Written by: Dave Cantrell
SOPHE LUX & THE MYSTIC All Are One (Zarathustra Records)
We’ve already said a fair amount about this new incarnation of the Sophe Lux project Gwynneth Haynes has undertaken (see SEM exclusive track premiers for “Love is Waiting” here and, just recently, “The Love Comet” here) but more needs be said, as just about any of the six remaining cuts could have stood in those two’s stead.
Determined to be a countervailing force against the multitude of voices proclaiming certain doom for the planet and its inhabitants, Ms Haynes appended an ‘& the Mystic’ to her performance identity, steeped herself in the teachings of pacifists and, yes, mystics (Gandhi, MLK, Rum, Buckminster Fuller et al) and set about the task of offering up an alternative vision and the results, on second full length All Are One, are indeed quite visionary.
Staying primarily analog and leaning into a partnership with legendary Portland producer Larry Crane at his renowned Jackpot Studios (both are credited with production), Haynes, writing and singing and providing a lioness’s share of the instrumentation – Crane shoulders the remainder while also enlisting Paul Pulvirenti for drums and loops and Dan Lowinger for guitar on a couple of key tracks – offers via both music and lyrics a stingingly hopeful rebuke to the chorus of despair filling our ears from the churn of the 24/7 news cycle.
Tossing the upfront shameless brash of electro into the pop Cuisinart with the arch knowingness common to those with art-rock proclivities (think early Roxy Music from a funkier belt of the solar system) and then, as often as not, laying into the resulting swirl of a groove with a brassy-but-smooth wail of a singing voice that has seen the light and the gospel of R’n’B and Motown soul (as well the glory of Lulu- and Petula-like inflections from the days of AM radio transcendence – check “Infinite Colors of Desire” – and even, in “Waking the White Winged Horse,” the sublimated prog potential the young Kate Bush never let herself explore), the artist known as Sophe Lux has, in the process, vaulted herself into a new dimension.
From “Your Wonderland”‘s lift-off that feels like a Cerrone-fed mutant is manning the controls – blatty synths and a phat Venusian undercurrent – that, yep, soon enough transmogrifies into the arms-waving, hipswaying hallelujah track of the summer (grounded, spaced-out, both); to “The Earth Breathes” beginning its life as something of a pop confection before turning itself into a sinuous space-funk workout in its final stretch; through the title track’s grand mosaic of hope that spreads its message initially via a kind of one-woman “We Are The World” vibe before a phantom revamping into a tribal-drummed operatic swell; to the outré outro “Arise & Awake” – sonorous meditative drama moves with natural woman ease into a swaying, R’n’B-flowing anthem – the forces of evolution and growth live within every song.
And really, it’s all rather irresistible in its innate playfulness even as the artist, without equivocation, means every word. Immaculately put together, inspiring in spite of what cynical defenses you might bring to it, there also resides deep inside those fearless streaks of theatricality to which Ms Haynes is genetically prone one magnificent voice. Clarion, bright and sure, mellifluous in its own declarative way, the sound of it alone would account for the half of her name meaning ‘light.’ The other half, the ‘wisdom’ half? Well, we believe that by this point that half, surely, needs no explanation. √√√½ [available here]
HEROES OF TOOLIK Like Night (self-released)
Here’s how we’d like to begin this review:
Having already dissected – and provided compelling evidence for the legitimacy of – the phrase ‘avant-pop supergroup’ as it applies to the Heroes of Toolik when SEM premiered Like Night‘s opening track “Present” a couple weeks back, let’s just move past all that and get on with the business of discussing the rest of this oddly beguiling gem of a full-length, the band’s second, self-released August 26th.
However, being fully cognizant that those words are aimed toward the largely uninitiated as regards the charms of this band – as, we must confess, we were until this record arrived – it’s understood that even the most discerning reader requires a guidepost or two to lash their comprehension to, some parameters by which to measure the cut of these Heroes’ musical jib, as it were. Perfectly understandable. The primary question, after (and above) all, is the universally fundamental ‘What kind of music is it?,’ and while we’ll strive – and mightily – to provide some insight there, we’re left with the nagging doubt that what follows is going to do you any good in that respect, which leads to the more immediate concern that this basic compact between writer and reader has already broken down. Ahh but perhaps not. Perhaps the more adventurous among you are actually intrigued by this point. What kind of album, we can hear you thinking, would lead to penning such an unorthodox, if not outright errant, preamble? Well, we’re glad you asked.
It’s exactly the kind of music one would expect when erstwhile members of the Glenn Branca Ensemble (guitarist Arad Evans), the Modern Lovers (bassist’s bassist Ernie Brooks) – both graduates of Rhys Chatham’s Donergötter in the 1980’s, where they met – Gods and Monsters, Television (drummer Billy Ficca in both, Brooks in the former), and Band of Susans ( guitarist Robert Poss) merge into a single unit, invite Latin session man John Speck on trombone and, for some x-factor off-balance balancing, painter/art-critic Jennifer Coates who also just happens to be an ace violinist and singer (as her being a member of Phrogz will attest). It’s a type of music that’s not quite rock, not quite jazz, not really folk, but is the type of pop-experimental that toys with all those (and more) and does so with a devout, casually intense ease, what you might call a ‘serious whimsy.’ Now, we get that that’s not exactly a very satisfyingly concrete answer to that one very simple question but we’re afraid you’re gonna have to go with it. Thereby, in the spirit of curiosity-enflamed perplexity, consider:
On the swing’n’sway heels of “Present” (you should really click on that link above), “8 Miles” sets out for reaches both far sparser and more keeningly atmospheric. Rich and brooding in the way the Kansas plains can be under the approach of a coming (likely violent) thunderstorm, when the sense of something constantly ominous is always coming over the horizon, a dry strychnine electricity, beginning at the fringes then hovering heavy overhead, charges every second of the track’s six-plus minutes. Two cuts hence, on “Warm,” the Heroes negotiate what seems a less inimical landscape. There is, in repeated pattern guitar and seesawing violin, in the trombone’s velvety wanderings (guest Peter Zummo joining Speck), drone and melody, enough to hold you in gentle transfixation. That it leads, with a restless eventuality, to a middle patch more fraught and cacophonous before settling back on its haunches, the whole thing like a sly prog beast waking from its slumbers on a crisp spring day, is not only not surprising but exactly, we reckon, what you wanted to hear. Just as you’ll be happy to be told that sandwiched between those two is a moody bounce of a semi-title track (“Something Like Night”) that between Speck’s warm parping textures and the Hicksian pluck of Coate’s violin is the musical equivalent of a shadow falling over a broad smile, its mystique full of promise, its promise full of veiled tension. Thus it goes.
“Blind Man” goes for a drive around Blind Man’s Bluff with a carefully reckless control, the jazzy, jump-blues shuffle of “Say Virginia” slides at you with a touch of hot cool Django swing, “Crazy Doll” has a little JJ Cale juice running through its gently restless blood, while “You Will Not Follow,” accordion and tingly glass percussion and a Young-ish guitar spree midway that delights with the extent to which its surprise is so easily absorbed into the whole, along with all manner of other layered-in enchantments, ends the record in a neat embodiment, its dizzying subtlety of parts (all managed with a juggler’s calm by the mighty Wharton Tiers) pulled together into a puzzle of a single piece.
Intoxication with an edge, what we wanted without knowing it, Like Night is another stunner of an album we weren’t expecting and neither were you. Grab it here, make your year complete. √√√½
SO COW Lisa Marie Airplane Tour (Tall Pat Records / Jigsaw Records)
The fact they began as Irishman Brian Kelly’s solo project in Seoul, South Korea in 2005 would have been enough to get our attention. The fact that the once 3-piece, now solo again band’s new album was one of August’s feature picks on Dandelion Radio would have been enough to get our attention. Hell, the fact it’s called Lisa Marie Airplane Tour (let alone sporting on its front a simple depiction of its title drawn with the charm of a Descendants cover circa ’85) was enough to tweak our interest. But even failing all that the bright bash’n’brash pop-punk within, merciless of hook, certain of thrum, clever of word and honest of emotion, would have won us over in an instant.
Coming on as something of a one-man Protex for our times, So Cow on LMAT goes from sly Minutemen reference (the jumpy new-kid-in-town tale “What Makes A Man Start Gorse Fires?” that’s perfect pop mania in its perfect three minutes) to the crunchy bomp of “Captain of Industry” that’s no less than J Mascis dreaming of those Messthetics bands he wishes he’d been in, to the gem-standard “At Home” with its dry-witted intelligence (“All tense from picking up crumbs at parties / the whole city’s dressed up as Joe McCarthy“), its pure-pop sensibilities embedded in a cynical contentiousness and backed by a Burneled bassline, to “Batman, Tonight”‘s poignant, playful – and, to be clear, painfully self-aware – vignette of the not unusual musician’s dilemma of an ex-lover choosing so-called adulthood while Kelly sticks to his punk rock guns and that just happens to feature a fine guitar-does-theremin impression. There is, in short, a lot to take in in what appears deceptively as a simple form.
In no small way an artist of Ashley Reaks caliber – or perhaps the other way ’round? – we here at SEM are, as ever, grateful for the random arrival, from what is apparently a teeming left field, of still another terrific album by a major talent. What we’re hearing here on Lisa Marie Airplane Tour is enough to make us drop our plans for the coming week and spend our time exploring the whole of So Cow’s back catalog (this is their/his sixth). Everything else can wait. √√√½ [available here]
FEATURE IMAGE: Trish Tritz