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Alt Rock





The Silk War explores dialectical materialism on debut LP

You gotta give it up for a band that lives up to their name right out of the gate (no knock on Brian Wilson but he was more into backyard sandboxes than actual beaches and sadly the one “real Beach Boy” in the group drowned—choose those band names wisely kids) and so you gotta give it up for The Silk War, a band that even on their debut album (Come Evening) have already got the whole “dialectical opposites” thing down cold.

Because “silk” and “war” are two things you don’t expect to go together (which is basically true of "war" and anything nice like silk or doilies or Swiss watches) but here is a musical collective that dives fully into their moniker with abandon and not in the obvious sense of depicting “bedroom conflicts” aka "silk wars" to which the real Silk War would say hold my martini (quoting directly from their frontperson: “Heartbreaks don’t really do it for me. Not like a lot of people who think that, you know, I need that and now I’m a poet. If someone doesn’t wanna fuck me anymore, it’s not bad.”) because over the course of 11 songs they delve again and again into the Freudian construct of Eros and Thanatos and some of the forms these two core conflicting-yet-codependent drives can take and translate them into toe-tapping orch pop and dark indie rock songs that combine dread and desire in equal measure.

And maybe right about now you’re thinking “here we go with the overreach” but rest assured everything written here is based on direct empirical evidence because not long ago I met up with Silk War’s singer/lyricist/acoustic guitarist and co-songwriter Alexandra Blair (the other co-songwriter in question is guitarist/producer James “Jimmy” Mullen) for a chat and she verified the broad contours of my theory and described how her songwriting is galvanized by a “circadian rhythm” of revelry and despair—with the sense of transcendence of a proper S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night on the town soon followed by S-U-N-D-A-Y Morning Coming Down doldrums so there’s your Eros and Thanatos interplay right there no matter the actual days of the week, not to mention the closely related notion of creative destruction or destructive creativity whichever you prefer.

And here in our conversation Ms. Blair references the Orson Welles “cuckoo clock” speech from the Third Man which is highly apropos—not to mention her mentions of Bukowski, Nabokov and Sartre at other points and her love of literature in general—so be forewarned there’s a reading list involved if you wanna fully get onto the Silk War Wavelength.

[[Before going any further I should mention any quote here from Alexandra that is sans quotation marks is paraphrased on my part because I used a voice memo app to record our talk and of course it picked up all kinds of ambient noise and nearby conversations, and using a transcription app didn’t help much either because it had me replying to the statement above with “Cool madness better. Right. Chickens, crazy” and while I wish I’d said that it seems unlikely because I wasn’t that many beers in yet. Still, I’d like to think Alexandra really did say “The vicious alliterates, but also like the tender Fucking drama” at some point and yes the phone app capitalized “Fucking” for some reason because why not.]]

Come Evening opens with “Little Souls” which sets the stage for the dialectical musical materialism (!) to come, a song that's by turns somber and stirring, Apollonian and Dionysian. Fading in on some dour church organ tones, soon a faraway phoning-it-in voice informs us “our barbaric ritual can begin” (finally!) before a quick reverse-fade suddenly snaps us out of our reverie and we’re thrust into a new musical texture with a driving rhythm section and crisp acoustic guitar work and melodic electric lead, but never losing the downward spiral organ chords with Alexandra declaiming, “There’s a dark wet side of things / crystallized in perfumes / masqueraded with rings” which right away lays out the stakes of shape-shifting "dark wet" primal desires and fears (the perfume here may be crystallized, but soon it’ll be dispersed into the ether again) that make our narrator want to be swept away but at the same time wary of getting a little too swept up in this twilight world where we’re all “forgetting our need to sleep” and “breaking windows for the beauty of it” and there’s your creative destruction right there.

In “Little Souls” we also get our first exposure to another dialectical relationship in a singing style that alternates between half-sung-half-spoken “recitative” at one extreme and more melodic “aria” sections on the other extreme (especially when it comes to the hooks). And yeah I realize recitative/aria are terms from opera, but it’s not a total stretch given that A. is well versed with these terms as a formally trained singer because she majored in Vocal Performance at NYU after moving here from Chicago.

And oh yeah “Little Souls” includes one of my favorite images from the record which doubles as a fashion tip (“I’ll paint my nails black to cover up / all that New York dirt”) which also supports A.’s contention that this is a true New York City record and which also supports my contention of Eros/Thanatos lying at the heart of Come Evening. Because really any truly great city like NYC should be hellbent on killing you (Thanatos) but if it doesn’t kill you it’ll make you fall in love with it (Eros) not despite of it’s murderous intent but (perversely, you pervert!) because of it. Or as A. puts it: “Have you ever biked through Bushwick? You get dirt in your eyes! It’s disgusting. You have to wear sunglasses. You have to be able to withstand it. And at the same time absorb it, and love it. And fucking hate it. By becoming yourself and wearing [inaudible] with whatever you feel on the outside and creating something out of [inaudible]” and well you get the idea despite the omissions. (for those with too much time on their hands: if you wanna read up on the Marxist dialectics of modern urban living and New York City specifically then I'd highly recommend Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air which is still entertaining and enlightening nearly 40 years after its initial publication...)

The next two songs on Come Evening keep riding the dialectical rails with “Barcelona” being about a man who sabotages his present by confusing it with his past (and probably a half dreamt-up past at that) and again the beginning sounds like you’re waking up from a dream before launching into a catchy piano-driven baroque-pop number with a video shot inside a Brooklyn church interspersed with shots of Alexandra walking into the sea all Kate Chopin like (and oh yeah I should have mentioned the music video for “Little Souls” is modeled on Maya Deren's 1944 short film At Land for all you aspiring cineaste avant-garde types). And then the next song “The Blue Hour” (as befits its title) explores the liminal state between night and day, sleep and waking, dreams and reality, where they’re all not so easy to distinguish and you think to yourself, “I’ve been awake for a long time / I’ll sort it out.” 

And then and then (in no particular order) there’s the deceptively upbeat dance-pop of “Slender Slander” which deals with gun violence; and “Lark Mirror” which uses a bird hunter's decoy mechanism as a metaphor for delusion but in string-swelling, spine-tingling form especially when it gets to the line about “not wasting my youth on you”; “New York (You’re My Religion)” has a nice glam-pop swing to it and the title’s pretty self-explanatory, while the stately closing waltz of “Sylvia” is less self-explantory but now you know it’s about Sylvia Plath; “Agoria Phobia” opens with a slinky, stop-start groove that most bands would not hesitate to build an entire song around. But Silk War are good about not repeating themselves, or at least only repeating themselves with variation, and this song completely changes after about a minute never to return to the intro part again.

And then and then “Second Age” opens up with a Joy Division beat and some doomy chords but ends almost six minutes later sounding like the song is soaring to the heaven even though the lyrics stay sick throughout; “Velvet” uses the veil as a metaphor for imperfections both hidden and exposed (those dialectics again!) while the penultimate “My Familiar” represents the demonic doppelgänger of its title with an epic eight-minute arrangement that starts with a witchy mystical sounding opening section and then makes it way through a whole serious of ebbs and flows before arriving at some Pink Floyd-worthy ethereal keyboard arpeggiating and psychedelic guitar wailing before ebbing and cresting one last time with a triumphant declaration of autonomy. 

And did I mention this song comes off impressively live? Because when the Silk War appear in person they really amps up the Dionysian side of things with Alexandra stalking the stage (and the audience!) like a test-tube fusion of Siouxsie Sioux and Stevie Nicks and Wendy O. Williams's DNA but with the band holding down the Apollonian side of things with ornate musical arrangements precisely rendered as seen in the video above I took of them at the recent Come Evening album release party. And no the sound quality’s not perfect because this was recorded on a phone but it turned out a hell of a lot better than the interview and should give you enough incentive to see them live which like a waking dream you can never quite recapture afterward but you know it was damn near perfect when it happened. —Jason Lee

photo by John Burgundy, Berlin Under A, 08.26.21

 





The Down & Outs new single may just make you jealous

Jealousy is what happens when “good” emotions get turned inside-out and then collided against a bunch of other emotions, and I was a psych major so I should know. (suck it, Dr. Phil!) As opposed to envy (wanting something you don’t have) jealousy is the act of dreading, or lamenting, the loss of something you do have. Which means that jealousy actually derives from a state of happiness, or at least contentment, until some other party appears poised to take one’s happiness-generating special someone or something away (or does take them away) which causes that happiness to get turned inside-out into something more like anger or fury. Add in some disgust, fear, and surprise (“I didn’t see it coming!”) and you got your most pungent form of jealousy. 

And guess what, I’ve just listed each one of the six most basic forms of human emotion as defined by noted actual psychologist and “emotions expert” (yes, this exists) Paul Ekman, meaning that jealousy is basically all the emotions at once and no wonder it’s such an irrational and erratic state of being and probably delusional about half the time too.

Like it’s nominal subject, “Jealous//Unreal” begins in a fairly positive state of mind with a tightly-coiled come-hither vibe that’s basically desire personified--an in-the-pocket head-nodding bassline set against a tight dance-punk beat and washed of ambient guitar chords that’s projects steady confidence no matter how much the fragmentary lyrical content may be casting shadows of doubt. But soon something like obsessive fixation creeps into the picture with a single four-word phrase repeating that includes both the words in the song’s title. And while “Jealous//Unreal” soon breaks away from the repeated phrase and goes back to another verse, it’s like you’ve just heard the moment that a jealous seed is planted, like foreshadowing for the more total slide into irrational fixation. 

It’s not until after the song appears to end for a moment at 1:50 with a quick fadeout that it proceeds to turn itself inside-out. The once unrelenting, syncopated bassline is reduced to short two-note bursts utilizing an even heavier more fuzzed out sound with only the stripped-down drums filling the gaps. And in the vocals the intrusive thought from earlier completely takes over, progressing gradually from a whisper to a scream and repeated to the point of absurdity, turned into a mantra with the vocals and music gradually building in intensity and speed until it sounds like a runaway train about to jump the tracks (peep those two parallel lines in the song’s title hmmm..) before an emergency brake gets pulled at the last minute and you wonder if the whole cycle is about to begin again (this is six-minute long song that feels like it’s maybe four minutes long that’s how immersive it gets to be).

Anyway, it’s one of the best aural representations of jealousy taking hold and then taking over I’ve heard in quite some time with a seductive groove hijacked by OCD repetition and growing sonic chaos (two sides of the same coin?) but without ever losing its animating drive (the sense of desire, the foundational groove). But however ambitious this may sound rest assured The Down & Outs don’t make soggy jam band epics for noodle dancing, or pretentious prog rock epics about how to balance your chakras, because “Jealous//Unreal” stays rooted in a no-fat-on-the-bones post-punk-ish tension and concision with strong funk and dub underpinnings throughout (and if that’s not the most stereotypically music-criticy sentence I’ve ever written then I owe you two dollars but still it’s all quite true) or at least that’s my read.

So maybe there needs to be more songs written about jealousy. Just like the world could use more movies like Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, one of the best movies ever about jealousy and I could watch Joan Crawford and Bette Davis drag each other down the stars all day in full-on psycho-biddy/hagsploitation mode all day. In my opinion a better point of comparison for the two most recent Down & Outs singles (the previous one being “Last Party On Duke Street”) would be Public Image Ltd. given that band’s groundbreaking sound in their early years with often fronted by deep-groove bass and death disco beats locked into robotic repetition with Keith Levene’s guitar parts spiraling overhead—vacillating between atmospheric swells and slashing attacks all immersed in a distinctively dub reggae production style. But who knows maybe I’m making all this up.

Luckily, I got to have a lovely conversation with Down & Outs’ bassist/vocalist/co-songwriter Ray recently (we’re on a first name basis now) when he called up The Deli HQ mistakely one day trying to order a chopped cheese and agreed to submit to a few question instead. And he seemed pretty ok with the PiL comparison while also presenting his own list of musical influences that I could hardly keep up with in my notes but I did catch Death from Above 1979, Channel Tres, Thin Lizzy, Daniel Avery, AC/DC, and I Hate Models among others and already that’s we’re talking such an intriguing grab bag of hard rock, vibey EBM-inflected rap music, techno and garage (the latter in both in the rock and electronic sense) that it’s no wonder they’re so good at depicting the collision of conflicting impulses and emotions of a jealous mind.

As it turns out, the structure of “Jealous//Unreal” grew out of the Great Lockdown during which Ray and band guitarist/co-songwriter) Benji started trading ideas back and forth in Garageband--and no doubt Tom the Drummer too, who replaced previous drummer Varun the Drummer--building these last two singles (and the next one, you heard it here first!) from the scrapheap of assembled ideas, choosing one of these scraps as the through line for an entire song and then adding/subtracting layers and applying other sonic manipulations as they traded the tracks back and forth--a dialectic technique that would make Aristotle proud and that was simpatico with their previously existing flipsides-of-the-same-coin creative dynamic.

Ray compares this working method to 1) a rock band making their version of a techno song, simulating electronic music without the actual electronics; and 2) a rock band in the vein of the Stooges, making rock songs out of minimalist pounding riffs repeated ad infinitum as a wide-open canvas for an Iggy-like shamanistic lead singer to entrance listeners with verbal incantations and acts of self-mutilation (I’m paraphrasing here) and he therefore concludes that 3) the Stooges invented techno, which truly, is just the sort of audacious thinking we encourage here at the Deli because like they say go big or go home.

This led the two of us down a much more wide-ranging but inspiring conversational rabbit hole about wanting to break the mold of the entrenched conservatism that mainstream rock music had settled into during the 21st century (case in point, Gen X “dad rock” bands like Foo Fighters are still having number one albums over 20 years after they formed and hey we love ya Dave but must you appear in every single rock doc that gets made today (!)  but still The Colour and the Shape remains unimpeachable forever) leading some of your more adventurous contemporary bands to twist themselves into “guitar-based music” pretzels just to shun the “rock” label and its current associations. 

But Ray instead advocates expanding the palette of rock’s sources of inspiration and desire for experimentation. And really when you think about it this is consistent with rock tradition already and “iconic” icon-smashing bands like the Clash (“No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977 they promised) riffing on dub, funk, ska, and Americana instead like a kid let loose in a musical candy store, or a band like Blondie being influenced by a plethora of music including uptown artists like Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash back before your average honky on the street ever heard the words “hip” and “hop” placed back to back even among many New Yorkers (clubs like the Roxy, the Mudd Club, and Paradise Garage were crucial to these uptown/downtown encounters with their eclectic punky funky bills back in the day).

So in this sense the latest music by The Down & Outs could be considered both progressive and retro (but in the most expansive and least reactive sense) proving that rock music in New York City isn’t down and out for the count yet; of course if you’re a regular reader of the Deli you know that already! So why not wish these boys luck in their efforts to twist familiar genres inside-out (which again makes me think of dub reggae innovations as critical to this equation, after all it’s also been called “X-Ray Music”) setting them on a collision course to see what’s born out of the wreckage. And if that sounds grandiose then blame me not the down-and-outers because they seem like pretty modest guys. And hey if the band’s ambition makes you a little jealous, well, such is the price of letting emotion take hold. (Jason Lee)


 





Reinvention or Reimagination: Sho Humphries Urges Us to "Dream Again"

Before embarking on his next great adventure, Austin ukulele sensation Sho Humphries made sure to bestow his loving local community with a parting gift. Sho’s debut EP Dream Again is a triumph of creativity, an exploration of sound and style from a young musician whose bravery surpasses even his immense talents.

In Sho’s nimble hands, the ukulele is transformed. Empowered. Liberated. He embraces the instrument as something far beyond its simplistic representation in public perception—more than a toy, more than an instrument for beachside celebration and casual singalongs, the ukulele is an embodiment of possibility itself. In Sho’s hands, the ukulele seems infinite, irrepressible. It breathes water and whispers fire and sings of a bright tomorrow.

The growth showcased between earlier releases and this new EP are striking. Sho’s 2017 instrumental album Making Summer Memories flirted with musical expressionism, pushing and pulling at the boundaries of expectation while staying firmly rooted in a larger framework for what ukulele music is and can be. Opening track “It’s Shotime!” is a notable exception, its near-frantic urgency and rock-and-roll aesthetic harbingers of both Sho’s sonic fearlessness and profound, near-brooding pensiveness. The rest of the album tends toward bright and buoyant, though the assertive percussiveness of each strike sometimes seem to belie an underlying (and typically teenage) impatience.

2020 single Love You! was the virtuoso’s first foray into electronic looping, his airy, math rock-y riffs given ample room to breathe and, in turn, breathing life into a lo-fi trend threatening to sedate swaths of the younger generation. The track showcases a young musician at peace with the process of finding peace — more patient, perhaps in love with the simple joy of making music. The chorus is endearingly heartfelt, and all the more powerful for it: “Breathe in, breathe in/Love out, love in.”

 With the Dream Again EP, Sho emerges more confident, more hopeful, that familiar sense of urgency appearing again but tempered now by faith in himself and the future. He is more accomplished than ever on the ukulele itself — every finger-picked run impeccable, every strum irresistible. But the sentiment underlying each song feels more profound, more mature, more complex. What might once have felt like emotional reactions are transformed into careful reflections and reimaginations.

The echoing, atmospheric emptiness of the title track slowly evolves, swelling with elegantly amplified ukulele riffs that complement, rather than overpower, Sho’s stirring baritone (on debut!). Tight songwriting and a deep appreciation for the power of empty space cultivate in a wonderfully distorted crescendo, with Sho’s direct poeticism lending a sense of urgency to Sho’s pleas for the world to “dream again,” to build a better future and to avoid our own mutually assured destruction.

A return to Sho’s sonic roots — hopeful, determined, vibrant — “Rising Hope” builds on that momentum. It is the song of rebirth and reimagination, the sound of grass beginning to grow again as a new sun shines a light on far-off horizons. There is a sadness of sorts underpinning it all, a recognition that new beginnings demand their own sacrifices — what once might have been innocent idealism is tempered by an acceptance of reality that makes Sho’s resolute optimism all the more impactful.

Vision and imagination, determination and dynamism — these are traits we desperately need in our younger generations, who we have collectively burdened with so much responsibility and expectation. Armed with his ukulele and a searching spirit, Sho Humphries is stepping into the world ready to make a change.

 — Adam Wood





Single premiere: Nihiloceros preps for imminent self-destruction with "Dirty Homes"

It’s one thing to know that the end will come one day (easy enough to ignore) but it’s another to know when that day will come (not so easy to ignore). The new single put out today by Brooklyn-based three-piece Nihiloceros (“Dirty Homes”) is based around the latter condition which Dr. Nessa Coyle, co-editor of The Nature of Suffering and The Oxford Textbook of Palliative Care Nursing, both of which make for excellent beach reads, has termed the “existential slap” i.e. the very moment where a soon-to-arrive demise is realized and internalized alongside the attendant trauma likely to follow a time-stamped death sentence.

Despite being something best-avoided in real life, the “existential slap” is a popular plot device in the movies like in all those ticking-clock-countdown-to-a-life-or-death-deadline type films, even if many of them cop out and allow the hero to live at the last minute. Existential slap movies also tap into our curiosity of how we’d react if we learned we’ve got only one year or maybe just 24 hours left to live, just like Ethan Hawke in that movie from a few years ago called (*ahem*) 24 Hours To Live. But my personal fave in this genre is Miracle Mile, an obscure 1988 film that’s grown a cult following over the years due to what Black Mirror sicko-satirist Charlie Brooker once labelled “the biggest lurch of tone” of any movie ever.  

Basically (warning: skip this paragraph if you hate tangents and/or spoilers) the movie starts off as a quirky “meet cute” rom-com that’s just about as Totally ‘80s as they come. And then it ends with our nerdy-adorable couple slowly sinking into the La Brea Tar Pits in a crashed helicopter as nuclear bombs rain down on Los Angeles (a surprisingly tender scene believe it or not). But most of the movie revolves around the existential bitchslap that arrives about 30 minutes in when Anthony Edwards first finds out (before anyone else) that nuclear armageddon is on its way in about an hour or so, and all the batshit crazy shit that transpires as a result.

But hey we’re here to talk about music, right? (thanks for the reminder!) While not on the same level as movies there are at least a few well-known albums (concept albums, natch) that deal with this very same theme—notable examples being Megadeth’s Countdown To Extinction, the Del/Dan/Kid underground hip hop classic Deltron 3030, and of course David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars which opens with the conceit of being down to “five years left to cry in” before the end.

But a “concept EP” that takes the existential slap as its central conceit, well this is breaking new ground. And Nihiloceros have done just that with Self Destroy (released digitally on 9/17 and then physically on 10/1 from Totally Real Records) perhaps the world’s first “existential slap EP” (make that “ESEP”) and there’s no bisexual rock aliens falling to Earth to spread moorage daydreams before the inevitable rock ’n’ roll suicide in the Nihiloceros's rendition. Instead, we have a six-song self-described meditation on “the imminent evolutionary unraveling of the human condition and the absurdity of the end of the world” which obviously should make for good beach listening.

And guess what “Dirty Homes” is the lead-off track on the EP so we got a sneak preview now of how it all begins. Eschewing any “meet cute” gambits, the song instead charges into your earholes with a needle drop straight into a rush of Superchunky distorted intertwining bass and guitar and propulsive beating of skins (Chris Gilroy on the skins as well as production/engineering/mixing duties, whereas Siberian transplant German Sent handles current live drumming duties, got it?) and an eerie high-register melody. Meanwhile, right off the bat the narrator faces “youth erod[ing]” and “ages torn down” and the impending demise of humanity (difficult to imagine, no?) and just like Anthony Edwards in the phone booth scene above, humanity’s first reaction is flat out denial. When we talked the other day guitarist/lyricist Mike Borchardt called the song a “fairy tale vs. reality” type fableand that seems about right because the cognitive dissonance is palpable in both the lyrics and music.

Contrasting the titular “dirty homes” with pristine “white cathedrals” it seems humanity may have miscalculated in not taking better care of the places where we actually live (the dirty homes in question) instead tending to ritual spaces where we imagine our ideal selves as looked after by a beneficent god (this could be any type of “god” or "gods" take your pick). As further described in the lyrics through snatches of arresting imagery, we’ve travelled to the point of no return on “the yellow bricks [that] lead to Rome” and well now I’m picturing Dorothy hooking up with Caligula and bringing the whole gang along to a gladiator match (you know the Cowardly Lion is freaking the fuck out) followed by an imperial orgy (every tried to have sex with a scarecrow?) which all ends in chaos of course. 

Likewise on the musical side of the things the song swings between extremes—the bouyant melodies of the verses masking apocalyptical imagery of locked jaws and rusted suns and “cities built on your cries” that is until the song gets stuck in its own groove with our narrator repeating “YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU!” in the chorus in an echo of the egotism and individualism and freedom-to-be-stupid-but-fully-satiated-at-all-times-at-all-costs that got us into this end times mess in the first place. Then later there’s a breakdown section (talk about literal!) and finally an outro that opens with a nice crunchy ’n’ catchy guitar solo that soon unravels into swelling sonic murk and doomsday countdown-clock rhythms before glitching out and ending on a bass and guitar single-note that hisses and crackles like a burnt out element. 

And if this all sounds a little on the dismal side it’s not so much really because much like Miracle Mile the songs on Self Destroy are the musical equivalent of action set pieces, adrenalized and strangly exhilarated by impending doom (thought don’t get me wrong “the shit goes down”) and plus the band creates such a powerful slab-of-sound that you’ll likely be mesmerized anyway—at times I still can’t tell which parts are bass or guitar, nevermind theremin or effects-laden Rhodes piano—which could be down in part to bassist/co-vocalist Alex Hoffman designing a custom line of pedals for the record (!) that’ll be available to the buying public at some point (plus an entire line of tie-in hot sauces, I shit you not) so check out “Dirty Homes” for now and then clean up your pig-sty why don'tcha and then get ready to blast off when Self Destroy drops because, well, it’s gonna be “a thrill ride into oblivion” (potential pull quote!) and you may as well sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds as it goes down. (Jason Lee)





Alt Rock

Time: 
08:00
Band name: 
The Living Strange
FULL Artist Facebook address (http://...): 
https://www.facebook.com/thelivingstrange
Venue name: 
The Knitting Factory
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