Staring at Facebook or Twitter too long, especially in 2016, can make you feel as if everything is an irreparably tangled knot. The infinite scroll of headlines blaring the consistently terrible outcomes of our world’s complex, broken systems can disenfranchise any sense of personal agency you might have left. Electronic artists like Arca, Rabit, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Elysia Crampton forged exciting, brand-new sounds over the past year or so by transmuting that Gordian doom into unique, anxiety-riddled industrial collage—sonically and structurally as overwhelming as the world we live in. But the best local music we heard this month ran in the completely opposite direction, whittling everything back down to its basics. By blocking out clutter and noise, these artists rose above the garbage, and in doing so found space to assert their humanity—despite the odds. Without any further ado:
Minimalism is hard. Any chump can add layer after layer in Ableton and land on something slick, bombastic, and radio-ready, but to pare something down to its bare essentials takes confidence. Minimalism is scary—without the bells and whistles, all a song has to stand on is its soul. Production-wise, J’Von’s potato is remarkably spare. In each song, there are maybe three or four tracks maximum. For instance, “Seattle Girl,” the record’s single, is nothing more than one looped acoustic-guitar line, finger snaps, and a muffled tap on a hi-hat. But over its three-minute run time, J’Von pours himself into the song, singing and rapping about his romantic hangups, personal growth, and running through free-form vocal melodies and rhythms that keep your attention thanks to a striking naturalism. Nothing ever feels contrived or forced on potato. More often than not, listening to it feels like getting a secret, personal broadcast from the artist’s bedroom. J’Von packs a hell of a lot of soul per square inch this way, and the result exudes that rarest of musical qualities: a sense of genuine, unadulterated expression. In part due to its confessional, journal-like lyrics, potato feels like something J’Von had to make, an internal world he had no choice but to make external. That raw honesty, and the understated way it’s executed, speaks volumes to J’Von’s talent as an artist, one Seattle’s hip-hop fans should keep a close eye on. To top it all off, beyond his musical talent, he also self-animates his own music videos in an impressive pseudo-anime style—seriously, ignore the guy at your own peril. jvon.bandcamp.com
Freaks of Nature
The year-old Jungle Gym Records, founded by two Seattle transplants from Minneapolis, has grown to international prominence in the underground house and techno world thanks to an absurdly prolific output and a dedication to keeping the music loose. Freaks of Nature’s Nowhere Tape, one of its most recent releases, was born after an improv session with the label’s trademark Korg EM-1 Groovebox in which the artist was “trying to break the machine.” The two-track tape that came out of the Groovebox fight is alternately blissed-out and busted-out. “Freeform” crackles with microwave-fried pings and wobbling zippy synths skittering woozily around the funky, stuttering beat. The disjointed rhythm swings like a drunk robot trying to break-dance. Halfway through the tune, thoroughly inebriated and disoriented, the warm synths turn into cold, distant trickles—something like the blurry walk home after the party. The B-side, “Nowhere,” is less lively and cracked-apart than its counterpart. The tune is driven mostly by the spectral echoes of the dusky synths that waft through the majority of its run time. If the artist was trying to break the machine here, it sounds as if the chosen method of attack was turning the delay-effect knob all the way up. It’s a cheeky approach, but the stumbling, cascading repetition of the chords builds a transportive, eerie glow—an effective ambient tune with a faint beat to ground it. One of Jungle Gym’s strengths is bringing a messy human touch to a sound that can feel rigid and sterile at times, and Nowhere Tape is an excellent snapshot of that ethos at its best. junglegymrecords.bandcamp.com
I’m a hard sell on most ’80s throwback music. When contemporary artists ape the style and tone of that decade, it rarely sounds vital. At best, it’s merely well-executed tribute; at worst it’s like listening to bad The Cure/the Smiths karaoke (complete with fake English accents). CC Dust’s chorus-laden bass lines and tinny drum machine may be straight-up New Order worship, but the Olympia synth-pop duo’s self-titled debut EP transcends those epochal trappings thanks to lead singer Maryjane Dunphe’s visceral, longing howl. Dunphe’s mostly known for her work as the thunderous front woman of Vexx, the Olympia punk group that’s won national accolades for her legendary performances: equal parts modern dance, human bulldozer, and live exorcism. Repurposing her barbed-wire banshee howls in the context of CC Dust’s swooning, minimal New Wave electronica makes for some legitimately chill-inducing, grade-A romanticism—the kind you can’t fake with easy signifiers. Dunphe’s guttural cries in “Never Going to Die,” the record’s hooky, electropop single, are sung as though her life really does depend on it—someone honestly staring down at the end of the world and defiantly resisting it. On “Tonopah,” the danceably downcast tune named after either the Arizona nuclear power-hub or the ghostly Nevada mining town of that name, finds Dunphe sputtering and wounded. “Tonopah, Tonopah, cough, I cough blood,” she intones over and over, wringing new expressive depth out of the phrase each time. The lush ’80s majesty of the record, butted up against Dunphe’s incomparable voice, makes for more than just novel juxtaposition. By the time the album ends with the resplendent, John Hughes-worthy “Abra,” the lighter you’ll be holding in the air and the tear running down your cheek will be anything but ironic. ccdust.bandcamp.com
Seattle solo artist Briana Marela’s choral vocal-looping style has always flirted with the devotional. Last year’s All Around Us, recorded in Iceland with Sigur Rós producer Alex Somers, was an incredibly lush, glacial paean to the pursuit of love, done in the delicate, maximalist style of that majestic country’s contemporary musical tradition. Swooning, Marela’s project with flutist and fellow vocalist Michele Finkelstein, strips away the bombast of All Around Us and lands squarely in the reverent, church-ready realm her voice has always edged toward. The duo’s gorgeous new self-titled album sounds as though it could’ve come from a service at an ancient Druidic cathedral. With Finkelstein’s addition of just one more voice into the mix, Marela’s lilting, lace-like melodies glimmer with potent magic—take “Friend/Foe,” which literally sounds like a ritual incantation. “All in All” showcases the duo’s off-the-charts choral skills by leading with a sonic tapestry of their angelic, undulating, delicately interwoven vocal runs. While that tone dominates the record, a few tunes veer slightly askew of the chapel doors: “Sun & the Moon,” for example, recontextualizes the duo’s masterful croons in the mode of a ’50s doo-wop prom song. After the first few tracks, chances are you’ll follow the two wherever they lead you. swooning.bandcamp.com.