Lhasa – The Living Road (2003)

It’s been a while since I’ve written a proper review, and this one is long overdue. Dear friends, the music I am about to try speaking about is possessed of such arcane intensity that it may tighten the heart and illuminate the laboriousness of breathing. It’s raw, unspeakable elegance is almost too much to take in, and yet, once sampled, it projects this pale aura throughout the reaches of memory and emotion, a negative space in which no other reference may venture. This is the legacy of Lhasa de Sela.

lhasa12First of all, I have to say it is really rather difficult saying what exactly Lhasa was, save perhaps for the generic notion of “artist”. “Singer” does not do her justice. Neither does the quaint concept of “poet”. Her ability to express personal experience in a universal way (truly, so much so that, as I said, I can liken her to no other) was so overwhelming that it manages to cast doubt on the efficacy of common descriptive words, and I am unable to find appropriate uncommon ones either. I cannot stress enough how singular the experience of her music is, how terrifying in its fierce honesty and directness. It is as though her entire life is projected forth with each note, the full weight of her intricate lineage and background subtly leaning on the listener’s own sensibility in the simple, minimalist, fluid structures of her songs.

Music able to spark tactile response, music of such strength that it can induce synesthesia is rare indeed, and yet there are songs on this, her second album, which flood the mind with hybrid image/tastes of dust, dusk light, wind-on-skin and dryness of throat. “The Living Road” lacks nothing, needs nothing. Not one note out of place, no superfluous effects or gimmicks. There is no marketing at play, no ulterior motive. She sings in three languages because she needs them all, because there are things which can only be expressed in each of them. It is quite jarring to experience music which touches on a sort of objectivity with such effortless grace. (I know I’ve just made the word “objective” relative, but that’s because it’s so hard to even use it, given the fragmented nature of our experience – and all the greater the shock of Lhasa’s music.)

The decidedly odd thing about “The Living Road” is the overarching feeling of loneliness the album emits, without succumbing to any of the usual traps of exaggeration or needlessness to which much music referred to as “singular” falls prey. There is no moping, no bleeding heart sentimentalism in these songs. In fact, they are infused with this staggering stoicism; yes, the ever-present distance between things and people is unavoidable and immutable, but in accepting that, it becomes empowering, blade-sharp, an essential tool for self-definition and understanding. “The Living Road” is not unlike a koan in this sense – an exquisite puzzle for meditation, for forging an honest relationship with oneself. And, at the same time, it is “for” nothing – it exists, self-contained like a smooth stone, hinting at the disinterested, pristine act of initial creation.

Obviously, I find “The Living Road” to be quite a philosophical experience. Perhaps I have managed to convey why. Let me know, if you will. And enjoy!

P.S.: I have decided to embed the second song with an introduction/explanation by Lhasa. Listen to it, it is beautiful.

Meagan Grandall (Lemolo) – Interview

Hello friends! I am bursting with excitement today! And so should you, because the title of this post is entirely accurate – Meagan Grandall of Lemolo has very graciously agreed to answer a few questions from ZaRecords. I don’t believe Lemolo needs any further introduction to the faithful readers of this blog, but I will say this, for newcomers: I consider their music some of the best I’ve ever heard, and it is a tremendous honor for me to be able to talk so candidly with Meagan. Here goes!

Lemolo 1ZaRecords: From a composition perspective, where does Meagan end and Lemolo begin? Or, if you prefer, the other way around. Is there an edge anymore?

Lemolo: It’s funny you should ask this, because sometimes I wonder this myself. I formed the band in 2009 and for the first 6 months we played under the name “Meagan Grandall”. I didn’t think that sounded very cool and that was when I came up with the name Lemolo. All along I have written the songs by myself and they are always very personal songs about my life. So in that sense I feel like Lemolo is me and I am Lemolo. But on the other hand I love performing with other people, because I think other instruments and energies can contribute a lot to my music. For example, on my new record the drum beats that my drummer Emily wrote with me are bringing the songs to another level. So I think there is a blurred edge that at times can be hard to pinpoint.

ZaRecords: How’s the chemistry with Emily? Did you two “click” right away?

Lemolo: Emily is awesome. On our first meeting we had coffee and talked for 3 hours! And then during our first jam session I felt that she “got me” right away and was playing the kinds of drum beats I was looking for. I played her all of my new songs and had her jam along to them, and it felt right from that moment on.

Lemolo 2ZaRecords: I “discovered” your music on KEXP – like a lot of great music from the last few years. I have the vague but persistent feeling that there’s a “movement” of sorts developing in the Seattle area, something which reminds me of the coherent pop currents of yesteryear (hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it?). Would you say there’s a storm brewing in Seattle, or is this stylistic coherence due to my bias as a very distant observer?

Lemolo: I think Seattle definitely has a wonderful music community. I have found that it has been essential in helping me start and maintain a career in music. I think there are so many talented musicians living and creating their art in Seattle, and everyone seems to be very accepted for being their authentic selves and creating their original music. I feel lucky to be based out of Seattle.

ZaRecords: “The Kaleidoscope” is one of those once in a decade albums which instantly enamored anyone I played it for. No exceptions. It’s hard for me and my readers to gauge the success it had from more “objective” perspectives. What’s your view, two years later? Were you expecting more? Less?

Lemolo: Thank you so very much. Just hearing you say that is success in my eyes. It was my first record to ever record and release. Before that I had never even worked in a professional recording studio. So needless to say I had no expectations and just made sure to do my best at every step of the way. So when I received such positive feedback from listeners around the world, it felt amazing. I am still an independent artist and feel that there is a long way for me to go before I have financial stability (I still live in my mother’s basement!), but I am grateful for all of the opportunities I have had so far and am looking forward to what comes next with my new record.

ZaRecords: What’s this I hear about a European tour?

Lemolo: It is true! I received a grant from the embassy of the Czech Republic to travel there and perform my music at Degeneration Next Festival in Brno, Czech Republic on September 23, 2014. I decided to plan a three week tour around that performance, and will be performing all around Central Europe. Performing internationally has been a dream of mine since the beginning, so it feels wonderful that it is finally coming true. I will be announcing more shows soon so you can vista my online show calendar for updates.

ZaRecords: Your music is so intricate and delicate it’s almost palpable. I was wondering what your relationship with your instruments is – do you see them as tools to craft these sonic filigrees, or partners, sources of inspiration? Please tell me the story of your guitar (it’s the only one of its kind I’ve seen) and other such tales, if you like.

Lemolo: Thank you! I’m glad to hear you like my guitar as much as I do. I found it hanging up in a vintage guitar store and felt an instant connection with it. At that point I had never even played an electric guitar, but I knew she had to be mine. I spent all of the money I had in my bank account to buy it and have been in love with it ever since. It is a Teisco and was made in 1962 in Japan.

I think you’re spot on when you say I use my instruments as tools to write my songs. When I get a new instrument or new effects pedal, it directly inspires my songwriting. Often I arrange my songs while I am writing them, so my instruments and effects play a major role in how my songs come together.

Lemolo 3

ZaRecords: I wonder what your non-musical inspirations are, if any. Books, paintings, films? Video games?

Lemolo: I think my biggest inspiration outside of music is nature. I feel the most at peace with myself when I am outside, and especially when I am on the water. I grew up doing a lot of sailing and boating, and doing that is somewhat similar to a religious experience for me. When I spend time outside I come home feeling the most creative and eager to write music. I also love watching movies, and really admire the work of filmmaker Brit Marling. She has a very inspirational story and she is one of my idols.

ZaRecords: Do you have a go-to album for when you want to center yourself? What’s your musical oasis?

Lemolo: I love your expression “musical oasis”. Mine is Radiohead. I have favorite songs from each Radiohead album, a handful of them are “Everything in it’s Right Place”, “Pyramid Song”, “Sail to the Moon”, “Videotape” and “Bullet Proof I Wish I Was”. I love so many other artists too, but I feel a very deep connection with these songs in particular.

ZaRecords: How has the studio work on the upcoming record differed from “The Kaleidoscope”? How far along are you in the process?

Lemolo: I am nearing the end of recording my new album, which is very exciting. I think it is probably 85% finished at this point. With my new songs I am trying to take them to another level with the drum beats and layers. On The Kaleidoscope I purposefully kept the songs very minimal and mellow, but the news songs are feeling a little more upbeat and lush. It has been fun to experiment with new sounds and textures. I can’t wait to share it with you!

ZaRecords: Tell me a story from one of your concerts, from tour, one of those tales to tell the grandkids.

Lemolo: My best tour memory was from the very first time I went on tour. I planned a video session with some videographers in San Diego, California who filmed a project called the Boat Sessions. They invited us onto their sailboat with our instruments, and filmed us as we performed an acoustic version of Whale Song while sailing around Mission Bay. It was glorious and such an adventure!

ZaRecords: I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to answer these questions!

Lemolo: I hope these answers are okay for you, and that we can meet up on my upcoming tour. Thank you so much!

Rabbit Rabbit – Hush Hush (February 2012)

Shhh… I’ve just sneaked back in here to let you know about Rabbit Rabbit. Don’t make any sudden movements or loud noises – they’re as easy to scare off as a random thought. Oh, but once that thought grows roots and blooms, what fun!

Rabbit Rabbit is a gorgeous project by Carla Kihlstedt & Matthias Bossi, of multifaceted fame (from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum to Tin Hat and many other shards in between). Music by subscription – monthly 2, 3 or 5$ fee for the same content: a home-made music video, a new song, a very entertaining list of things to do that particular month, pictures and who knows what else? There’s a feeling of intimacy to this project – it manages to drive home the impact that the artists’ relationship with their friends, family and fans has on their creative output, inspiration and very livelihood. You want to be part of that, believe me. You want to have that vague feeling – it’s like none other. The delivery platform is called Rabbit Rabbit Radio, here it is, give it a look.

I find it spectacular that Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi would be the ones coming up with this – it’s like a conceptual culmination of the artistic shock-waves their music has been sending up and down spines throughout the world for many years now, in one incarnation or another. It makes perfect sense! There’s a disclaimer – as always, the music isn’t for everyone and for every mood. But, at the risk of repeating myself – I have never disliked anything these guys committed to tape or vinyl or what have you. I might not have understood much of it, or felt that it would take a few years of personal boundary-pushing to finally click with it (The Book of Knots, for example), but it has always been worth the effort.

Let me know what you think. See you soon! I’ve got one more ace up my sleeve, just you wait. 😉

Beck – Morning Phase (2014)

Here it is folks, the album I’ve been teasing about on Facebook. The record that’s going to make me do something which no right minded critic would do in February – pronounce the album of the year. I might be wrong, obviously. In fact, I dare say I hope I’m wrong, because who doesn’t want to hear music that’s better than any given reference point? But my gut tells me I’m right, save for one foreseeable possibility. After all, Tool might actually release an album this year, and where they’re involved, all bets are off. But for now, there is only Beck.

BeckSo I’ve already told you what I think “Morning Phase” is, in brief. Let me then start by defining what it is not. First and foremost, it is not an album to be compared to Beck’s older records – his discography is so consistently enthralling, in so many different ways, that I believe this rule of non-comparison should apply anyway, regardless of the so-called-objective value of the album. Beck’s records are bordered as ferociously as islands rising from a turbulent ocean – the softness of the sand fading into the waves is misleading compared to the shock of land rising from the fathoms randomly. And within the archipelago of Beck’s individual lonelinesses, “Morning Light” shimmers sweetly over the farthest horizon.

However, it is very hard not to engage in comparative discourse in general, when it comes to “Morning Light”. Beck’s eclecticism shall not be denied, even on a record of such amazing structural and aesthetic coherence, so I cannot help but cast some links to other familiar names, whose trademark essences (as least where my way of listening is concerned) Beck channels almost preternaturally on this album. Not since Mark Kozelek’s heart rending musings on Red House Painters’ “Old Ramon” or Sun Kil Moon’s “Admiral Fell Promises” have I heard music of such terrible, soul-shriveling beauty and tenderness. Even the savage, eerie spirit of Björk’s “Homogenic” lends a dark glimmer to some of the songs on “Morning Light”, and congeals into a perfect, impossible sonic gemstone on the track titled “Wave”.

This is music apt for ripping the world from under one’s feet, concealed by the thinnest, most subtle veneer of familiarity and comfort. Listen hard enough and implode, dear friends. Sigh, as reality slides down some unknowable walls, until all that’s left is sudden, heartbreaking dawn. It is commonplace to refer to certain vistas as “humbling” – the clear, star stricken night sky, the stifling majesty of mist rolling between mountains… you know it well. I must confess, I’ve been a stranger to this feeling of humility, because I’ve always felt that witnessing such things places the beholder at the pinnacle of a certain difficult to define hierarchy. Not so with music. This art can make my (otherwise considerable) body feel like a speck, a desperate mote in a tidal wave of beauty my mind cannot explain. It is religious, pure and simple. I’ve reconnected with this, my personal form of spirituality, after a difficult year, and so I hope you’ll forgive my sentimentalism. Beck is a particularly gifted preacher. Enjoy!

Us, Today – Beneath The Floorboards (2012) & Interview

Hello again, dear friends! I’m sorry I was gone these past couple of weeks – I moved to another city, and it’s been hectic, but now ZaRecords is back for good! In honor of fresh beginnings, I figured it was about time to reboot the interview section of the site, and the wonderful people in Us, Today demonstrated as perfect a timing in their interaction with me as they do in their music.

Us TodayThey are a trio from Cincinnati, creating authentically challenging music, which is truly difficult to label. Oscillating somewhere between jazz, post-rock and film score music, their most recent LP, titled “Beneath the Floorboards”, feels both robustly experimental and thoroughly controlled and thought-out (which is a delightful paradox, I’m sure you’ll agree), and is one of the most intriguing records I’ve heard in quite a while. I’ll give you ample opportunity to hear it – and I mean really listen, it’s worth it – after the interview, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have. But for now, let me introduce you to Kristin, Joel and Jeff!

ZaRecords: Thank you so much for taking the time to have this dialogue with me, I feel honored. First, I’d like to ask you about something which instantly attracted my attention to your music on “Beneath the Floorboards” – its fantastic cinematic nature. I say cinematic, but by that I also mean theatrical – in short, depending on the song, it sounds like ideal music for theatre or film. Is this something you actively pursue, or is it just a sort-of side effect? Have you guys considered scoring anything for the performance arts or film?

Kristin – That is something that we’ve talked about, but have not pursued at this point.  Hopefully in the future someone will hear our music and want to use it in a film, or possibly tv commercial even.  We’ve only been together for 3 years, and it took us a while to develop the sound that we have now.  For the moment, we are more involved with writing for our albums and touring around the Northeast and Midwestern United States. Scoring a film has been a personal dream of mine.

Jeff – I would definitely say it is a side effect but something that all of us would be interested in. I am happy that our music conjures up images for some listeners. I think that means we are doing something that connects with people and that is often hard for music with no lyrics. Hopefully someone will want to use our music in film! I would love that!

ZaR: “Beneath the Floorboards” has it all – there’s slowly building tension, there’s a delightful urban groove, there’s dissonance delivered with utmost control and inspiration… all of these make me think of Universe Zero’s ‘70s albums, Terje Rypdal’s jazz-with-a-bite – the list of names goes on and on in my head, but your musical brew goes above and beyond the sum of its parts, so much so that I must ask: What are your roots? How deep do they go?

Kristin – Wow, thank you for the compliment!  I started on drum set playing folk rock at a young age.  My parents are both musicians and I was performing with them by the age of 12.  I decided to pursue classical percussion in college, which brought me to the vibraphone.  I was very much into “modern”, avant-garde percussion literature in college, which I think still influences my writing style with Us, Today.

Jeff – I started on viola which did not go very far and then I went right to drums in the school music program. I definitely felt like a late bloomer musically but I went to school for music education which exposed me to a variety of music topics. I focused on classical percussion but then turned my focus to drums and jazz music. I had some great mentors and finished my master degree in jazz studies. Kristin and I actually met in college.

ZaR: According to some reviews I could sample online about your recent work, there seems to be quite a fusion jazz scene developing in Cincinnati, and while your music definitely feels like it fits comfortably in that niche, I “discovered” you guys on the Post-Rock Facebook page. Those two realms rarely mix, so I have to ask – where do you guys feel most comfortable performing live? What kind of crowds do you rely on for your audience?

Kristin – I find it’s hard to put ourselves in to only one genre.  I don’t feel comfortable with the label “jazz fusion” because that makes me think of music that was happening in the early 70s like Tower of Power, or Weather Report.  I don’t think we sound like that at all.  I much more prefer the label of post-rock.  I think that’s a newer genre that is still open to interpretation and comes with some flexibility.  We’ve purposely tried to perform for a wide variety of audiences, to try to find who will respond well to what we do, and it’s really mixed.  We’ve performed at indie rock shows, jam festivals, hip hop festivals, jazz clubs, coffee shops.  And in each of those situations, we find that some people absolutely love what we do and become die-hard fans, and other people don’t care for it.

ZaR: Here’s sort-of a follow-up to the previous question – has the (more or less) sudden democratization of the music industry helped your music reach a broader audience? What’s your relationship with the more “traditional” music industry – record labels, agents and so on? I ask because I’ve heard jazz legends (Mike Stern and Trilok Gurtu for example) vehemently oppose digital distribution and self-promotion, as an opening of a sort of Pandora’s box. What’s your stand on this issue?

Kristin – We’ve never had representation, we’ve done everything ourselves. I feel like digital distribution and self-promotion is the reality of the musical world we live in these days. I want as many people to hear my music as possible, and I just hope that some of them will enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoy making it. The internet and social media are a part of our culture, so it would be silly for me not to use them to share my music.  Pandora’s box has already been opened.

1149404_518051454932964_1533917092_oAccording to your Facebook page and Bandcamp profile, Kristin – you play Vibraphone, Keys/electronic sounds, Joel, you’re on Guitar, Theremin and Drones and Jeff, you’re on Drums. But I hear a lot more than that on “Beneath the Floorboards” – brass, for one thing, and quite a prominent bass – are my ears being deceived? What gives?

Kristin – That’s our good friend Sam Lauristen on trumpet. An amazing player, who was kind enough to join us for a few tracks on that album. At the time, we had done a few shows with him, and we really loved what he was adding to our sound. We will often invite other musicians we know to join us on stage at our shows, often improvising with them over our tunes. Sam doesn’t play with us anymore, but it is a nice representation of the sound we were making live around the release of that album. We still perform all of those songs without Sam’s contribution. As for the bass, you’re either hearing Joel’s guitar (being run through an octave pedal), or Kristin’s left hand on her keyboard. No bass. Ever.

ZaR: You guys sound like you have quite a bit of musical training – there’s refinement and subtlety in your music that rarely, if ever, emerges from an untrained mind. Tell me a little bit about your background in this respect.

Kristin – We value the musical mentors we’ve had over the years, some of them in the form of private teachers and professors, and some of them in the form of other artists we look up to and admire. We have all dedicated many years of our lives to studying our crafts.

Jeff – Indeed! Deep listening and great teachers are the hugest part! I am always trying to get better!

ZaR: Kristin, this one is for you: there’s sometimes a truly menacing tone to your vibraphone – beyond the ethereal timbre of the instrument, you find a way to make it sound enormous, overwhelming and almost aggressive! I’ve never heard it being used in such a way – is there a special technique you use? How do you accomplish this effect?

Kristin – Burton grip, and Vic Firth Terry Gibb mallets. I like a fast vibrato to my motor, and I use it all of the time. Other than that, it’s just how I like to play the instrument. I come from the background of a drummer, not a piano player. I think that’s where I get my aggressive tendencies.

ZaR: And speaking of slightly menacing – what inspired the title of your latest LP?

Kristin – Joel actually came up with the title. We wrote all of the songs in our practice studio which was in a basement, and then we recorded them in a studio that was 3 floors below ground level. We felt like that may have had something to do with the sound we were developing. 557890_467508646653912_582968817_n

ZaR: What are your plans for the future? Would you consider touring Europe for example? There are quite a number of fascinating jazz festivals – even in Romania, where I’m from – which I’m sure would be delighted to have you. Basically, what I’m asking is – what are the odds I’ll get to see you guys performing live?

Kristin – We have just started touring in the United States and venturing out of our home town of Cincinnati, Ohio. I hope to one day be in a position where we are able to book a successful European tour. If we do, I’ll make sure we hit Romania! 🙂

Jeff – I would love to come to Europe. That has always been a big dream of mine. Music has usually been the catalyst to me traveling to new places.

ZaR: Let’s end on a high note – tell me a funny story, an adventure, a mishap from the studio or from a live venue that stuck with you guys, something that makes you smile – something to tell the grand kids.

Kristin – I find that in most of the places we play, rock clubs and festivals, a lot of people don’t know what a vibraphone is. I often have people come up to me after shows and tell me that they liked my xylophone playing. I actually had one guy ask me if it “gets any other sounds” once, as if it was a synthesizer or electric keyboard. I love the instrument, it’s such a beautiful sound, I’m glad a few more people know what it is after watching one of our shows.

Jeff – honestly it is hard to think of all the crazy stuff. I think one of the funniest moments was playing in a small coffee house in Madison WI. We were practically on top of each other. We made it work but it was hilarious!

Us, Today – Thanks for finding our music intriguing enough to get to know the people behind it! You’re the best!

ZaRecords – Thank you for giving me your time, and making this wonderful music!

There you have it! Listening to these guys and talking with them has been one of my highlights of 2014 so far, and I really hope they’ll give you the same thrill. I’ll leave you in the company of their music… enjoy!