Listening for the Echo

What a quiet year it’s been. Musicians have soldiered on, gamely offering live streams and pre-recorded concerts, but the dearth of real, in-person shows has been palpable. I’ve felt that absence while settling into my new home in Durham. (Normally, I’d get to know the area and its venues by peppering my nights and weekends with shows.) But it also cropped up during the only mini-trip I took this year, when I decided to break up a lengthy two-week holiday stretch by escaping west to go hiking in Asheville.

I figured it was a trip I could do safely—driving over by myself, staying in a contactless rental, ordering takeout, and spending my time outdoors in the mountains. But I’d never been to Asheville before, and knowing its growing reputation as a music city, it felt bizarre to prepare a visit without booking a concert or two. Or five.  

That realization grew as I neared the mountain town. All the music we’ve lost this year—the living, breathing experience of it—panged even louder.

Absent any shows, I went looking for music in other ways. Field Report says it best in his aching song “Michelle” (off 2014’s Marigolden): “I went looking for the river, but I only made it to the railroad bend.” In this Wild Year of Our Lord, I took what I could get. I trekked over to Echo Mountain, the former church-turned-studio, where numerous artists—Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, Moses Sumney—have recorded, drawn by the room’s reverent sound.

The morning I set out to see where so many gorgeous songs have been captured, my map instructed me to walk toward French Broad St. But I misread it as French Bread St, and spent the better part of 10 minutes beaming at the name. Knowing I wanted to write about this excursion, I began plotting out how I could use the street’s name as my entryway into the topic. Foiled again! (But, really, who gives a hoot about French ladies when there are loaves to celebrate?)

Situated downtown, at one of the neighborhood’s higher points, Echo Mountain offers a clear vantage of the surrounding peaks, which makes its name all the more pertinent. In Greek mythology, the story of the mountain nymph Echo is a twisted one, but voice and song sit at its center. As the story goes, Echo angered Hera, who’d come to spy on her rapey husband Zeus during one of his cavorting trips, by talking too much and distracting her. Hera’s payback—directed at the wrong person, as always—included stripping Echo of her agency, forcing her to repeat the last words other people said. But although she no longer had autonomy over her own voice, Echo remained a powerful figure, giving substance and form to others’ words and reminding them of their existence. 

This year feels as though it’s taken so much from each of us in different ways—some large, some small. Here’s the part where I say something profound, something to add meaning to a moment that feels bereft of any understanding. But, alas, words fail me. I don’t have anything to offer by way of retrospective.

I’ll take a page from Echo, then, and leave you with someone else’s words—Sumney’s song “Lonely World,” which first appeared on his 2016 EP Lamentations. Throughout the track, Sumney repeats the word “lonely” until it becomes an incantation that builds into a thunderous crescendo near the end. That in and of itself encapsulates this year, but beneath the song’s lament, there’s a kernel of hope bound up in the power of creativity: “And the void speaks to you/ In ways nobody speaks to you/ And that voice fills the air/ Fog in the morning going nowhere.”

The song still hangs around Asheville, resounding and resplendent, and I look forward to hearing it on my next trip—echoes of all the music we didn’t get to hear this year and new melodies yet to come.


Dan Deacon’s “Become a Mountain”

I highly recommend listening to Dan Deacon‘s ebullient song “Become a Mountain” while driving up an actual mountain. If you don’t have one nearby to summit, by all means find a small hill or an inclined street and get going. It’s a song that benefits from elevation, from reaching your arms wide and feeling the power of perspective in real time.

I love when songs accidentally soundtrack my life, which is what happened on this particular December afternoon as I drove Elk Mountain Scenic Highway to hike the Rattlesnake Lodge trail in Asheville, NC. The road wound higher and higher, with absolutely nothing separating my not-so-mountain-friendly car from tumbling over the side should I hit a patch of ice. And it was cold enough for that to happen. So I drove slowly, the knot in my stomach winding ever tighter. And then Deacon’s song came on.

“Become a Mountain” appears on the Baltimore-based musician’s latest album, Mystic Familiar. In the five years it took between solo albums, Deacon turned his attention to composing, a choice well-suited to his work, which has always contained visual kernels ripe for scaffolding other artistic projects. (NYCB’s resident choreographer Justin Peck used Deacon’s song suite “USA I-IV” from America for his 2017 ballet The Times Are Racing. And if you ever get the chance to see it, GO. I saw it performed last year, and it’s easily among my top five ballet memories. And yes, I have enough ballet memories to rank them. I digress.)

The album’s an attempt to replace the often negative voices that loop in our heads with voices from nature, using the ‘familiar’ as a motif to achieve that switch. The elements in the album—mountains, trees, oceans—offer their perspective.

On “Become a Mountain,” the song serves as a reminder to stay present. The narrator’s ambition, always future-focused, distracts him, but the mountain’s point of view grounds him in the present moment. “Close your eyes/ And become a mountain/ Become all around you/ Become the skies, become the seas/ Open your eyes/ And remain the mountain/ Breathing in deeply/ Feeling the day change with the breeze.” The song’s piano, a sound Deacon carries off with a player piano he controls via computer, creates a shimmering, cascading sound that elevates the central message.

Climbing ever higher that day in my car, I felt the exuberance of inhabiting the present—of following the winding road even if some primitive part of you is convinced it’s too scary. For one of those rare, glorious moments when a song soundtracks your life, you aren’t just watching things happen—you’re in it. The lyric “And remain a mountain” cogently summarizes the point: don’t just focus on becoming. Inhabit your life. Be.

Perfume Genius’ “Otherside” and “Slip Away”

Perfume Genius performs at Eaux Claires.
Perfume Genius performs at Eaux Claires 2017. Photo by Amanda Wicks.

If someone asked me to qualify joy, to outline its shape and radiance, I’d point them to Perfume Genius‘ opening track “Otherside” from his 2017 album No Shape. At the outset, “Otherside” might seem like an odd choice. It starts quietly, almost hesitantly, with only a piano and singer Mike Hadreas’ constrained voice offering something close to a supplication: “Even your going / Let it find you,” he sings. “Even in hiding /Find it knows you.”

But the payoff comes at the 1:10-minute mark. Just when it sounds as though the song’s sparse nature will prevail, a glitter bomb detonates.

Hadreas has shape-shifted over the course of his five albums as Perfume Genius, arriving at an atmospheric baroque-pop that allows him to build scenes equal parts muscular and fragile. That central tension might seem overwhelming after a few tracks (the kind of feverish energy that makes it hard to watch Uncut Gems), but Hadreas never lets it run rampant. Rather than undoing his albums, the tension propels them.

Tension is something Hadreas knows well. Growing up, he was bullied for being gay, an external loathing that infiltrated the newly forming walls teenagers erect to construct their sense of self. But it didn’t stop in high school. “There are all kinds of different things people do, from tiny little wound marks to straight up getting punched in the face,” Hadreas told Pitchfork‘s Jamie Fullerton in 2016.  “Something like that hasn’t happened in a long time, though. It’s more getting called a faggot on the street. Or people laughing. The laughing really bugs me.” 

I suspect, though I don’t know for certain, that when the world restricts you in such pernicious ways, the celebratory moments become all the bigger. Something like that sentiment about the sweet not being as sweet without the sour, but less trite.

“Otherside” is the long-awaited explosion, the first of a one-two punch, which sets up the album’s second, exuberant track “Slip Away” in which Hadreas doesn’t just encourage but outright claims the visibility he and others have long been denied. “If we only got a moment / Give it to me now,” he sings before industrial, nearly-metallic drums rocket launch the song into a new orbit.

In a year filled with so much heaviness, feel for a moment the joy that exists beyond language—that is only sound and feeling and thrum. I’ll see you on the other side.

Phoebe Bridgers’ “Savior Complex” Video

Artists regularly release music videos, but now that we’re decades out from the golden age of MTV and its elder millennial cousin TRL, their impact feels closer to a pebble hitting the window. Don’t get me wrong, there are still grand visions and artistic statements—Childish Gambino’s “This Is America and Beyonce’s Formation,” for starters. And certain videos in recent years have stirred up attention, moving beyond a marketing tool to achieve cultural currency.

But on the whole, it seems as though it’s just an item on the album cycle checklist. Single? Check. Lyric video? Check. Music video? Check. Labels repeat that pattern until the artist tours and eventually begins working on their next album—when it begins all over again.  

Every now and then, though, something quirky and quietly beautiful comes along, reminiscent of the visuals that once earned attention for trying something a little different.

Screen shot from Bridgers' 'Savior Complex' music video showing her on the beach with a dog wearing capes.

That’s the case with Phoebe Bridgers‘ new music video for “Savior Complex,” off her album Punisher. She partnered with her snarky British counterpart Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame), who directed the visual, and Normal People‘s Paul Mescal. In it, Mescal plays as an emotional conman who finds his match in a wide-eyed and surprisingly evocative pup who doesn’t let him off the hook so easily.

In life, Bridgers and Waller-Bridge share a tender-hearted derision that emerges in their art. The video’s romantic framing (close-ups of the dog, the double capes near the end) and comedic editing juxtapose the song’s confessional solemnity: “Baby, you’re a vampire / You want blood and I promised / I’m a bad liar / With a savior complex.” The end result is oddly spellbinding, a short film that elevates the music video art form.

Now, someone find me a cape.

Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou’s “The Homeless Wanderer”

I never thought I’d discover one of my favorite albums during an acupuncture session. Most acupuncturists prefer white noise machines or soundscapes during treatment—music doesn’t work because it encourages a different kind of attention. But not so in New Orleans. As with so many aspects of life in that city, music infused Monica’s airy St. Claude shotgun. She preferred piano pieces or classic vocalists like Billie Holiday, whose brassy croon regularly emanated from the tinny speakers on her portable blue record player, and which fit the experience perfectly.

One rainy Saturday, while I reclined in the middle room and listened to the rain pattering playfully against the window, I heard the opening notes of the most enchanting piano piece. At first, it sounded like a tickle, as though the player’s fingers were joyfully tracing the instrument’s length. But as it went on, it developed a deeper meditative quality.

It turned out to be Ethiopian nun and pianist Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou‘s song “The Homeless Wanderer.” Music truly finds you in the oddest places.

I eventually tracked down a copy of the record Monica played that day (the German LP, pictured left), which was only released in 2006 as part of a series spotlighting Ethiopian artists.

Guebrou, it turns out, was born in 1923 and lived in Ethiopia until Mussolini’s army invaded some 13 years later. She fled to Europe and could’ve attended the Royal Academy of Music in London, but for reasons she never clarified the opportunity fell through. “It was His willing,” she told documentary filmmaker Kate Molleson in 2017. “We can choose how to respond.”

Her response involved continuing to play music. But she made it her own. You could categorize her sound as classical, but it’s more meandering. You could call it jazz, but it’s more structured and thoughtful. It is entirely itself, full of insight and grit and sharply traced beauty. For a song composed by an Ethiopian nun to make it all the way to New Orleans seemed a sort of gift.

I have this preposterously under-studied theory that emotional contexts heavily—and heartily—shape the way we feel about certain songs. If you feel so inclined to throw a “duh” my way, I get it. But if you’re familiar with cognitive science, it makes sense. Memories have a stronger chance of lasting when emotions fuel the mechanisms that “record” them. Neuroscientist Marc Lewis explains, “If it doesn’t mean much, if it doesn’t induce feelings, it’s not going to capture your attention, and it’s not going to get recorded in synaptic structure.” The same applies to music. Emotional experiences sharpen—and shape—your response.

I love rainy days and I especially love rainy days in New Orleans, where moody skies and hushed streets create a melody unto themselves. Something about that backdrop set the stage for Guebrou: slanted rain falling against the room’s tall windows, dim light filtering through the lacy curtains. It was the kind of magic that prompts notice, that encourages you to think, as Vonnegut once said, “If this isn’t nice, what is.”

And it’s a magic that has yet to wear off. When I play Guebrou now, time slows. I feel my shoulders drop with the first few notes. The following songs build an escape from the everyday. Guebrou’s phrasing—those winding reflections—makes everything soften, rainy day or not.

Leif Vollebekk’s “Long Blue Light”

Photo by Allister Ann. Courtesy of Sonic PR.

Canadian singer-songwriter Leif Vollebekk has regularly captured the solitude that arises in between the coming and the going. Where his past music took a more meditative position about that kind of uncertainty, his latest song “Long Blue Light” captures a greater sense of impatience. “Don’t know where I’m heading/ Don’t know where I’m from/ I’m here just waiting/ For my day to come,” he sings. It’s hard to keep anxiety at bay when the outcome feels so out of reach.

Awaiting clarity—a decision, a call—he pleads his case. “I’m on your side, on your side / Long blue light,” he sings almost matter-of-factly, avoiding drawing his voice out into a sustain. The quick clip of his pacing betrays a growing restlessness.

“Long Blue Light” shifts Vollebekk’s sound. Across his repertoire, he’s traded heavily in piano, brass, and drums, building a jazz influence that fit his sparse lyricism. Those instincts—spare in both word and note—build an indulgent amount of space into his music, and it’s easy to bask in the atmosphere he creates.

But Vollebekk hems in “Long Blue Light.” The song was originally recorded as part of his 2019 album New Ways. Returning to it now, he eschews the space that influenced that project. Instead, he places drums front and center, overdubbing the track with dobro courtesy of guitarist Cindy Cashdollar. Her instrument and meandering style lend “Long Blue Light” a rustic feel that attempts to counter the underlying anxiety at its center.

That dichotomy doesn’t reach an easy resolution, but then nothing is truly easy when you’re waiting for an answer, when you’re waiting for the long blue light. Don’t we know as much in this wild year called 2020?

Welcome to Whatever

Everyone’s running to start a newsletter these days, which feels like a throwback to the Great Age of Zines. But I’m going back to the days of LiveJournal with this project. What it shall be, I’ve yet to land upon. In a year with so much uncertainty, it’s hard to know where exactly to focus your efforts, and I feel that ambiguity double time when it comes to The Sound Also Rises.

What I do know is that at a time when there’s one music journalist for every 100 music publicists, I crave a space of my own to think about and though the songs, albums, and artists that have resonated with me. If that sometimes means detours off into personal narratives, reflections, or what have you, well then so be it.

Welcome to The Sound Also Rises. Welcome to whatever.