandinavian gambit also amounts to a clever turning of the tables.
But at the root of Alexander's music is a simple knack for what makes sounds come alive, both on the dance floor and off. The three relatively straight-down-the-middle techno/house cuts here are among the most immediate, attention-grabbing work he's produced yet, although none of them quite nail the spooky transcendence of 2013's "Don't Go". In "Tight Situations", carefully deployed dissonance sends chills down the spine, and he shows off his arranger's chops with counterpoints that sneakily keep evolving. "Moist Flesh!" is a warm bath of swelling pads and playful plucked leads. And the crowning glory of it all is "Komm, süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh!", which takes its title from one of Bach's 69 Sacred Songs and Arias. The bassline takes the form of a gnarled, shape-shifting throb; the background swirls with metallic chirps; and as the track patiently unfolds, it gives way to a wild, psychedelic cadenza reminiscent of one of Prince's guitar solos. "Come sweet death, come blessed rest," is the translation of the title, and the song's graceful chord changes echo the sentiment, faintly. But that solo tells another story; there's too much struggle in Alexander to stop here. That peak on the album cover will be scaled, come hell or high water.
These are a few of the 150-plus people killed by gun violence in Chicago so far in 2015. All of these names (and the ones I don’t have the space to list) are important, but for 22-year-old Durk "Lil Durk" Banks the last name hits incredibly close to home. Agina (better known as OTF Chino) was Durk’s manager, a confidante who was, in a cruel sense of irony, murdered after meeting with Bulls player Joakim Noah in an attempt to partner Durk with the latter’s anti-violence organization. It’s doubly frustrating given Durk’s affiliation with French Montana’s Coke Boys imprint, which recently suffered the loss of rising member Chinx Drugz. Durk’s first studio album (he’s released 5 mixtapes overall) since signing to Def Jam back during the Great Chicago Rap Gold Rush a few years back, Remember My Name, is a project that has the spectre of death looming over it at all times.
A common criticism of Durk’s music revolves around his near-total dependency on Auto-Tune. He’s aware of the charge, addressing it on "What Your Life Like". The software is Durk’s friend when he adopts a singing delivery, like on single "Like Me". The tune showcases Durk (and featured crooner/fellow Chicagoan Jeremih) in his lane fully, producing a smooth entry into the pantheon of Sensitive Thug jams. Other times, like on the absolutely grating "Tryna' Tryna'" or when he tries to feebly hit high notes during the chorus on, uh, "Higher" it can be his worst enemy. Luckily, the highs outweigh the lows. It’s apparent after a few listens that Durk is only getting better, from both a rapping and writing perspective. He’s definitely grown from his earlier mixtapes (he sounds like a different person entirely than the one who once rapped "Yo' bitch know she doin' dick, we call that ho double D." Growth! Progression! Artist Development!).
It’s apparent that Durk has a solid ear for production and a nascent ability to craft songs that get caught in your ear. The C-Sick-produced opener "500 Homicides" is a thunderous intro that finds Durk viciously addressing enemies, shouting out his affiliates and reminding folks that there are repercussions of your online actions. "What’s up with this Twitter beef?/ Thought we was keeping in the streets?.../ Hell yeah, you can die over a retweet!"
Remember My Name as an album isn’t going to change lives. It is, however, a view into the psyche of those who reframe the concept of death as a way of life, a cost of doing business, or even a source of motivation to create a better life for yourself and those you care about. On the album standout "What Your Life Like", Durk laments, "They say the murder started after L’s/ Now my phone got shit to tell... /Got that call, they cancelled 20 shows/ That's money down the drain/ I got kids, don't take it wrong."
The moment underlines a curious tension for Durk and the other artists. in his orbit. The culture of the neighborhoods that produced Durk, his OTF (Only The Family) affiliates and the rest of the various artists who find their sounds lazily lumped together under the name "drill music" find themselves in a weird catch-22. You rap about the stuff you’re seeing (and participating in, for some) and you’re rewarded with money, fame and the opportunity to make your life better. At the same time, you’re branded as "trouble" by promoters, your profile is raised among the police and old enemies, and you’re forced to go on the defensive. The thing that might make your life better might be the same thing that ends up killing you. What in the hell are you supposed to do? On Remember My Name, Durk chooses to keep on keepin’ on.
Shangaan Electro is the sort of genre that you’d assume cultural imperialism would have long ago rendered obsolete: a quirky, hyperlocal sound that’s nothing much like anything else around it or before it. You can attribute its singular nature to the fact it’s, in large part, the creation of one man—Richard Mthethwa, aka Nozinja. A large, avuncular businessman who formerly ran a successful mobile phone repair store in South Africa’s poor, rural Limpopo province, as the story goes, Nozinja heard the lackluster music that was being made by his peers, and spied an opportunity.
An electronic, MIDI-powered take on local Shangaan folk traditions, kwaito, and South African house, Nozinja’s productions—which have been the engine of a number of artists and groups, including Tshetsha Boys, B.B.C., and Zinja Hlungwani—sit somewhere between the naïve and the visionary: catchy constructions of synthesized flute and marimba, dotty drum machine, and soulful romantic entreaties dialed up to the speed of an agitated hummingbird. Even in South Africa, Shangaan Electro appears to have been relatively obscure, a localized hick sound made for communities, not clubs. But thanks to the support of the Brooklyn documentarian Wills Glasspiegel, Shangaan Electro found its way out of South Africa in 2010, with releases on the London-based Honest Jon's label, remixes from respected producers such as DJ Rashad and Ricardo Villalobos, and Nozinja helming a travelling Shangaan Electro roadshow, performing with Shangaan dancers: men in clown masks and bright orange jumpsuits, women shaking their rumps in big floaty dresses.
Nozinja’s leap to a label such as Warp Records feels significant. No mere documentarians, Warp feels like a proper artist’s stable, and as such it’s intriguing to see how Nozinja Lodge might advance its maker’s vision. The initial impression is, by modicum. The sound is slightly more polished—although that might largely be the consequence of a good mastering job—while keyboards add a bit of body, lending a reggae skank to "Baby Do U Feel Me", and lacing plaintive descending melodies amongst the freeform snare eruptions of "Xihukwani".
If Nozinja Lodge proves anything, it’s that Shangaan Electro’s sense of twitchy acceleration remains fundamental. Playing live, Nozinja gradually tweaks his music faster and faster, introducing each lift in tempo with the booming gusto of a carnival master. Much like footwork, you get the impression his music evolved to cater to the demands of athletic dancing bodies. Consequently, it makes a certain sense that attempts here to temper Shangaan Electro’s frenetic pace don’t always come off. "Mitshetsho We Zindaba", a 120BPM bounce, holds its own thanks to a bright palette of bendy keyboards and the hearty call-and-response of a female Shangaan choir. By contrast, album closer "Wo Va Jaha", plodding along at ballad tempo, feels somewhat ordinary by comparison. Broadly, Nozinja Lodge’s finest moments—the spry, insistent "Tsekeleke", the frenetic pointillism of "N'wanga I Jesu"—adhere pretty closely to their maker’s celebrated original 180BPM template.
That Shangaan Electro has made waves outside of South Africa feels to be a lot to do with its weird collision of signifiers: lo-fi electronic sounds that Western listeners might consider tacky or tinpot, fused to an African singing style that speaks of love, yearning, and other matters of the heart with earnest sincerity. Post-Diplo, the modern DJ set can feel like a finger smeared across borders, cultural forms dissolved into beige global mulch. But unlike, say, footwork, Nozinja’s music defies such easy assimilation. Almost devoid of low-end, and presented with a sunny spirit generally incompatible with gangsta posturing, it’s a sound that—in unremixed form, at least—amiably refuses to be absorbed.
Consequently, it remains hard to determine Shangaan Electro’s significance to dance music at large. Who could copy it, without sounding absurd? Of course, in the context of Nozinja Lodge as a self-contained "artist" album, all that hardly matters. Instead, it serves as a reminder we should treasure these rare outliers wherever we find them.
Josh Martin seems more stunned by the success of Daughn Gibson than most anyone else. In 2012, Martin—the former drummer of a knotty blues-metal band and a big-rig driver to boot—released All Hell, his debut LP under a name just one fancy vowel sound removed from revered country crooner Don Gibson. All Hell arrived as an uncanny wonder, with Martin’s gorgeous and mysterious baritone presiding over an ad hoc band built of soul, country, and soundtrack samples he’d snipped from thrift-store finds. Martin bellowed elliptical tales where lovers discovered the worst in one another, smooth talkers seduced damsels, and daddies cursed the kids that fate had delivered.
A daring juxtaposition of disparate forms, it was issued in a tiny domestic edition of only 400 copies, marking it a curio meant for the few weirdos who might catch on. But a lot of people actually caught on—the press, a booking agent, slowly growing audiences, and the label Sub Pop, which signed Daughn Gibson just as All Hell’s dark gospel began to spread. Martin found himself fronting a band expected to tour and record. On 2013’s Me Moan and the uneasy new Carnation, he’s still trying to negotiate the sound of that unexpected future.
Like Me Moan, Carnation finds Martin stepping out of isolation and away from batches of samples to write and record with other musicians in real time. In 2013, the cast included Baroness’ John Baizley, Brokeback and Eleventh Dream Day guitarist Jim Elkington, and a small clutch of horn-and-string players. Here, he skips to a different scene, working with versatile Seattle producer Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Marissa Nadler, Akron/Family) and a cast of Dunn standbys, including string arranger Eyvind Kang and former Earth multi-instrumentalist Steve Moore. Only Elkington returns. The performances and the production at large are impeccable. The band is as assured with the slinking poses of "It Wants Everything" as they are the sashaying cool of "For Every Bite" or the string-backed slowness of "Runaway and the Pyro".
But that variety—or, less generously, Martin’s halting stylistic indecision—plagues Carnation. For 38 minutes, he seems like an accidental bandleader who has no idea where he’s leading his band, let alone how to get them there. The rudiments of All Hell, from the country touches to the sampler obsession, survive only in the crevices—the baritone guitar echoing around the light new wave pulse of "Shatter You Through", the vocal loops bouncing beneath and around it. Martin loosens his grip on that once-dominant baritone, too, sometimes affecting a foppish British accent and occasionally slipping into lounge-singer softness. The indecision starts in the center and spreads, as Martin and crew work through homages to early Soft Machine and depressive Depeche Mode, coruscated Tangerine Dream and languid David Bowie. During "I Let Him Deal", he launches into a chorus that could be cut straight from the National’s catalog; for its chaser, "Shine of the Night", he nods to LCD Soundsystem and indulges a saxophone solo, even as he sings about staying alive on Iraq’s infamous Highway of Death. The first half of closer "Back with the Family" sounds like a Scott Walker fantasy, the second like a Tom Waitsnightmare. There are some bright spots here, especially in the grand attempts at pop, but Martin’s presiding confusion mitigates their album-length impact.
Worst of all, though, is the way these shifts hamper his songwriting. All Hell built big, poignant scenes out of tiny, perfect details. And for all its transitional woes, Me Moan showed Martin to be a vivid, sharp storyteller in the making. He loaded his lyrics with references and sly turns of phrase—the romantic at "the corner lobo solo … dreamin’ with the TV lit" or the widower trying to find nostalgic comfort in surrounding sounds and sights. But these lyrics are thin, limpid, and loose. The writing gathers a smattering of soft-focus snapshots, twisted aphorisms, and dimensionless characters. Martin gives us the teenager who’d rather hang himself than turn into a hideous man during "A Rope Ain’t Enough" and a young patient who's left a mental hospital during "Daddy I Cut My Hair". But we learn so little about each of them, their circumstances or their motives. They seem like mere verbal stand-ins for jams by the Daughn Gibson Big Band. If every Daughn Gibson song used to prompt a mental short film, Carnation is a collage of bad watercolors and corrupted Polaroids.
Gibson’s voice has always echoed another era, but his approach has seemed deliberately contemporary, too, eager to step over stylistic borders and bend the past against the present. Beyond his baritone or assorted honky-tonk accents, that quality is the essential link from All Hell to Me Moan to Carnation. But I like to imagine Daughn Gibson’s trajectory had All Hell been recorded and released in another epoch of the music industry, one where so many strange and stunning private-press records languished in obscurity until being rediscovered decades later. All Hell collected but 10 short songs, some of which seemed like sketches of a nebulous idea, with space for elaboration and edges for refinement. Without the need to meet public expectation or record label demands, what might that aesthetic have become in seclusion?
Perhaps he would have enriched the language and stretched the sounds, as he did on Me Moan. But it seems unlikely that being cloistered would have yielded a record like Carnation, a set of songs that discard almost all sense of Martin’s singularity in favor of a search for anything new that might work. Martin’s uniqueness was the very element that turned him from a tall dude with a deep voice making odd records on a tiny imprint to a troubadour enlisted in an indie empire. But some slight attention has spoiled his significant idiosyncrasy. On Carnation, he tries and fails to be something other than himself.
Florence Welch has built her career on the premise that she feels things more painfully and powerfully than anybody else. Accordingly, her band's third studio album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is one long Ophelia mad scene, a breakup record from the point of view of someone who is absolutely convinced that her breakup is the most devastating thing that has ever happened to anyone.
She makes a pretty good case for that, to be fair. "What was it that I said?/ I can't help but pull the earth around me to make my bed," she cries in "Ship to Wreck", which goes from sleeping pills to great white sharks in its first two lines. Welch has quoted producer Markus Dravs as telling her that she's "not allowed to write any more songs about water," although she appears to have dodged that dictum at every opportunity.
These aren't just songs about heartbreak; they're songs about total and utter eclipses of the heart. "Delilah", for instance, concerns the epic psychic carnage involved in waiting for a phone call from a boyfriend, and yes, that's Delilah as in Samson. (Several songs later, she's "thrashing on the line," this time as a fish.) Over the course of the album, she also invokes (or casts herself as) Persephone, Lot's wife, the Virgin Mary, Daphne, Jonah, and St. Jude—both the saint and the European storm, alluded to in both senses in two different songs. Over "Queen of Peace"'s stomps and choir and horns, she imagines herself "dissolving like the setting sun/ Like a boat into oblivion/' CAUSE YOU'RE DRIVING ME AWAAAAAAY!" (See? Aquatic lyrics again.)
It takes an alarming seriousness of purpose to pull this stuff off—the campy playfulness of Florence and the Machine's 2009 debut single "Kiss With a Fist" wouldn't do. The obvious presence lurking near Welch's current songwriting is Adele, whose "Rolling in the Deep" she has to wish she'd thought of first, but the other source of inspiration floating nearby is PJ Harvey, specifically the PJ Harvey of To Bring You My Love. (As with Harvey, there's a lot of gender-flipping in Welch's lyrics: "Mother" would be very obviously a gospel song if it were called "Father".) Welch's voice trembles and groans until she hauls herself up to the parts of her songs that she can belt out with desperate, bleating vibrato. And the arrangements on How Big are this big: lush and ornate, tinkering with their details every few seconds, cresting and crashing and cresting and cresting some more. The title track's orchestral coda is worthy of Trevor Horn's wildest fantasies.
What really binds How Big together, though, is Welch's exceptional sense for melody. No matter how tormented these songs get, they let her show off with grand, arching vocal lines, leaping deftly across her registers. (There are going to be a lot of disappointed karaoke singers signing up for "What Kind of Man" or "Delilah", then discovering that their range is nowhere near Welch's.) This is a huge, sturdy record, built for arenas—the band is among the headliners at this year's Bonnaroo, Roskilde, Lollapalooza and Governors Ball—and it's richly and carefully enough constructed to endure the extensive exposure Welch's heartache is going to get over the course of this summer.