Yearly Yinz 2019: Albums

Son of None – Blizzard of ’77

An artist named Noah Nine died unexpectedly this August, prompting a close friend and collaborator to release a goldmine of music that Nine had created and stockpiled over time. This friend described Nine as a creative dynamo who spurned commercial exposure in favor of genre-hopping experimentation. Son Of None was Nine’s early-2000’s outsider folk collaboration with Joy Von Spain; their sound on Blizzard of ’77 is a tinny mishmash of acoustic strums, Korg synthesizer, dissonant samples, and distorted vocals. The entire mess is held together by a palpable sense of anxiety.

Working with a rudimentary four-track recording process, Nine and Von Spain crafted sticky hooks and evocative atmospheres on each of the album’s ten songs, their knack for minimalist world-building most apparent on the dirge-like “Run,” whose instrumental consists of little more than two guitar notes plucked in sequence, ad infinitum. The album also contains fragments of psychedelic spoken word (“Lighthouses,” “Spirit Of ‘77”), oddball acoustic pop (“Digging 2 China,” “Christopher Columbus’ Ghost”), and dubby trip-hop (“Throw Yr Handz Up”). Blizzard Of ‘77’s outlandish odyssey hearkens back to the sounds of the legendary Elephant 6 Recording Company, another group of artists who warped the framework of pop music to create something entire unusual. Despite the tragedy of Noah Nine’s passing, we can find joy in the unique sonic remnants that he and Joy Von Spain left behind.   



Akono Miles – Room Temperature

What do you get when you take the wavy acid-hop compositions of artists like Flying Lotus and Knxwledge and mash them up with the neo-disco nuggets released by the likes of Vancouver’s Mood Hut label? You get Room Temperature, the October release from producer Akono Miles. The artist himself described the album, which differs significantly from the chilled-out beatscapes of April’s Halogen, as an “unexpected exploration of house music through sampled records and synthesizers.” The human voice takes center stage, even though none of the songs contain lyrics; Miles knows his way around a vocal sample, and bounces them all over his sonic dancefloors like a series of rubber balls. The two ends of the hip-hop — dance spectrum are represented by album highlights “The Night Is Young” and “Eno’s Memo,” the first a more leisurely-paced showcase for a chopped soul sample and an irresistible rubber band bassline, and the second a deep house cut that does in fact sound like a clattering, souped-up take on an Eno-style ambient synth progression. The album has a pleasingly analogue feel throughout, with some tracks cushioned by the warm crackle of background static. Despite Room Temperature’s title, the music contained within is anything but tepid.



The Childlike Empress – Take Care of Yourself

Take Care Of Yourself, the debut album from Pittsburgh-via-New York artist The Childlike Empress, was born from a morass of addiction and depression surrounding a toxic relationship. So, when you hear an album of such beauty with the knowledge that it came from a place of darkness, it feels earned, like everything that came before was leading up to this work. A life cannot be summed up with such a tidy narrative, though, and the Empress themself admits in the liner notes, “I don’t believe healing is truly ever completed.” Take Care Of Yourself, then, is the sound of the process.

The album is warm and enveloping, like a hug after a long walk in the cold. Even “ACAB,” a mournful requiem for victims of racist police brutality, wraps itself in the language of self-care: “Do you feel safe?/Well, we don’t.” The Empress sings in a fluttering, Norah Jones-ian coo, and plays the banjo on a number of tracks. The additions of Shani Banerjee’s violin and Eric Weidenhof’s cello are strokes of genius; listen to the flowing call-and-response between drums and strings during the title track’s chorus and tell me you aren’t moved. Banerjee’s and Weidenhoff’s playing provides a level of depth and fluidity not often present in rock and rock-adjacent music, and, when combined with the Empress’s pickin’, expands the album’s range from grungey emo (“dang.”) to outlaw ballads (“Far Rockaway”) and frenzied hoedowns (“YIKES!”). Lyrically, the Empress is frank as can be; they don’t skirt around difficult subjects and painful details, a fact that gives the album’s quietly redemptive final line a surprising poignancy: “I’ve been fine.”



Barlow – Pink Rounds C-60

There’s a house that I walk past every day up on Bigelow Blvd that strikes me as lonely. No neighbors, no front yard, no stoop; just street, narrow sidewalk, front door. I sometimes hear the sound of drums coming from inside, and for some irrational reason, I have an image in my mind of the shoegazers of Barlow inhabiting this lonely house. The band’s music sounds isolated, like it’s coming to you from a distance, physically encased in a layer of cotton or metaphorically encased within layers of half-forgotten memory. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the group’s October release, Pink Rounds C-60, comprises demos, alternate takes, old songs, and bits ‘n’ pieces that have accumulated over the years.

The album is a treat for those that like their guitar music textured, smudged and weathered like a dusty watercolor painting. Even uptempo scorchers like “Windowless Walls” and the laser-blasted “Silver Sword” have a narcotized feel, like rock songs playing in a dentist office as you’re put under for surgery. Quieter tracks like the haunting “Out of Mouth Called Fire” and the brittle acoustic interlude “I’ll See You” would work as flip-phone movie scores, their grainy arpeggios swirling and shimmering while Ethan Oliva’s voice hangs, distant, in the background. Often, the pillowy and the deafening are rolled into one; hear how the subaqueous guitars that open “Heather” and “Jenny Haniver” morph into vacuum cleaner white noise blasts. The removed, cloistered feeling lingers, though, no matter how the music itself sounds. The fog of memory obscures all. Picture yourself way up in the snowy hills of Pittsburgh while you listen to this one, Barlow’s songs issuing from a glowing, distant window and borne to your ears on the deafening wind. 



Tribe Eternal x NVSV – Mysterious Shit

The Tribe Eternal (a hip-hop collective comprising Clara Kent, Bilal Abbey, and Pharaoh Lum) and NVSV made their message clear when they dropped Mysterious Shit on Halloween: other rappers should be afraid. While individual members of the foursome had released quality projects over the past few years, their powers increased exponentially once combined. Each artist embodies their own persona within the album; Kent is a dual threat that alternates between soulful croons and contemptuous bars, Bilal uses an intent whisper to burrow deep into his own mind, Lum lays down aggressive boasts with a raucous shout, and NVSV ties everything together, both with his production and with his steely delivery.

Mysterious Shit‘s central lyrical conceit is the dichotomy between authenticity and artifice, a phenomenon that the four wordsmiths see lurking all around them, like demons in a moonlit forest. The frauds are addressed with varying levels of hostility (“Plastic,” “Clara’s Mad”) and sibylline reproach (“Masked”), but the Tribe and NVSV never waver from their commitment to the real. The album sounds good as well, with crystalline production polish added by Pittsburgh’s own INEZ. The beats bounce and stutter inside of lush instrumental clouds that veer into vaporous territory at their most wavy. The Tribe and NVSV may walk through a spooky, hazy minefield of fakes and charlatans, but with Mysterious Shit, the four artists vanquish their enemies with an even scarier dose of reality.     



INEZ – Voicemails And Conversations

When you boil it down, Voicemails and Conversations, the December debut from Berklee-educated producer/audio engineer/songwriter/singer INEZ, is an album about love in all its forms, be it romantic, familial, spiritual, community- or self-focused. INEZ structures this meditation on love in the form of an audio diary, complete with spoken word sketches and snippets of phone messages.

INEZ’s experiences and expressions of love run the tonal and thematic gamut; she provides a gospel-tinged platform for the women of GirlsRunningShit to discuss self-betterment on the aspirational “Celebrate,” breezily kisses off an unserious ex on “Pardon Me,” obsesses over a significant other on the menacing “Insecurity,” and encourages Black women and girls to join her for a defiant victory lap on the cyborg-funk anthem “Queen.” INEZ allows herself to be vulnerable on this album; her unabashed honesty is one of its strong suits. She gives the listener access to her self in its unvarnished form, flaws and all. INEZ herself sums it up best on the rockified early album gauntlet-thrower, “Get It Off Your Chest”: “I’ma love hard as shit/Even if that means I gotta love alone.” The production is great, obviously, with instrumentals containing sublayers of subtle beats that stutter and rattle, giving songs a sense of movement at the microscopic level. Collaborators include Pittsburgh’s own Clara Kent, Simone Davis, and C.Scott, as well as far-flung talents like Miami’s QueTheGuitarist. Clearly, INEZ’s love casts a wide net, and you can’t help but let it capture you.



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