When L.A. born singer-songwriter NikiBlack wrote her new single “American Spirits” back in September of 2019, she had no idea how prophetic her words were. The track was originally supposed to be a contemplative look back at her American experience as she prepared to move to Paris to pursue a master’s in philosophy and art history. All throughout this past year, she has been releasing singles from her highly anticipated album LILITH, but she was saving “American Spirits.” After the recent events that transpired in the US, she decided to release this one-off single because, as Nina Simone once mused, “it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” The result? A poignant commentary on American today which answers the questions “What does it mean to have American spirit?” and “Can I still connect with my American Spirits as the daughter of an Iranian immigrant mother?” by saying “Yes, I can and I will,” but not without confronting America’s “bloody conception and its chaotic, violent reality today.”
Although originally from L.A., Black’s father grew up in Chicago, and her mother in Iran, giving her an expansive range of influences to work with, from the blues to the sounds of Iranian pop legend Googoosh. The uniqueness of her “ahs” in “American Spirits” in particular points to this mixed heritage of hers, but reverberations of it are felt throughout. Otherworldliness and ambiance emanate from the transient song, which doesn’t seem to exist within the bounds of genre or time itself. The thing that gives Black an edge, however, is her voice, ringing out sweet but striking. Her words pack a punch of their own, too. “Useless conversations all across the nation,” “violence in our lungs, black as the paths we come from,” are more significant now than ever before. If you weren’t planning to already, I recommend listening to the track with headphones, to better experience the atmosphere and audio panning that fully immerse you within the song. Stream “American Spirits” here, and stay tuned for the official music video (watch the teaser here) which will be released later this month!
DC-based Soul and R&B project SummerDennis & Rhymesaddress some hard truths about the US in their recent single “Ghetto Rona.” Rhymes is a composition and performance powerhouse spearheaded by Bill Moore and SummerDennis. Moore brings with him a deep experience with performance in multiple genres. Together they produce powerful, independent songs interwoven with femininity. Rhymes has appeared on several media outlets, including EARMILK, Soulbounce, Celebmix, Great Day Washington, and Blog Talk Radio. “Ghetto Rona” is the product of the difficult lessons learned about America in the past year. It’s a soulful indictment of the country, and aims to redefine the idea of “ghetto.” About the underlying theme of the song, Rhymes says “For so long Black and impoverished communities have been referred to ‘the ghetto’ even though we live in a nation that can’t house its taxpayers, can’t feed its children, and imposes police brutality on its citizens. How can a society with so little to offer refer to anyone as ghetto? We all know where the ghetto really is now, and it’s not race-specific. We can see the truth as clearly as ever.”
The song itself begins with the spoken words “And now, this is America,” leaving no room to mistake what the track is going to be about. A funky bassline and drum beat and tensile surrounding harmonies provide the foundation for Dennis’ sleek vocals. Her soulful voice decorates the melody lines with deft runs that give us a taste of her wide range. However, the lyrics remain the focal point of the song, coming through clear and concise. Halfway through, harmonies join in, lifting Dennis’ voice and words up to augment their meaning.
SummerDennis & Rhymes are a mighty duo who say what they have to say using a mix of rock, R&B, Latin, pop, and reggae music to appeal to a wide demographic. Check out their most recent album Second Summer to hear more of this eclectic pair.
A true nomad, EvelynCools has found herself exploring the world all throughout her life. As a child in Belgium she studied piano, flute, choir, and musical theater. Eventually, she made her way over to Hong Kong and Budapest. At her university in London, Cools found herself captivated by the music scene and made some musical friends, and together these things provided the foundation for her career. Finally, in 2018 she moved to Los Angeles. Inspired by the nature of California, the new people she met that would eventually become her creative team, and the unparalleled love she found, Cools decided to bring to life her upcoming EP Misfit Paradise. Her penchant for wandering and connection to other people and nature are the driving forces behind this record.
Regarding Misfit Paradise, Cools says that it “explores the complex relationships we have with ourselves, others, and our environment, and how we find peace and meaning within it all. It is about life’s greatest joys – love, acceptance, nature, adventure – but also its greatest sorrows. It aims to capture little specs of magic against a world of unknowns.”
Her new single off the EP, “Gold Woman”, reflects some of the qualities that you can expect to hear in Misfit Paradise. Cools‘ personal songwriting is enchanting, with her ethereal voice and strong emotional resonance. Her sound lies somewhere within folk, indie-folk, alt-country, and folk-pop music. That being said, don’t think that the single is simply a girl fingerpicking a guitar and singing simple melodies. This music grabs you and commands you to listen to it. You can definitely hear undercurrents of country, but overall this track sounds a lot like alt-rock. It places a strong emphasis on the guitar which has a heavier quality to it. On top of this, amidst countless songs today which are making heavy use of harmonies (although fabulous in their own way), Cools isn’t afraid to let her voice stand on its own. She shows impressive control over her robust chest voice and delightfully airy head voice, both of which are showcased in the adventurous vocal lines throughout the song. Her accessible lyrics and storytelling abilities reveal her folk roots, however, reinforcing who she is at her core.
Some may feel as though the music of today lacks the fire and fervor which used to be so plentiful in music from days gone by. If you find yourself agreeing with that sentiment, then let spunky girl group DramaDolls fill that void with their new single “Favorite Girl.” The LA based band produces rampant brat-punk music that has the grit and energy of the Misfits and the Ramones, but also the musicality and power of the Bangles and the Go-Go’s. The single will be on the group’s upcoming EP Over The Shoulder / Boulder Holder which was recorded at the legendary Larrabee Studios, the same place where the Foo Fighters, Blink-182, Tool, and countless other iconic artists recorded their music.
When asked about the meaning behind the track, DramaDolls stated (somewhat cryptically) “WE WANT TO BE THE GIRLS WITH THE MOST CAKE.” While you make sense of that, settle into the nostalgia of “Favorite Girl” and feel its energy seep into your veins. Right away you hear the rugged guitar, and the punchy drums remind the listener of the opening drums in The Go-Go’s “Vacation.” The lead vocals are bold and full-bodied, sounding both fresh and familiar. The high energy established at the beginning of the track is further magnified by the key change in the courses. It culminates in the instrumental bridge/interlude that hits you with rapid-fire drums and heavy, distorted guitars. The reverberating harmonies after the final chorus are like a choir in a resonant church: resounding, and glorious. With its spirit and spunk, “Favorite Girl” is loads of fun and definitely one to rock out to.
She was born in Flushing, Queens and raised by a pack of cigarettes. With only four chords to remember her mother by, she took her love of vintage guitars, muscle cars, and old man bars and pursued music without ever looking back. She sang lead vocals for Gary Lucas’ Gods & Monsters, and opened for Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at Jones Beach Amphitheater with her band Eudora. After taking a break to grow, get married and raise some lovely kids, she turned once again to music in 2015 to release her debut solo album Go Tell Your Friends. She is EmilyDuff. A wife, mother, and artist who managed to find happiness and become a role model despite never really having one herself. A couple more albums and some TV and film projects later, she is now looking back at the past with the confidence and wisdom from motherhood and marriage in her new record Born on the Ground.
This illustrious musician sings nine “love” songs that represent nine different breakups from her past. With time and self-love, she looks back on these experiences without anger, instead, she wants to examine them with the maturity she has gained. While the songs on Born on the Ground refer to Duff’s past relationships, she points out that breakups aren’t always romantic, one can break up with friends, careers, and even bad habits. They’re hard, but they can be the seed that turns into a better understanding of yourself. The universality of what Duff is discussing is reflected in Born on the Ground. Her songwriting shows an expert command over the genres of country, roots, soul, and rock and as a result, the album is a well crafted, classic set of accessible songs. Rock and blues are established by the drums, country is brought in by Duff’s voice, and the bass, guitar, and keys drift in between. Her sensitive lyrics are graced with sophisticated metaphors, and there’s a guitar solo in every song.
Some tracks are more straightforward, like the opener “We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, with the line “Oh honey get off the train, we ain’t goin’ nowhere” talking about a dead end relationship. It has a bluesy-rock sound to it from the piano and underlying harmonies, but it also has a kind of deep earthiness to it. “There Is A Way Out” urges someone to deflate their ego, telling them that they don’t have to be so self centered. Lines from “Knuckle Sandwich” such as “how ‘bout my fist down your throat” and “how’d you like if I opened up a can of whoop-ass” make her message crystal clear. “Forever Love” tells of a supposedly undying love that ended anyway. But accessible as they are, these songs are far from boring. “There Is A Way Out” has a fun piano solo and the bridge is almost anthemic with its full harmonies, cymbal crashes, and guitar solo. “Knuckle Sandwich” is just an explosion of energy, driven by the spirited guitar, supported by the drums and ornamented by the lightning-fast piano glissandos. It contains itself just for a moment towards the middle of the track only to come back stronger, with unbridled energy that persists right to the end. “Forever Love” is pretty classic in its blues/country sound. Yet it has almost gospel-like harmonies in the chorus, which has this congregational sound to it that compels you to sing along with it. The clarity of these songs creates a sense of knowing between you and them.
The rest of the songs on Born on the Ground are more puzzling. The title track has some ambiguous lyrics such as “Put on my favourite red party dress, and dance with the devil in five-inch heels” and “when you’re born on the ground, you’re dead inside.” The bass in particular but also the mood of the song in general has a darkness to it, suggesting that something may be going on underneath the surface. In a similar way, “No Escape” hints at something alluring, from the 1920’s blues club feel of the music to Duff’s sultry voice. But the electric organ and lyrics like “I would do most anything if you would only disappear” denote something sinister– right down to the expressive ending. “Something Sexy” has a classic rhythm guitar part and a strong country vibe, and the lyrics chide someone for not understanding a “phenomenal” girl. Perhaps the girl in question is Duff herself, looking back at a relationship with a renewed sense of self-worth… but perhaps it means something else entirely. “Killer” still has the same kind of sound as the others, but it also has a wistful quality from the fuzzy bass, electric piano and held chords that soften it. Duff sings “there’s a killer among us, tearing at this happy ending.” It’s unclear what exactly is going on, but seems as though there’s something poisoning her relationship. The final track, “Easy Go!” has a fun rhythm in the guitar, which is great for bringing ‘er home. The lyrics seem to be about warning someone not to love her, “lovin’ me’s like diving into flames,” but at the same time implores her lover not to haunt her.
The songs that you find puzzling and straightforward might be different from mine, but no matter how you interpret it you can expect Born on the Ground to be both relatable and thought-provoking. There’s more to this album than meets the eye, much like EmilyDuff herself.
Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, and recorded live in Brooklyn featuring the EmilyDuff band and guests Eric Ambel on guitars and vocals & Syd Straw, Mary Lee Kortes & Tricia Scotti on background vocals, Born on the Ground will be released on June 26th. You can also see Duff doing her “virus escape” live stream from her Hudson street fire escape every Sunday at 4 PM EST on her Facebook page, and watch the video for “We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” here.
Brooklyn based trio HolyHive pairs transient harmonies and Paul Spring’s exceptional falsetto with poetic lyrics in their tranquil debut album Float Back To You. Following their acclaimed EP Harping and successful live shows, HolyHive combines Spring’s folk guitar playing, Homer Steinweiss’ precise drums and Joe Harrison’s grounding bass to create their soulful, vintage sound. The album also features several guest musicians, including Mary Lattimore on the harp, Leon Michels on saxophone and keys, Shannon Wise on backing vocals, Dave Guy on trumpet, Nick Movshon on bass, and Spring’s wife Sophia Heymans on the piano. Each of these talented musicians brings something unique to the table, pushing Float Back To You passed the boundary of a simple folk or soul album.
While generally, the album is laden with dreamy harmonies and jazzy drums and bass, each of the songs also brings their own individual flair. “Broom”, “Hypnosis”, “Blue Light”, and “Float Back To You” each use the dreamy sound to their advantage. “Broom” parlays the hazy harmonies into a smooth brass interlude. “Hypnosis” uses them along with harp and electric piano to create a mesmerizing sound. “Blue Light” sounds like lounge music and has a pensive, wistful mood to it. The harmonies in the title track “Float Back To You” serve to augment the potent feeling of longing within it. These tunes all feel suspended in the air, but each in subtly different ways.
Other songs on Float Back To You take on a more unique persona and use surprising harmonies to pique your interest. “Oh I Miss Her So” is undoubtedly a standout track. Its whimsical use of harp sounds like something out of a fairy tale, and the unexpected harmonic changes are enchanting. The beginning of the song floats into the sky, but then the drums bring it back down to earth and drive a gentle groove. “Red Is The Rose”, on the other hand, is more mysterious, and carries with it undertones of sadness. It is a reimagining of an Irish folk tune, and the mystical music really plays into that folklore element. “Embers to Ash” also has a darker, almost spooky tone to it created by the electric organ and phantom-like keys. The concluding track on the album, “Sophia’s Part”, begins with discordant piano notes, yet the clash isn’t unpleasant. In fact, as the motive repeats it slowly becomes pleasingly crunchy. All of the instruments in this song seem to be completely in their own world, yet somehow the song remains cohesive and satisfying.
Paralleling one another both in title and in sound, “Be Thou By My Side” and “You Will Always Be By My Side Forever” are two love songs that feel more like classic folk. “Be Thou By My Side” features some beautiful guitar picking and is simple, tender, and infused with love. “You Will Always Be By My Side Forever” has more going on, but still has a folk quality to it. While its music is somewhat sparse, it gets the message across, and the sax and jazz organ outro prolong the easy vibe of this track to ease you into the final song.
Finally, we have the individuals of the album. The bass, drums, and piano at the beginning of “Didn’t You Say” have the most obvious jazz/funk sound to them, and the harmonies in the chorus are delicately soulful. This track shares a lot of the same characteristics as the others (falsetto, touches of brass, jazz undertones), but it also feels as though it could easily stand on its own. It finishes with a fleeting piano outro that transitions into “Embers To Ash.” “Cynthia’s Celebration” is an instrumental interlude. This is an unexpected inclusion but at the same time it makes total sense considering the abundance of skilled musicians at the band’s disposal. In it, blurred sounds from the bass, harp, and electric keys are set against the crisp drums and piano, making for a relaxed but engaging sound.
Float Back To You has a lot to offer. It uses several elements to produce twelve songs that calm your mind but excite your heart. The album is available digitally, on CD and on vinyl, so you can listen to it however you please. You can also watch the music videos for “Broom”, “Be Thou By My Side”, and “Float Back To You.”
As a player and producer, LesNuby is no stranger to the music world. The virtuoso began in Birmingham, Alabama as the drummer for indie-rock band Verbena but never settled, exploring as many opportunities as he could. Notable endeavours include touring with the esteemed Scottish band Idlewild, as well as playing guitar for Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls and the band Vulture Whale. A marvel behind the scenes as well, Nuby has produced releases for artists such as Will Stewart, Sarah Lee Langford, The Dirty Clergy, and Witch’s Wall. Alongside being the current guitarist and vocalist for Holiday Gunfire, he is finally adding a solo album to his repertoire. Clouded will be released on July 10th, 2020.
“Know What She Said” will be the first single, and it lets you in on the secret of what to expect from this long-anticipated album. The song is quite melodic and emanates exciting but controlled energy, meanwhile the surrounding music is made up of skilled instrument playing. A particularly bouncy bass part especially stands out and would be worth keeping an ear out for. In fact, you could listen to this song over and over again and rediscover it each time as you listen to the intricacies of each instrument. The vocals and overall atmosphere of the single is reminiscent of 80s era R.E.M., but the melody points more towards early 90s power pop, and the two blend together wonderfully.
The video is a captivating, artsy black and white live visual that allows you a brief glimpse into Les Nuby’s live performance. It’s enough to make you yearn for pre-Covid days.
You can look forward to these well-executed aspects in Clouded as well. In a culmination of his musical resume, LesNuby produced, engineered, and played all the instruments on the album, and that care and experience is certainly heard in “Know What She Said.”
Be sure to check out Nuby’s earlier release “Never Falling Away” here.
John Legend released his much-anticipated album Bigger Love on Friday. Inspired by his wife, and family, the album explores themes of love, sensuality, and intimacy, but also draws from the extensive tradition of black music that has influenced Legend as an artist. Among the anxiety induced by the pandemic, and the outraged and mourning protesters flooding the streets, Legend explains how he intends for this album to fit: “During these painful times, some of us may wonder if it’s ok to laugh or dance or be romantic… but it’s important for us to continue to show the world the fullness of what it is to be black and human. Through our art, we are able to do that. This album is a celebration of love, joy, sensuality, hope, and resilience, the things that make our culture so beautiful and influential.” In a nod to his debut album Get Lifted, Legend offers Bigger Love as an uplifting, heartfelt work that inspires you to love, dance, and be happy.
Listening to this album, the overarching quality that comes to mind is soul. Bigger Love is soulful in its music, Legend’s voice and the surrounding harmonies, and even its message. The use of “big” in the title refers to the album’s expansive amounts of joy, soulfulness, and diverse range of musical styles. The tracks embody many different genres, and expressive vocals, gospel-like harmonies, and Legend’s expert falsetto are ever-present. Every song has an easy, untroubled sound to it, but they also have unique touches that elevate them to a higher level.
“Ooh Laa” tells you right away what the album is going to be like: a clash of contrasting forces. It kicks things off with two wildly different genres– 50’s doo-wop and trap music. The doo-wop comes from a sample of a 50s recording of the song “I Only Have Eyes For You” by the Flamingos. Continuing in the vein of hip-hop, “Actions” samples a song known from “The Next Episode” by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, reminding listeners of that era of hip-hop. The central lyric plays on the phrase “actions speak louder than words,” a mantra that is especially relevant to the protests that have been happening recently.
Moving over to funk, “I Do” and “One Life” are dance songs. They have groovy basslines and are mellow but have catchy choruses that make you want to move. “One Life” stretches into contemporary jazz and uses strings to add some individuality. The chorus, with lyrics like “We’ve got one life, I won’t waste it,” are universal and inspiring, they really feed into the uplifting sentiment of the album.
Beginning with “Wild” featuring Gary Clark Jr, we begin to see a lot of slow jams and ballads, but there is still some contrasting material inserted in between. “Wild” tugs at you. It is a song that you would play in the car on an open road at dusk with the windows down. Its hard-hitting beat and the chromatic upwards motion in the guitar part pulls you along with it. “Bigger Love” takes a right turn with its Afro-Caribbean beat, but continues to include elements of gospel and house music in the vocals of featured artist Natalie Imani. It really drives the central message of the album: hope, optimism, and resilience.
Bringing the energy back down, “U Move, I Move” featuring Jhené Aiko is about two people in complete harmony. What’s unique about this track is how the beginning has a very minimal amount of music. Legend’s voice really stands on its own. When the music does come in, it’s swelling and romantic. Aiko’s voice complements Legend’s nicely, but it has its own distinct timbre that adds interest to the song. Despite being recorded in quarantine, the effortless harmonies between the duo are coordinated perfectly. In “Favourite Place”, short brushstrokes of harmonies paint the background. The tune is sultry and alluring, with more trap beats and gospel harmonies. “Slow Cooker” on the other hand, is all about taking it slow. It’s infused with cuisine-related metaphors, which work well for Legend since he and his wife Chrissy both like to cook. The swaying 6/8 time makes one think of a couple slowly moving to the music, delicately enveloped in an intimate moment.
Just when you think the album has hit a plateau when it comes to genres, some folk music is thrown in. “Focused” reaches out to ordinary people with lyrics like “everybody has their days when the work feels like chains.” Its defining musical characteristic is the acoustic guitar, but the connections to gospel and jazz remain strong thanks to the harmonies and jazz chords. “Conversations in the Dark” is a soulful love song reminiscent of Legend’s 2013 hit “All of Me.” It highlights the small intimate moments in a relationship. “Don’t Walk Away” features artist Koffee, who pilots a return to the Afro-Caribbean flavour from earlier. Gentle harmonies subtly support the infectious chorus that really highlights Legend’s control over his voice in this song.
For the last four tracks, deep emotions move to the forefront. “Remember Us” featuring Rapsody uses lounge piano, flute flutters, and deep bass to make a beautiful musical foundation that supports the emotional lyrics which remember some departed friends. Rapsody adds a contrasting but fitting quality to the music, expertly spitting out lyrics but still matching the vibe of the song. “I’m Ready” featuring Camper recalls Marvin Gaye’s soul-stirring music and is a tribute to him in that way. This track has a very cool a capella beginning that establishes some surprising rhythms and harmonic changes which continue throughout the entire song. “Always” is another love song. It has a simple, sweet message and relatively straightforward music but still has some twists along the way.
The final song, “Never Break” is an anthem for 2020. It discusses the power of the human spirit, something that is crucial for the valiant protesters around the world. Suspended chords create a deep sense of passion, which is amplified by the wonderfully jazzy chords. Towards the end, there’s a powerful build-up before the haunting final “no” that instills a great sense of resolve within you. The track, with its resilient sentiment and hopeful mood, is the perfect ending to Bigger Love.
Ultimately, this is an album you won’t want to miss. It sweeps through and lifts you up at a time when things feel low. Give it a listen on Spotify or other streaming platforms, and be sure to check out the amazing cover art painted by artist Charly Palmer.
London-based, female-fronted trio Dance Lessons released their single “New Job” today. The track comes on the heels of their successful “domineering debut” single “SMABTO.” “New Job” is what Dance Lessons defines as “serrated pop,” and shows off jagged, zany harmonies. It shines a light on the shared experience that two people may have after a breakup as they both distract themselves from their sadness. Though, the song was conceived before a breakup had happened, and ended up becoming a sort of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” This electric dance-pop hit is accompanied by a vivid music video that was filmed during the COVID-19 lockdown in LA. The dancers had no crew and minimal gear but managed to film a hauntingly beautiful interpretive dance in the deserted streets.
Parallels between the music and dance are found throughout the entire video. There is a nice give and take between the two vocalists in the track, and there’s also a strong interplay between the dance and the song. The moves echo the rhythm of the words, every step is in tandem with the music. Just as the video progresses through different scenes in the area, the music explores different sonic features, such as the wispy background vocals, plucky guitar, and the electronic wind-like blur that drifts in the background. Color plays a prominent visual role in the music video, just as the groovy harmonies in the bridge add color to the music. These parallels are captivating, so when the music fades out, you’re confronted with the eerie silence of the once-bustling LA street, save for a faint siren in the background.
Keep up with the snazzy trio on twitter and instagram, and check out their groundbreaking debut single here.