10 March 2012

Koortwah: "Lay Them Wise"

A bit over a month ago, DJ Chauncey Dandridge told me about Koortwah; he did not so much ask me to listen to Koortwah’s music, but rather demanded it. With permission from Koortwah, I was forwarded a link to download and listen to the music, a collection entitled “Vertical Demos.” Honestly, I did not take the needed time to really listen actively and thoroughly, but on Saturday, 11 February 2012, I was in Manhattan with friends to catch the musical interpretation of “Carrie” at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Chauncey sent me a text that evening telling me that Koortwah was performing at Rock Bar, three blocks away from the theatre. After the musical (which I do recommend), we headed down to Rock Bar, and I have to say that by the end of the first song, I was smitten.

That night, I went home and really listened to “Vertical Demos,” which apparently has been released under the title of “Lay Them Wise” (7 February 2012) via iTunes. Koortwah is the brainchild of Jake Courtois; the moniker is the phonetic spelling of his last name. He migrated to New York City, in his words, to “escape from his fundamentalist overseers,” where in New York, “rats, being largely misunderstood, felt like family.” These two quotes sum up so much about what you can expect from Koortwah. Metaphoric with a sense of humor, his music celebrates the misunderstood or ignored, oftentimes the obvious we forget to mention, leaving behind the fundamentalist ideas of how people should behave and even how music should comport itself. Essentially treading through electronic soundscapes, the references are much wider than the average electronic outfit. From synthrock to IDM (intelligent dance music), electro and synthpop to trip-hop, the electronic coldness is juxtaposed by the occasional use of an acoustic guitar strumming and Courtois’ eerily alluring voice.

The opening track of “Lay Them Wise” (also the opening track of the live performance that night) is “Night Vision.” There is a feel of dream pop etherealness in the vocal arrangements, grounded by the IDM beats, the ambient music and ostinato is occasionally interrupted by some “harsher” sonic elements. The following track, “Candy In The Sun,” slows down the beat to a near downtempo feel, musically less ambient, the coarseness of the music mirrors the lyrics: “Candy in the sun, we all come undone, insides on the outside, wave good-bye.” Sometimes, however, there is a bit of mid-80s post-punk mentality in the music, where the feel of the music belies the lyrical profundity. “Amen” captivates you with its dance-ready beat, savvy hooks, and a controlled cacophony of sounds; lyrically, there is definitely a dark motif running through the song, where the religious “Amen” is highlighted in the vocal arrangements: “I don’t want what you want, maybe I should die alone; hold my hand, I want to go home… Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen.” Now, it is my understanding that Courtois does not explain his lyrics, so I wonder if this is an allegory of gaining self-confidence to continue alone, or a nifty take on the crucifixion. Either way, the song is infectiously disarming.

“There Go Your Teeth” (with a line that is going to be my new mantra, “Everything is boring, you’re boring, maybe I don’t need new friends”) is an anti-love song which musically juxtaposes harsh electronic sounds with the warmth of a piano, while “Wrong Tree” basks in its electronic soundscape, fluttering easily through its arrangements, even when the beat drops away and the acoustic strumming begins. The mood instantly changes with “Built To Burn,” especially when Courtois sings, “You know what I’d do for money…” The closest thing to a ballad on the album, what the song really made me think of is that this is how some of the slower tracks on the “Chorus” album [by Erasure] would sound like if it were recorded today – poppy, yet heart-rendering; electronically generated, but musically and lyrically greater than its medium. Then the jazzy titular track drags itself in. What I really like about this song is how the ostinato and the main key arrangement during the verse are so distinct from one another and yet, somehow, work well in tandem.

The most disturbing song is “Pound of Sugar”: “I had children, yes, I once had sons; they lived and learned, I guess they all died young.” What I really like about the vocal arrangements is that the song is not sung line by line in the traditional way we are accustomed to; quite often, the last word of the bar is the first word of the next line. It adds a sense of drama and suspense to the song. Then the album (unfortunately) comes to a close with “The Water’s Gold.” Instead of ending on the clichéd power song, the album closes with a slower paced song that oscillates between coarse and ambient, between ethereal and earthier arrangements.

It is not often on this blog that I have felt compelled to comment on each and every song on an album; this, in and of itself, really reflects what I feel about this album. Here is secret about my musical collection: there are only a handful of albums that I can say that I feel an intimate attachment with each and every track. “Lay Them Wise” joins this group of albums. What Koortwah has created here is a musical experience of elements we may all know, but are presented in a way that is disarming and gives you pause to reconsider what you think about your own musical expectations. This nascent, truly indie artist has composed the kind of album that some of the veterans he lists as influences would like to produce themselves. Furthermore, when I think of what post-punk means – a budding movement from the late 1970s that stayed true to the punk ideology of rejecting conformity, while at the same time experimented with a broader range of sounds and references, always with a twist as it usurped popular formats – it is hard for me not to consider Koortwah among this tradition.

(I would be remiss if I did not say a few words about the live performance. A drummer joined him on stage, he occasionally strummed away on his acoustic, while the rest of the music was produced electronically; throughout the performance of each song, there were images being projected, which ranged from curious to poignant. However, there was no sensory overload; the music, the vocals, and the images all conspired together to suck you right into the performance.)

“Lay Them Wise” is the first album of 2012 that I can honestly say is a must! Check out Koortwah’s music and follow him at one (or all) of his sites to keep abreast of new music and future live performances – you may just find yourself falling in love with the music as much as I did. (Of course now I need to track Jake Courtois down among the rats to get him to answer a few questions.)

Track Listing:
1. Night Vision
2. Candy In The Sun
3. Amen
4. There Go Your Teeth
5. The Wrong Tree
6. Built To Burn
7. Lay Them Wise
8. A Pound Of Sugar
9. The Water’s Gold

Keep up with Koortwah at his homepage, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here are a few of the interation iTunes links to Koortwah’s “Lay Them Wise”: Canada, Deutschland, España, France, Ireland, The United Kingdom, and The United States.

Here are the tracks “Built to Burn,” with the videos used during live performances, and “Night Vision” from the KOORTWAH YouTube Channel.

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03 March 2012

Stephen Vs Stephen Answers 5

When I first listened to Stephen Vs. Stephen’s deubt EP, “And Yet,” I was immediately drawn into its multi-references to past musical trends and its air of current urgency and relevance. There was no doubt that I was going to review this EP (link). Stephen Vs. Stephen is the brainchild of Stephen Sandknop, a truly independent and nascent musician. So nascent indeed that you will be pressed to find out information on him on the Internet, which led my urgency to want to ask him a few questions. A few e-mails later, I would like to thank Stephen Sandknop for taking the time to Answer 5.

(Stephen Sandknop of Stephen Vs. Stephen)

1. Who are your musical and non-musical influences?

Gosh. My musical influences are pretty diverse – everything from Sonic Youth to Wilson Philips. The “And Yet EP” is a direct offshoot of the albums “She's So Unusual” and “I Say, I Say, I Say” by Cyndi Lauper and Erasure, respectively. Both albums got me through a rather rough period of time and were hugely inspiring to me. Lately I've been trying to make myself listen to newer music (I'm usually stuck firmly in the 80s and 90s). Some of my favorite tracks at the moment are by Jonsi and Bon Iver. Really amazing stuff, musically, and it's nice to hear guys sing like they aren't bored with life. Aside from musical influences, I've written several songs while watching David Lynch films on mute. It works every time.

2. You are truly an independent and nascent musician, with little information out there about you and your music. Could you tell us three things about yourself as a lover of music and musician that we should know about you?

Three things you should know about me… Barbra Streisand and Courtney Love taught me to sing… Most of my songs don't have bridges because when I try to add them they almost always become an entirely new song… I'm an Aries. I've been told this explains why I actually have terrible rhythm. I finally found myself an awesomely sexy Leo boyfriend, though, and I'm never letting go of him (he has rhythm).

3. One of the things I love about your music is that it references so much, from synthpop to shoegaze. So I am wondering when you sit down to compose a song, are all of these references something that you keep in mind or is the process more organic?

I'd say it's a bit more organic; I don't sit down and think to myself "today I'm going to write that long-lost OMD track." I do try, however, to surround myself with things that inspire me and fit my ideals. I love Christmas lights and unusual paintings and old furniture. I listen to synthpop a lot when I want to be energized or while cleaning and shoegaze when I'm driving. I drive a Honda from 1988 and sometimes when I drive I like to pretend I live in another era. Nothing makes me feel groovier than listening to “Automatic” by The Jesus and Mary Chain while driving and smoking and wearing really cool sunglasses. I'd like that kind of thing to be present in my music, yes.

(Stephen Sandknop of Stephen Vs. Stephen)

4. SlowdiveMusic Blog ranked “The Void” in Top Tracks of 2011. We demand to know the genesis of this song!

"The Void" was a collaboration with an Australian Internet friend of mine named Robbie Goldstein. We met on an old Courtney Love fan board called KittyRadio back in the mid-2000s and started exchanging song ideas and sexy pictures. One evening he sent a song idea my way that he'd put together in Reason. It sent shivers down my spine and within a matter of hours I'd workshopped the structure with him and added vocals to it. The vocals on the final version are from that first run through. By the time it came out on the EP I'd added some guitar, a real snare drum, and more layered instruments. It remains one of my very favorite things I've ever helped create.

5. What’s on your plate at this moment? Any new music we can expect soon?

It's coming, slowly but surely! Right now I'm just expecting the EP to take off…any minute now. But in all seriousness, there's an upcoming sci-fi film called “Goliad Uprising” by Indie filmmaker Paul Bright that's going to feature one or more of the tracks from the EP. Apparently, one song in particular is going to be playing during the opening credits and I could not be more PSYCHED! Aside from that, I've just moved to Los Angeles and the sky's the limit, so they say. I'm looking for work as a production assistant on various film projects, and in the interim Hayden Hall and Jugger Naut of the fabulous synthpop band Professor Possessor are shooting an overtly sexy music video for "The Difference Between Us." I'm expecting it to be genius per their usual work, and the three of us are also in talks of starting a throwback 1960s boy band. I can't tell you how excited I am to start doing live shows again! Sky's the limit, indeed.

Keep up with Stephen Vs. Stephen at his Bandcamp page (where you can preview and download the “And Yet EP”) and check out his YouTube Channel, SBSandknop – interesting “Pyscho” influenced clip there!

Here is Stephen Vs. Stephen’s song “The Void” from his Bandcamp page.

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01 March 2012

Katrin The Thrill: "Earth Is Calling Us"

My many thanks to Independent Music Promotions for keeping me in the loop!

There are a few female vocalists, who when I hear them sing, the sound of their voices continue to haunt me for hours. Grace Slick and Siouxsie Sioux are two of these vocalists; the one thing that they have in common is that when they sing, their vocals seem to “lift” from the songs and dominate the soundscape. In more recent years, Skin of Skunk Anansie and Marina Lambrini Dimandis of Marina and the Diamonds also have this quality to their vocals. Katerina Panopoulu, who writes and performs under the moniker Katrin The Thrill, is another female vocalist to possess this quality. Her debut EP, “Earth Is Calling Us” (20 December 2010), not only frolics in darkish, brooding music that straddles both grunge and post-punk revival, it showcases her powerful and compellingly alluring vocals.

This is one of those releases that I kick myself for not discovering or being told about earlier! The genesis of the EP harkens back to 2009, when fires swept through Greece leaving havoc and devastation in their wake. “Earth Is Calling Us” is not only a reaction to the fires, but also a means to help; part of the profits will go towards the reforestation of the burned forests. In essence, this EP is more than just aesthetics; it is the chance, the potential, of doing something meaningful that transcends music.

“Earth Is Calling Us” opens with “You Make Me Wanna Die” – musically straightforward and lyrically blunt: “Now you’ve hurt me enough, so please decide to stop. Yes you made me sad, how cruel is your love…” Do not dismiss this song as that ramblings of a jilted lover; take notice of how the atmosphere between verse and chorus shifts, when Panopoulu repeatedly sings, “You make me wanna die.” It becomes obvious that this song is about the effects of an abusive situation, an issue rarely addressed in music. And it is obvious from the start that there is conscious consideration of how music and lyrics will work in tandem. The following track, “Unreal,” is darker and more brooding than the first; the guitar playing/arrangements on the track, though not the most complex on the album, really create an amazing lulling atmosphere. “God” is a surreal, narrative track of death (maybe suicide) and a “trip to find God” in order to find love. The song is as dramatic as they come; from the verses that seem to inch slowly, building up suspense, to the grandiose, yet ambient, feel of the chorus, everything about the song is disarming in a good way, especially when she sings the line, “I am God. I am God.”

The titular track follows, sharing some of the same underpinnings of the preceding track in terms of how suspense is built in the song. What I really like about this track is how the music and vocals bounce back-and-forth from resigned to angry. The radio edit of the song closes the EP. But before reaching that point, you go through “Sorry.” The music goes poppier than before, definitely more on the grunge side, with a bit of “shoegazy” guitars for effects. The main lyrical content is the repetition of “I’m sorry.” What really gets you about the song is how the near bubbly music and the idea of contriteness in the repeated phrase are really mutually exclusive and yet work wonderfully together (definitely my favorite track). But like good lyricists, there is an air of (total) ambiguity about this song: what are you sorry about? How did it go wrong? But, at the end of it all, it doesn’t matter, because the song really captures that moment when you want to give into your remorse and ask for forgiveness, but still stubbornly holding onto the façade of being happy and upbeat.

Just as I always say about Scandinavia, Greece stands outside and relatively at a distance from the Anglo-American world; though drenched with its music, it is experienced in quite a different way than a kid in Boston or Manchester would engage it. It is that distinct perspective about music, genre, and even language that really gives some international artists something special and alluring to their music. Katrin The Thrill (though having studied prior and now living in the UK) is one of those artists that have that alluringness of being the outsider producing something familiar, but yet refreshing and distinct. “Earth Is Calling Us” is the evidence of that. It is everything about this collection (that amazing voice, the infectious rifts, knowing that your purchase helps reforest parts of Greece, and that distinct approach of familiar elements) that keeps me hitting repeat and making me wish I knew about it earlier.

Track Listing:
1. You Make Me Wanna Die
2. Unreal
3. God
4. Earth Is Calling Us
5. Sorry
6. Earth Is Calling Us, Radio Edit

Keep up with Katrin The Thrill at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.

Here is the video for “Earth Is Calling Us” from the manoouz YouTube Channel.

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