Last week I waxed eloquent about the importance of the AudioFeed Festival, to me and to the world in which it lives. But this is a music column after all, so it’s time to talk about the music I picked up while I was there.
AudioFeed, as I have mentioned before, has pound for pound more excellent music than any other festival I could name. For the past few years, once the old-school headliners stopped being the only draw, it has been my yearly chance to chart the growth of some new favorites and an unmissable opportunity to discover even newer favorites. And I always walk away with a ton of new CDs.
This year there were fewer out-of-the-park discoveries. But there certainly were a couple. One of them, in fact, is a couple: Dave and Licia Radford of Nashville, who go by the name The Gray Havens. (Obscure Tolkien reference!) They refer to their music as narrative folk, and it certainly fits that description. They write story-songs (the absolutely delightful “Sirens” is a good example of this), and though they are stripped-down live, their voices intertwining over guitars or pianos, they are full-blooded on record.
I bought all three of the Gray Havens’ albums, and although I missed out on their recent Kickstarter, I am patiently awaiting their fourth. The latest, Ghost of a King, is really nice – there are shades of Coldplay here and there, and hints of Gungor, but mostly the Gray Havens are their own thing. I’d write more about these albums, but my lovely girlfriend has had them since AudioFeed (she loves them as much as I do), so I’ve only heard them online. But when record number four arrives, I will certainly delve deeper. Check them out here.
The AudioFeed community seemed excited to have booked as one of their headliners an act I’d never heard of: Lowercase Noises. It turned out to be the one-man project of Andrew Othling, who has been releasing beautiful ambient music under his band name since 2010. His show was breathtaking – an hour of sweeping, wave-like, gorgeous noise flowing over the audience as we watched mysterious shapes and colors appear on a screen at the back of the stage. Othling made oceans of wonder come out of his guitar, and it was bliss.
His new Lowercase Noises album is called The Swiss Illness, and it’s great. It’s about nostalgia, which was characterized as a disease during the 17th to 19th centuries, particularly in Switzerland. Soldiers were discharged for nostalgia, and were treated for it as if it were a mental disorder. The music on The Swiss Illness, though completely instrumental, feels sad and nostalgic to me. It’s almost overwhelmingly pretty, and listening to it on full volume is like being surrounded by water, cut off from everything, experiencing nothing but beauty. I love it. I’m hungry for more. Buy it here.
On the exact other end of the musical spectrum, there is Death Therapy. It’s the new project from Jason Wisdom of metal band Becoming the Archetype. Incidentally, I remember Wisdom and his bandmates handing out free CDs at Cornerstone in 2002, dreaming of being signed. Becoming the Archetype turned into a popular and impressive band, with five records and an EP to their name. Wisdom left in 2011 to pursue other avenues.
Those other avenues have led him to Death Therapy, a band I saw in action at last year’s AudioFeed. They’re danceable electro-metal, kind of like Deliverance’s Assimilation album, but more complex and shouty. Electronic drums sit alongside organic ones, distorted bass fires out in rhythmic bursts. Everything is about the groove. Death Therapy’s debut album is called The Storm Before the Calm, and it’s everything I was hoping for. I’m fond of every song, but the two-part instrumental at the end was a particularly interesting surprise. Find out more here.
Insomniac Folklore is a mainstay at AudioFeed. I saw them the first year, and was not surprised to hear that they are from Portland, Oregon. They take a lot from the Decemberists, though they are more stripped-back and apocalyptic. I’ve enjoyed their shows, but never picked up one of their albums before.
I rectified that this year, buying their new one, Everything Will Burn. While the title sounds more like something Death Therapy would put out, this album is rooted in centuries-old folk music and anchored by the baritone voice of Tyler Hentschel. It’s rickety in the best way, swaying back and forth on concertinas and cellos. The album is a song cycle about Exodus, and while it certainly isn’t for everyone, I find myself more enchanted by it than not. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a band quite like this one, and for that alone they deserve respect. Check the record out here.
I’ve made some discoveries at AudioFeed that I know will be with me the rest of my life. Von Strantz is one of them. Led by the core duo of Jess and Kelsey Von Strantz (they’re not related, they just both adopted the band name as their own), this band has appeared in half a dozen different incarnations throughout AudioFeed history. Their folksier early EPs shared space with some jazzier tracks on their first album, Narratives, which I praised effusively here a couple years ago.
A couple months ago, I pledged to a Kickstarter campaign for a new Von Strantz record called Apple of Your Eye, recorded with John Vanderslice. I was a little surprised to find out that Apple’s seven songs only stretch to 20 minutes, but they’re a pretty terrific 20 minutes. Von Strantz played the album straight through live at AudioFeed in a more acoustic setting that really brought the songs home, and prepared me for the more electronic, bizarre production they’ve employed on the record itself.
This is absolutely a divorce record, detailing the dissolution of Jess’ relationship. It’s darker and more difficult than the more upbeat Narratives, but it’s naked and powerful. Songs like “Loved You More” lay it bare: “Every time we touched, it never seemed to mean much to you…” The lyrics keep the songs grounded, no matter how many strange avenues the music takes. (The grooves of the title track and “Best Kept Secret” are particularly well-constructed, made of unlikely materials.) The best thing here, though, is the Adele-like “Sometimes It Hurts,” a simple piano piece that Jess sings the living hell out of. It’s a stunning closer to a record that takes Von Strantz to new places, musically and emotionally.
There doesn’t seem to be any place online to hear the new one, but you can hear all the old ones here.
Jess Von Strantz is also one-half of a band called Native Land, along with singer/songwriter (and fiancee) Matthew Hobler. Hobler’s songs are altogether stranger, but quite beautiful – he reminds me of Tim Buckley more than anyone else, writing and singing space-y acoustic tunes with cosmic imagery and surprising melodies. Native Land’s self-titled EP is handmade – it comes on a CD-R in a paper bag – and was recorded at home, but the lovely songs come through. I’m particularly fond of closer “Aneetha May,” which sounds timeless to my ears. You can hear the EP here.
But perhaps my favorite new CD I picked up at (actually shortly after) AudioFeed comes from Sho Baraka. I’d never heard of him before his post-midnight set on the final day of the festival, but he knocked me out. Imagine the gospel-tinged hip-hop of Chance the Rapper with a more pointed social awareness, a deeper willingness to talk about racism and inequality and systemic oppression and how those are moral issues for people of faith. Baraka walked into an almost entirely white room and guided this audience by the hand through all of these hard topics, with grace and humor and confidence. It was one of the best shows of the weekend.
Baraka’s new album is called The Narrative, and it is everything I could have wanted after his set. It’s a powerful piece of work, walking us through the history of racial oppression in this country and never whitewashing the role of the church in that oppression. It’s also, paradoxically, a lot of fun. “Kanye” uses Chicago’s loudest as license to rant, and the rant itself is fantastic. “Here” and “Excellent” are eminently danceable tracks with heavier themes. “Fathers” is a moving ode to men who take responsibility, and the closer “Piano Break” (which got Baraka banned from LifeWay Christian bookstores for using the word “penis”) is perhaps his fullest expression here, a deep and wide-ranging poem of anguish and love.
The Narrative is superb in every way, probably my favorite hip-hop album I have heard this year. (It came out last year, alas, or it would be in my list.) You can check Sho Baraka out here. He has a follow-up EP to The Narrative out now too, called Pianos and Politics, and I am looking forward to hearing that.
All in all, a pretty good haul from AudioFeed 2017. Already looking forward to next year. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.