A Playlist for January

January has been a difficult month. With the election of the most unstable, unpredictable and downright horrible-excuse-for-a-human-being President in living memory in the United States, and the consequent discussions and daily reminders of the situation that have dominated so many areas of our lives, music and culture can truly show their worth. In times like these, music can achieve many things: putting ideas, concepts and criticisms into the form of art; providing hope and inspiration in times where this is lacking; or even simply giving us a momentary (and increasingly necessary) interlude from the uncertainty and troubles around us. As such, I have decided to designate some time each month to discuss the music that has truly reached me over the past 30 days, in the hopes that you may find similar relief, joy, and inspiration from it. The act of sharing music, and culture in general, between people has always been a reminder of the magnificence of human interaction. The beauty of common ideas, shared feelings and the same indulgence into emotions; culture is what makes us friends, it is what makes us human.

The following songs and more of what I’ve been listening to this month have been compiled into a playlist on Spotify – https://open.spotify.com/user/1114606389/playlist/3WvslFrnZTscrigcIxpuyg

Kevin Morby – “Beautiful Strangers”, from Beautiful Strangers b/w No Place To Fall, Dead Oceans, 2016

Kevin Morby’s Singing Saw was a standout album last year, and his following single maintained the grace, finesse and comfort that has been a mark of his catalogue. Released in support of the organisation Everytown for Gun Safety, and the victims of the Orlando mass-shooting more specifically, “Beautiful Strangers” immerses us in emotion and optimism for the future. The lyrics range from the overtly topical, such as “Pray for Paris / They cannot scare us / Or stop the music”, to the just downright pure and inspiring: “If the door gets kicked in, here they come now / Think of others, be their cover / I am what they’re not”. The delightful range of music provides an uplifting aura of hope, including a constant percussion beat that puts a spring in the step and a gorgeous guitar part, resonating alongside Morby’s soft voice. The outward message, “Carry onward, like some songbird / Beautiful Stranger” is one that leaves the listener inevitably happier than they were 7 minutes earlier.

Julien Baker – “Funeral Pyre”, Funeral Pyre, Matador Records, 2017

Memphis, TN born Julien Baker is one of my favourite singer-songwriters of our time. Her debut solo album, Sprained Ankle, off the back of some great work with band Forrister, remains one of the most beautiful, raw and heartbreaking albums of recent years.  She returns this year with a new record deal with Matador, a re-release of her LP, and this stunning single, one of the first new songs I heard this year. Her norm of singing personal, relatable and honest lyrics over beautifully picked, echoing guitar notes provides an experience of being alone with her, hearing her expressions of sadness told with the intimacy akin to that of a beloved friend, one in whom we trust completely. The lyrics are as poignant as ever, and this single provides a great excuse to revisit the entirety of her past work (if only there were more!), every song feeling like an intimate gig.

Julie Byrne – “Follow My Voice”, Not Even Happiness, Basin Rock. 2017

The opening track of Byrne’s gorgeous new album was also the second single released in the weeks preceding the new year. Any number of songs on this album could be discussed at length, Byrne continuing the standard of excellence and elegance demonstrated on 2014’s Rooms With Walls and Windows, but I have elected the opener due to its purposefulness, Byrne’s titular voice serving as a resounding beacon, guiding us into the smooth and feather-soft delicacy of the rest of the album. The opening guitar notes, the subtle scratch of strings we hear throughout, present a similar intimacy to that of Julien Baker, though painting a different picture of life, love and closeness. Byrne’s voice is elevated with grace, and lines like “I’ve been called heartbreaker / For doing justice to my own” present  a solemn reminder of the difficulty with which we traverse these emotional waters.

Father John Misty – “Pure Comedy”, Pure Comedy, Sub-Pop/Bella Union, 2017

I Love You, Honeybear proved itself through lyrical genius and immaculately delicate composition more than worthy of the title of best album of 2015. Josh Tillman’s sole single in the time since, “Real Love Baby”, I felt did not quite match the ambition and brilliance of Honeybear or even Fear Fun. With “Pure Comedy”, the first single from the upcoming album (April!) of the same name, turns to the same sort of social commentary witness on the great Honeybear single “Bored In The USA”. Accompanied by a powerful video by Matthew Siskin composed of various footage and animations depicting the full ludicrousness and extremes of humanity, Tillman coolly talks us through life and various socio-political questions and answers. The ultimate line, “I hate to say it, but eachother’s all we’ve got”, typifies the general tone of the song, an almost reluctant humanism, a delicate blend of cynicism and optimism. Such a message echoes in many of our hearts at the current time, and I am yet to see any artist compose a piece of art quite so simultaneously creative and pertinent regarding the current situation. Since it came out, I have shown it to various classes of mine to evoke responses on the relationship between art and satire, of comedy and sincerity, faith and pessimism. Too few contemporary artists could inspire similar debate. Tillman’s lyrical ability seems increasingly akin to the height of Dylan’s career; a perfect blend of personality, emotion, and observation. A second song and video, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” (focusing on gun violence and perceptions of different socieities), and a new single, “Ballad of the Dying Man”, have also been released in the past week. Together, the three suggest a highly promising return from one of the most ambitious, prestigious and talented artists of our generation. The inspiring video for “Pure Comedy” can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKrSYgirAhc

Vagabon – “The Embers”, The Embers, Father/Daughter Records, 2016

The second single released from upcoming debut album Infinite Worlds (February 2017), and the second to take a song from Vagabon’s first EP, Persian Garden, and dramatically alter it showing immense development as an artist. Cameroon-born, New York resident Laetitia Tamko’s first effort, “Sharks”, from said EP, was a strong song, but the remake takes us through a much more powerful and energetic journey, where Tamko’s voice really shines. The other singles from Infinite Worlds released so far, “Fear & Force” and “Minneapolis”, are similarly spectacular, the first being the song that caught my attention and perhaps best shows Tamko’s capabilities as a songwriter. On “Minneapolis”, guitar and bass resound in the furore of a wild tune, bouncing off the walls and enthralling the listener in its chaos. Vagabon has received a lot of attention over the past month especially, and the anticipation of the album is rife amongst music circles. She performed late last year alongside two stellar acts of 2016, Frankie Cosmos and Big Thief, rather fine company to keep. Lyrics like “I surrender myself / To the demons that carry them” are typical of the beautiful array of images painted throughout her songs; Tamko’s high energy and tantalizing voice give us that rare and beautiful ability to get completely lost in the act of listening, a total sensory experience.

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