I Like These New Songs (Pt. 2)

Here is the long-awaited sequel to my blockbuster previous post, “I Like These New Songs (Pt. 1).” For any new readers who are unsure of what is going on: when we left off, I was linking to new songs I liked and then writing paragraphs about them. Since the first post was such a wild success, I figured I wouldn’t divert from that formula — it would be like making a Fast and the Furious movie without car races or whatever they’re doing in those now.

Colleen Green – “I Wanna Be a Dog”

Many words — some of them rather embarrassing — were spilt on the blog over Colleen Green’s last full length, I Want to Grow Up, which I then insanely listed as the #2 album of the decade when no other person who does things like ranking albums even thought it was good. Her new single, “I Wanna Be a Dog,” is another showcase of her unique gifts: while she may lack traditional ambition and creativity, she makes up for it tenfold with authenticity and (despite her tendency towards self-deprecation) a confidence in who she is. Green is in typical catchy and relatable form here, using various dog metaphors (the leash she puts on herself, barking at a closed door) to articulate her ongoing struggles with being an adult and overcoming insecurities. It’s fun to listen to, partially because it is so personality-driven and unpretentious compared to a lot of tedious indie dreck.

Angel Olsen – “Gloria”

In another career move aimed at me personally, Angel Olsen is following up All Mirrors and Whole New Mess with an EP of 80s covers, starting with this reimagining of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” If the measure of a cover’s quality is how well the artist adapts it to their own style, this scores highly. The original is in there somewhere, but for the most part Olsen has turned this into one of her typical swooning ballads, with swelling synths and some strings. Olsen sings like she really feels the words rather than the typical “wouldn’t it be cool and fun if I covered this song” vibe that sometimes makes covers boring and inessential.

Sungaze – “Body in the Mirror”

As someone who is on Bandcamp a lot and gets frustrated by soft pop artists who call themselves things like Satanic Witch Torture, I respect Sungaze’s straight-forward band name — this Cincinnati group sounds exactly like you’d expect, with a dreamy, psychedelic sound that is in the highly trafficked Mazzy Star area. What makes them just different enough from that band (and others like Widowspeak) is their embrace of more droning song structures that really let the sound wash over the listener. “Body in the Mirror” is a typical song from them, running over five minutes with some spacious guitar parts and simple lyrics that add some meaning without being too obvious about it.

Desert Liminal – “New Tongue”

It’s rare to find a band that truly has a unique sound, but Desert Liminal’s 2017 debut Static Thick had its own blurry, ambiguous, kind-of-poppy-but-not-really thing going on. The band has added a member and increased the production values a bit since then, but “New Tongue” still maintains their individuality. Sarah Jane Quillin’s rich vocals blend into the droning synths and her lyrics are real poetry, with personal details and the rhythmic sound of the words adding to the haunting, mysterious vibe of the sound.

Nation of Language – “Across That Fine Line”

This synth pop group made my coveted top albums list last year with their first full-length, Introduction, Presence, and are quickly following it up with an album that should lead to a break out of sorts. Generally I understand that the music I enjoy is wildly unpopular and most normal people would recoil in disgust at the mere sound of it, but I don’t know — listen to the soaring, anthemic chorus on “Across That Fine Line” and tell me it wouldn’t appeal to normies who enjoy bands like U2 and Coldplay. I’m already preparing my snide comments about how I liked them before they got big.

I Like These New Songs (Pt. 1)

I had a music slump earlier in the year and didn’t feel like writing, so I’m going to catch up on all the stuff I’ve been listening to with a couple quick posts.

The Weather Station – “Robber”

One of my lifelong hobbies is making fun of folk music, since I find almost all of it boring and it’s hard not to poke at the reverence its’s often held in by the snobbier types of listeners. The Weather Station’s Ignorance is the folkiest album I’ve liked in a long time because of songs like “Robber”: this is musically interesting, with creative rhythms, a dense saxophone-heavy arrangement, and lyrics that are thought-provoking instead of the usual woe-is-me stuff that often passes for depth because it’s sad (which equals good, as we all know). Tamara Lindeman’s vocals are the finishing touch — I think they channel Sarah McLachlan, adding to my ongoing thesis that she is a quietly influential figure in acclaimed indie music right now.

Cassandra Jenkins – “Hard Drive”

Along with “Robber,” Cassandra Jenkins’ “Hard Drive” is part of why 2021 is the year of women in their late 30s making saxophone-heavy folk. This song is kind of the oddball on her album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, as it goes with a primarily spoken-word delivery that plays over the saxophone and a repeating piano part, eventually growing into a stirring crescendo over the course of five minutes. The understated vocals allow the lyrics to shine; there is maximum wordplay from the phrase “hard drive” that refers both to the mind and her experiences of literally having a hard time driving (relatable).

Lia Ices – “Earthy”

Lia Ices’ Family Album rounds out this trio of folky albums I’ve been into, and I might actually like it the most of them all even though it slid under the radar with a zero hype January release. After a move to California, Ices went for the classic Laurel Canyon sound, adding a slight tinge of psychedelia (the perfect amount, really) to her piano-heavy arrangements in part thanks to production from the late JR White of Girls. The lyrics are often about her experiences as a new mother, as the title suggests, which is part of what gives this album a sense of warmth and optimism that is refreshing in this field. Given how successful Weyes Blood was with a similar sound a couple years ago, I’m a little disappointed that this album hasn’t reached more listeners.

Chelsea Wolfe – “Diana”

I haven’t been a participant in society’s superhero obsession and largely consider the DC and Marvel movies to be mindless military propaganda that is used to make hordes of viewers obedient slaves of the U.S. government, the Walt Disney Corporation, and Warner Brothers. At risk of sounding like a snob, I believe not enjoying these films makes me superior to others in matters of taste and intellect. That said, Chelsea Wolfe’s “Diana” is inspired by Wonder Woman as part of a DC Comics metal collaboration, and it actually makes the character sound interesting compared to the celebrity cosplay version on screen. I like Wolfe in this more aggressive mode, and she brings her usual tension between light and darkness here, presenting Wonder Woman as a more conflicted and ambiguous personality.

Cold Beat – “See You Again”

I feel like I’ve said all I can about Cold Beat over the years. They’re the best band and “See You Again” is the first single from another new album from them that will surely be great. It’s a slower, shimmering ballad, similar to “In Motion” from Chaos By Invitation, but this time Hannah Lew’s lyrics are the most simple and easily relatable they’ve ever been, a sad but hopeful reflection on drifting away from people that rings particularly true in COVID times.

Spellling Shoots for the Stars on the Dazzling “The Turning Wheel”

Like many indie fans, I often am fascinated by shambolic, minimalistic recordings, which can have an authenticity and relatability that is refreshing compared to the big budget slickness of more mainstream music. But there is still that part of me that craves big sounds and large-scale ambitions, and some of my favorite albums are when an independent-minded artist goes all out with a bunch of crazy ideas. The Turning Wheel, the new album by Spellling (Chrystia Cabral), is one of the finest examples of this in recent years: following up her excellent 2019 album Mazy Fly, she successfully crowdfunded over 20,000 dollars on Kickstarter and used it to pay a massive crew of musicians to bring her concept to life. These resources, along with her natural development as a songwriter, have allowed her to bring her music to dazzling new heights.

Spelllling earns the obvious Kate Bush comparisons here due to the complex studio arrangements, fantastical lyrics, and the way she bends and twists her voice into different registers, at times seeming to represent different characters in the music. Sometimes these comparisons are unfair and burdensome, but I’d argue nobody has come this close to capturing what makes Kate Bush so fun to listen to: the feeling of being totally in the grip of an eccentric artist and transported to her weirdo fantasy world. Spellling does not sound like anyone else, and beyond the specifics of the sound or lyrics, what makes The Turning Wheel so addictive is its spirit, its desire to show the listener something new and take them somewhere far away.

It’s probably worth noting that there are ways to be ambitious without using entire orchestras and making hour-long albums, and I’m sure more low-key artists are also often pushing themselves to the limits in their own way. But there is still an epic, shooting-for-the-stars feeling with The Turning Wheel that is exciting and something I’d been missing in indie music lately. The opener and lead single, “Little Deer,” sets the tone with a lengthy piano and strings intro that leads into Spellling’s mystical vocals and lyrics which are later joined by some horns. This song alone has more ideas and complexity going on than most albums, and the rest of The Turning Wheel is similarly constructed to overwhelm the listener at all points.

This is an album for anyone who gets excited when they see 30 different instrumentalists credited on the Bandcamp page, including a clarinetist, a brass quintet, harp, and “shredding electric guitar.” The sheer volume of sounds contributes to every song feeling a bit like a self-contained fairy tale, with Spellling’s voice also contributing to a variety of moods, ranging from haunting spookiness to more upbeat and stirring sounds that almost sound like part of a Disney soundtrack. To attempt to describe everything going on would be fruitless, and also would ruin a lot of the fun with The Turning Wheel. It’s rare to hear an album that is this different and so authentically quirky and surprising at every turn.

Beneath all the flourishes and extravagance lies a moving and presumably semi-autobiographical portrait of an intensely creative individual who sometimes struggles to connect with the outside world. On “Always,” she sings “How can I ever know what love can truly be/I want to live alone inside my fantasies,” and its evident from the surrounding music that this album is a product of that mindset. “Boys at School” goes into the past, portraying a lonely 15-year-old who says “four walls is all I need of friends,” while on “The Future” she is like a possibly time traveling Rapunzel who is “hiding inside my mind in a tower no one would climb.” It’s not hard to piece together that this is an artist who really needs this kind of art to express herself.

These songs and words are the key to what makes The Turning Wheel so effective: rather than just being weird for the sake of it, there is purpose behind everything on this album and it all works together to bring Cabral’s fantasies to life. While these songs are undeniably theatrical — sometimes it straight-up resembles a Broadway musical or one woman show — it also all feels organic and genuine. I think Spellling put a lot of herself into this and it’s her most successful album at grounding her musical experimentation in more tangible feeling. Anyone who still looks for something new in art and values the power of self-expression should seek out The Turning Wheel and celebrate it.