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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