New Song of the Week – SHIPS HAVE SAILED: “Love in October”

One of my very favorite indie bands is Los Angeles-based duo Ships Have Sailed. The brainchild of vocalist/guitarist Will Carpenter, who originally formed the band in 2012 with a few other musicians who’ve come and gone over the succeeding years, Ships Have Sailed has for the past five years or so consisted of just him and drummer Art Andranikyan. They play a pleasing style of alternative pop-rock characterized by beautiful melodies, intelligent, uplifting lyrics, and sublime arrangements and instrumentation. I love their music, and have written about several of their songs on this blog over the past three years. Two of them – “Escape” in 2019 and “Breathe” earlier this year – have reached #1 on my Weekly Top 30, with “Escape ranking #19 on my Top 100 Songs of 2019 list. And their last single “Take My Money” is currently enjoying an extended run on my Weekly Top 30. On September 30th, they dropped a brand new single “Love in October“, which is so special, I’ve chosen it as my New Song of the Week.

Will told me the song and its accompanying video were born out of both a long daydream of his, and their 2020 tour that was abruptly cut short by the Covid pandemic. He elaborates: “A lot of my songs come from a real, personal experience, [but] that actually isn’t the case here. This loss I’m describing in ‘Love In October’ didn’t happen in real life, it happened in a long and involved daydream (kind of a waking nightmare if you will) that prevented me from making a series of decisions that would have led straight to the actual situation. I’m grateful for that and for the fact that such a beautiful song came out of it.

One of the many things I like about Ships Have Sailed is that every song of theirs sounds uniquely different. Some of them, like “Escape” and “Breathe”, are uplifting ballads, while “Skin” has a laid-back folk vibe, and “Take My Money” is fun, bouncy pop. “Love in October” is one of their most musically complex songs yet, with a dramatic blend of cinematic and alternative rock elements that make it particularly compelling.

The song begins with a gorgeous orchestral instrumental intro that slowly builds into an almost religious experience. At about 55 seconds in, a rather haunting guitar note enters as the song transitions to a mid-tempo beat, accompanied by the introduction of bass, percussion and more guitar. Will’s beautiful vocals are heartfelt and vulnerable as he gently sings to a loved one, admitting he’s made mistakes and asking her to not abandon their relationship “Don’t walk away, I want you back. It seems I’ve stumbled in the wrong direction, on the train but off the track again. Ooh, I’d do anything to keep the leaves from falling. You know I’m all in.” When the chorus arrives, the song explodes into a full-fledged rock track, with blazing guitars, driving bass and Art’s aggressive drumbeats. Will’s vocals rise with emotion along with the more intense instrumentals as he fervently implores “How did we get here, love in October. Same old sun is so cold. But I don’t wanna let go.”

“Love in October” is a stunning track from start to finish. The gorgeous instrumentation and vocals, dramatic arrangement and flawless production make it one of their best songs yet.

With regard to the video, in March 2020, after much planning and preparation, Ships Have Sailed embarked on what was to be a 10-show tour across the Southwestern U.S. with fellow L.A. band Quitting Whitney. After playing only the first show in Las Vegas, their tour came to an abrupt halt the next day as Covid suddenly began spiraling out of control. Will explained “When we realized (in Denver) that our tour was going to completely fall apart, we had a choice to make: turn around and slump back to LA, or follow our non-refundable tour route and create as much content as possible along the way…really telling our story. We were sharing a van and all gear with another duo (Quitting Whitney) and we all agreed to find a silver lining and create some content and art along the way. We outlined two music video treatments on our way from Denver to Albuquerque, one for them and one for us, and I had Danny (my co-producer on ‘Love In October’) print me the rough production of the song (which wasn’t even totally finished yet) so we could have playback.” 

Each band shot video of the other playing their instruments at the AirBnB where they were staying, while the owner, who was staying in an adjacent guest house, thankfully didn’t mind the noise. They captured film footage from the road, and managed to turn a ‘ruined’ tour into something of an adventure, making two new friends in Matt and Ryan of Quitting Whitney along the way, and Will and Art becoming closer through the experience as well. Will also said that this is their first video that his wife Payal (via their wedding photos) has ever been willing to appear in.

Follow Ships Have Sailed: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music: Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music / Pandora
Purchase:  iTunes  / Amazon

VICIOUS ROOSTER – Single Review: “About A Revolution”

Vicious Rooster is the music project of Argentine-born and now Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter, musician and producer Juan Abella. Drawing inspiration from some of his favorite bands like Led Zeppelin, The Black Crowes, Guns’n’Roses and Alice in Chains, his music is a rousing blend of classic and Southern rock, folk, blues and grunge. Both his guitar playing and vocals sound like he’s from Nashville or Austin, rather than Argentina.

Juan’s had a love of music since his childhood growing up in Argentina, where he began learning to play guitar at the age of ten. In 2016, he left his business career behind and relocated to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a musician and study music business at the renowned Musicians Institute in Hollywood. Using songs he’d previously written about his experiences of feeling lost during the transition from his past life to his move to L.A., as well as some new compositions, he released his debut album The Darkest Light in 2017, an ambitious and impressive work featuring 12 tracks and running over an hour in length. After a three-year hiatus, he returned in August 2020 with a darkly beautiful Southern rock single “The Moon is Dancing”, then followed three months later with the powerful bluesy rocker “Something Goin’ On”. (You can read my reviews of both singles by clicking on the ‘Related’ links at the end of this post.)

Now Vicious Rooster returns with a new single “About A Revolution“, which he describes as “a cosmic introspective ride that encourages listeners to reinvent themselves and gather the strength to achieve their dreams.” He further elaborates: “Just like for many people, the pandemic allowed me to reconnect with songs and emotions that had remained dormant. There were no excuses for not paying attention to them and the time has come to give them the shine they deserve. ‘About A Revolution’ was part of a group of songs that I recorded in 2015 that had never seen the light until now.”

The song is a rousing Southern Rock banger, and once again, Vicious Rooster lives up to his moniker, delivering an electrifying barrage of scorching bluesy riffs guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. He’s an amazing guitarist, coaxing an intricate array of lush and powerful sounds from his six-string that are truly mind-blowing. Also worth noting are the wonderful organ at the beginning of the song, as well as the outstanding percussion throughout. Juan’s colorful, emotive vocals are great too, rising and falling in perfect sync with the intensity of the instrumentals.

The lyrics essentially describe his own personal life-changing decision to leave his past life in Argentina behind and pursue his music dreams in L.A.:

Break your chains and start again
You know how hard it can be
When you feel nothing is real
Find a way to keep you strong
Your constant effort will pay off
It'll take some time to see
But in the end you'll get where you want to be

You've moved on, you're leaving your past behind
Don't look back, there's nothing there worth to find
Just focus on the way you want to go
And stay away from things that hurt your soul
Keep reaching for the dream you're fighting for

“About A Revolution” is a great song, and another superb single that further establishes Vicious Rooster as a rock star on the rise.

Follow Vicious Rooster on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Stream his music:  Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud

Purchase:  Bandcamp / Amazon 

New Song of the Week – ASHRR: “Otherside”

Los Angeles-based alt-rock band ASHRR make some incredibly captivating music that’s strongly influenced by such acts as Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads and LCD Soundsystem. Comprised of singer-songwriter Steven Davis and artist/producers Ethan Allen and Josh Charles, the seasoned and highly-accomplished trio collectively have a long and impressive musical pedigree. Bringing together their diverse musical background and eclectic, wide-ranging experience, the three joined forces in 2018 after meeting through mutual musician friends, with the aim of collaborating to create the kind of music they all wanted to make. Charles explains “Our collective love of analog synth pop, classic new wave melodies and songwriting, and taking modern production to the limits, defines us. We all come from different backgrounds, which is what can be heard inside the music.” 

In October 2018 they released their beautiful debut single “Don’t Wait Too Long”, which premiered on NPR and garnered regular airplay on famed Los Angeles alt-rock radio station KROQ. They dropped their self-titled EP ASHRR a few months later, then followed in May 2019 with their outstanding debut full-length album Oscillator, which contained all the tracks from their EP, plus five new tracks. That October, they released an enchanting single “Sacrifice“, which I reviewed, then followed with three more singles, the latest of which is “Otherside“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week.

Released via Wehearnoise Records, it’s a darkly beautiful song that seems to address feelings of breaking free from the isolation of being in lockdown, and celebrating the joys of once again openly socializing with friends and loved ones: “Locked up inside another sundown, Let’s take a ride to the ghost town / I wanna be alive, shining on my face in the morning light. I still need you so…Come out in the open, meet me on the otherside.”

To convey their hopeful message of emerging from the darkness into the light, ASHRR builds upon a strong pulsating beat with a palette of bewitching darkwave synths in the style of Depeche Mode, then layers a rich mix reverb-soaked fuzzy and jangly guitars. The result is a brooding yet optimistic backdrop for Davis’s mesmerizing vocals as he sings the hopeful lyrics.

Connect with ASHRR:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music: Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple MusicYouTube
Purchase:  iTunesBandcamp

ANIA – Single Review: “Tuesdays”

Los Angeles has long been a magnet for young musicians wanting to establish themselves as artists, and I’ve featured many on this blog. One young and promising artist who caught my attention last summer was Ania Thomas, a massively-talented guitarist, songwriter and singer who identifies herself simply as Ania. Born and raised in Poland, she developed a love for music at a young age. She emigrated to America as a teen, first to Chicago, where she studied music at the School of Rock, then to Los Angeles, where she’s now based, to study music at USC and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. Inspired by such artists as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Blondie, St. Vincent, Tool, Rage Against the Machine, L7, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, her aggressive music style is characterized by modern synth textures, killer guitar solos and bewitching vocals.

In 2019, she released two terrific hard-rocking singles “Run Away” and “Doors Close”, then followed in May 2020 with her third single “Poison“ (you can read my review here). After that, she collaborated on two singles, with Noir Production on “Miyako Sushi” and Marcio Hendrik on “Hollywood Moon”. In December she dropped her fourth solo single “Tuesdays“, for which she’s just released an accompanying video on January 22nd. Ania wrote the music and lyrics, arranged the song, played guitar and sang vocals. Bass was played by Philippe Mark, keyboards by Vito Vincenzo Sicurella, strings by Barry Fowler and drums by Seth. “Tuesdays”, along with her three previous solo singles, will be included on her forthcoming debut EP Ania in Chains, due out later this year

Ania was inspired to write “Tuesdays” by the many soul-crushing challenges we all faced in 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout, the deep and bitter political divide, and so on. “The song is really about being lost and finding yourself, I think. About finding your way. When the idea for it came to me, I was just walking around the mountains in LA and was trying to find myself again in nature. We’re all kind of lost right now, I think. We’re all there or we’ve all been there, all struggling with different things. But we’ll make it through.”

She delivers her hopeful message with a barrage of intricate fuzz-coated riffs, punctuated by some serious shredding and grinding distortion that create a strong sense of foreboding. Her amazing guitar work is backed by a powerful rhythm section of driving bass and tumultuous percussion that heighten the overall sense of tension quite nicely. Her commanding vocals are both seductive and urgent as she impels us to gather our inner strength and forge ahead through the difficulties with the belief that things will get better: “Inhale, Inhale. And now times have changed. But don’t give in / You’re gonna find a way. All out! All out! I beg you know A WAY.” I think “Tuesdays” is her best single yet!

Follow Ania:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream/purchase her music:  Spotify / Apple Music / YouTube / Amazon

leaving richmond – Album Review: “Visions”

leaving richmond is the instrumental electronic music project of Los Angeles-based composer and producer Jordan Pier. He recently reached out to me about his latest album Visions, which dropped November 13th. As I always do when preparing to review an artist or band’s music for the first time, I checked out his back catalog to better acquaint myself with his style and sound, and was surprised at his considerable music output over the past 10 years. From what I can tell, his first release, in 2010, was the EP The Secret Traditions of Washington Ave., a very respectable work featuring five tracks. Since then, he’s released another two EPs, several singles and five albums, the latest of which is Visions.

His works have received widespread acclaim from both music critics and fans alike, with several of his songs garnering airplay on NPR and other radio stations around the world. Despite the pandemic, he says 2020 has been an amazing year for him from a musical standpoint. In addition to composing and producing a new album, he also saw a number of his tracks land placements on popular TV shows as well as advertisements.

About his new album, Pier explains: “Following the release of [his previous album] ‘Great Distances’, I took a deep dive which bore fruit in multiple ways, particularly in honing my composition, production and engineering capabilities in aspects that were exciting and inspiring. I strove to take all the new skills I had learned and combined it with the organic songwriting I so loved. The melodic, layered guitar as the main and guiding instrument represents a return to roots as I simultaneously embraced new electronic techniques. As a result of this new outlook on songwriting and experience in the studio, the ‘Visions’ LP was born. Every track on this album is tied to and inspired by a visualization of some sort. What this album has allowed me to do is combine my love for music and imagery into one offering. It is my hope to provide a soundtrack for the thoughts of the listener and offer some respite.”

All tracks were composed, arranged, produced and engineered by leaving richmond, and mastered by Brian Hazard. The album kicks off with “You Must Break Yourself“, an enchanting track featuring a kaleidoscope of shimmery and spacey synths punctuated by dubstep-like percussive beats. The result is a dreamy and optimistic soundscape that, to my ears, evokes a sense of breaking free from whatever it was holding you back and entering an aura of enlightenment.

Memories of Another You” is a stunning feast for the ears that really showcases leaving richmond’s impressive compositional and production talents. He intertwines layers of gorgeous chiming guitar notes with glittery string synths and delicate skittering piano keys to create a scintillating soundscape that’s truly magical. It’s an instant favorite of mine. The lovely “There Is So Much to See” has a somewhat more subdued and introspective vibe, with warm, sumptuous synths.

Inspired by the 1879 painting Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Adherence” is a rather dark and somber track, with a deep bass synth-driven melody overlain with swirling synths and reserved jangly guitars that nicely convey Joan of Arc’s sense of purpose and valor. “Daydreams at the Cannery” was inspired by a character in the 2017 video game What Remains of Edith Finch?, developed by video game company Giant Sparrow. The shimmery guitars and glistening synths are intended to honor the beautiful storytelling and cinematic art of the game.

On a more spiritual level, “Washing Over Us” attempts to convey through music the concept that, in his words, “pure emotion can surround, envelop and cleanse us like the beautiful waters in the oceans and lakes around the world.” He skillfully employs watery synths, chiming guitar notes and ethereal choir-like vocals to create images of water nymphs singing in a crystalline lake. “The Frequency of You” is a beguiling guitar-driven track with wonderful spacey synths and a hypnotic toe-tapping beat. Once again, his guitar work is quite marvelous.

leaving richmond’s love of neon light signs was the inspiration behind the sublime “Red Orange Light“. The track opens with muffled sounds of neon gas pulsating through glass tubes, followed by a building cinematic soundscape of spacy synths and delicately-strummed jangly guitars, accompanied by a gentle dubstep beat. It’s an enchanting and beautiful song. Keeping with the more techno-oriented sound, the enchanting “The Soul is Greater” serves up more of those spacey, otherworldly vibes, highlighted by leaving richmond’s signature gorgeous shimmery guitars.

I’ve run out of descriptors and superlatives by now, so let me just say that closing track “And Then We Begin Again” is yet another exquisite song, and a fine finish to a stunning album. I’ve listened to a lot of electronic instrumental albums over the years, and Visions stands among the very best. leaving richmond’s skill for writing beautiful and compelling melodies is impressive, and his guitar work and keyboards are truly breathtaking.

Follow Leaving Richmond:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream his music:  SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloud

Purchase:  BandcampAmazon

YARD OF BLONDES – Single Review: “Do You Need More?”

From humble beginnings in France as a folk pop duo making mostly acoustic music, Yard of Blondes have faced some of the same challenges and struggles as many young artists and bands experience since relocating to Los Angeles in 2014. Now a four-piece, they’re finally on an upward trajectory and making a name for themselves with their exciting and edgy style of alternative rock. The band is comprised of the hard-working French-born singer/songwriter and guitarist/vocalist Vincent Walter Jacob and bassist/vocalist Fanny Hulard, guitarist Burak Yerebakan, originally from Turkey, and Northern California native Forrest Mitchell on drums.

I’ve previously featured Yard of Blondes twice on this blog, first in July 2019 when I reviewed their marvelous bilingual single “Je veux danser tout l’été”, along with two alternative versions, then again this past February when I reviewed their single “Lowland”. (You can read those reviews by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of this post.) Now they’re back with “Do You Need More?“, the third single from their forthcoming debut album Feed the Moon, due for release early next year. The single and album were produced by Billy Graziadei (Biohazard, Powerflo), mixed by Michael Patterson (Nine Inch Nails, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) and mastered by Maor Applebaum (Faith No More).

In a recent interview with music blog TrueStyleMusic, Vincent provided some background on “Do You Need More?”: “It was one of the first songs we wrote for our upcoming album, and it’s the song we always play first at our shows. It’s a song that seems very straight forward, but it evolves into a more complicated piece as Fanny is adding more and more layers of vocals, and as we end up breaking the installed routine with some surprisingly heavy bridge. Regarding the lyrics, it’s also a tricky song. It feels like a love song at the beginning, but it’s actually a toxic love story where one gaslights another, and it ends up with kind of a Stockholm syndrome situation.

The song is a rampaging beast, storming through the gates like a bat out of hell with furious riffs of grimy guitars and a thunderous barrage of explosive rhythms. Fanny’s throbbing bass line propels the song forward while Forrest keeps pace with his pummeling drumbeats. Meanwhile, Vincent and Burak are busy laying to the airwaves with their aggressive, intertwining guitars, delivering chugging riffs of shredded distortion that threaten to blow out the speakers. Vincent and Fanny’s expressive vocals rise to the occasion, becoming downright feral in the chorus as they wail “Do you need more? Do you really need more? Gimme, gimme, gimme some more! I want it all!” Finally, everyone spent, the song fades out in a hum of reverb.

If the three singles released thus far – “You and I & I”, “Lowland” and “Do You Need More?” are any indication, Feed the Moon is guaranteed to be a terrific album.

Connect with Yard of Blondes:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music:  Spotify / Apple MusicSoundcloud
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Amazon

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #95: “My Type” by Saint Motel

The song at #95 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “My Type” by Los Angeles-based Saint Motel. I loved this song the moment it first hit my eardrums back in late 2014, and it turned me into a big fan of the band. Their rousing, sophisticated sound is a nod to the brassy exuberance of the Big Band era, but delivered with a fresh, contemporary indie pop approach. “My Type” is a deliriously catchy song with a powerful driving dance beat and an exuberant horn-driven hook that make for a joyful and fun listen. It also has one of the best tongue-in-cheek lyrics ever: “You’re know you’re just my type. Oh, you’ve got a pulse and you are breathing.”

Band front man A.J. Jackson, who has a terrific singing voice, produced and directed the stylish video for the track, which was filmed in a cool Mid-Century Modern house in L.A.

ANIA – Single Review: “Poison”

Ania

I recently learned about the amazing guitarist, songwriter and singer Ania Thomas – who identifies herself simply as Ania – when I read an interview with her by my Austalian friend Robert Horvat on his blog Rearview Mirror. Growing up in Poland, she developed a love for music at a young age. She emigrated to America as a teen, first to Chicago where she studied music at the School of Rock, then relocated to Los Angeles, where she’s now based, to study music at USC and also the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. Inspired by such artists as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Blondie, St. Vincent, Tool, Rage Against the Machine, L7, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, her aggressive music style is characterized by modern synth textures, killer guitar solos and commanding vocals.

In 2019, she released two terrific hard-rocking singles “Run Away” and “Doors Close”, then followed up this past May with her third single “Poison“. All three songs will be included on her forthcoming debut EP Ania in Chains, due out later this year. Ania wrote, sang and played guitar on the track, while two friends from her music theory class, both of whom are named Matt, played bass and drums. She also engineered and produced the track herself.

About “Poison”, Ania told webzine comeherefloyd: “The song is about a breakup and that someone who breaks you. [It] shows how people are focused on their own world and are ignorant of the society we live in. As people, especially millennials today, we forget and are ignorant of the corrupt political system we are a part of, and are more interested in social media.” In an interview with the webzine UDS, she further elaborated “I tried to write a dark pop song something in the veins of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Hand That Feeds’, that has a dark pop element to it and synths similar to what St Vincent writes.”

Well, I think she succeeds quite nicely, producing a song that’s longer and darker than her previous songs, and featuring progressive rock elements that give it a more sophisticated vibe that’s both compelling and satisfying in equal measure. Ania works magic with her guitar, delivering intricate riffs of jangly, grungy and psychedelic guitars while the two Matts keep the moody rhythmic grooves humming along with their bass and drums, respectively. The swirling spacey synths add to the song’s ominous atmosphere, as do Ania’s ethereal vocals as she almost menacingly croons the refrain “Air is filling up with poison, and you keep breaking my shit.

She’s also released a colorful video for “Poison” that was directed by Will Milvid and beautifully filmed by Alex Ioanoviciu. She explained her intent behind the video to the website Scottish Music Network: “I wanted the ‘Poison’ video to expose the inauthenticity of the beautiful and vibrant image that many people associate with Los Angeles. Hollywood glamour is a part of the city, but it’s got an angsty side too. We all have an impact on the world around us. I want people to wake up and think critically for themselves, and understand that we can all fight for change if we aren’t absorbed in our own image. Sometimes we’re blinded by it. But if we look up from our phones, we can fight for change and a better future.”

In the video, Ania is shown performing the song in an alley off Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, interspersed with scenes of her breaking records and smashing a pie in her boyfriend’s face. In other scenes, she’s shown performing the song on stage in front of her drummer who’s wearing a Trump mask, finally having an altercation with him where she knocks him on his ass. Totally works for me!

“Poison” is a marvelous song that further advances Ania’s rising star as a female rock artist on the L.A. music scene and beyond. I plan to continue following her on her music journey.

Follow Ania:  FacebookTwitterInstagram
Stream her music:  SpotifyApple MusicYouTube
Purchase:  Google playAmazon

SURRIJA – Album Review: “Surrija”

Surrija Albumcover

This past January, I introduced my readers to Surrija, the music project of the hyper-talented singer-songwriter Jane Lui, when I reviewed her marvelous single “Nothing Love”. The song was the lead single of her self-titled album Surrija, which dropped April 3rd. Born and raised in Hong Kong, and now based in Los Angeles, Lui began studying classical piano at the age of five, and that traditional training, combined with her love for the music of artists like Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Björk, helped shape her unique sound and music style. She has a gorgeous and unusual singing voice, and uses it almost like another instrument in her arsenal, seducing us with tender whispers one moment, then startling us with a feral urgency the next.

Recording under her given name, Lui produced three studio albums between 2004 and 2010, along with numerous singles and covers, which you can find on her SpotifySoundcloud, and YouTube pages. Despite her success, however, she felt constrained, and wanted to make music that more closely reflected what she refers to as her “slightly feral tendencies.” It was with this new approach that Lui rebranded herself as Surrija. In 2016 she spent time in Barcelona, Spain, where she initially found inspiration from Picasso’s artistic output during his own years spent living there. But eventually, she became fascinated instead with his famous lovers and muses who he kept in the shadows, often preventing them from realizing their own potential. Wanting to tell their story, she began researching about some of them and writing songs for what would become her debut album Surrija. As a concept album, Surrija is a complex and remarkable work, with a lot to unpack. Not being a musician, I approach this review with a bit of trepidation, as I hope to adequately articulate at least some of its many nuances.

The first album cut and lead single “Nothing Love” actually predates her time spent in Barcelona, as it was written in 2013. The song – and the entire album actually – is a musical feast for the ears, with an impressive array of instruments, synths and sounds. Starting with a foundation of stuttering dubstep beats, Surrija and her team of musicians layer a rich and colorful kaleidoscope of sounds and textures to create a dramatic and rather chaotic soundscape that thrills and surprises at every turn. Surrija plays the Moog synthesizer, electric organ, piano and mellotron, Matt Chamberlain plays drums, mixed percussion and modular synths, Maxwell Gualtieri plays electric guitar, Sophocles Papavasilopoulos plays piano and clarinet, and Christine Tavolacci plays the enchanting flute that’s one of the song’s highlights for me. Lui told the webzine Clout: “‘Nothing Love’ is about the kind of heartbreak that hurts so much it feels absurd”, and her fervent vocals most definitely convey that kind of emotional intensity.

Surrija and gang
Albert Chiang, Surrija, Maxwell Gualtieri & Sophocles Papavasilopoulos

Next up is “Barcelona“, one of my personal favorites on the album. Like most of the tracks, it was co-written by Lui and Albert Chiang, and while the lyrics are ambiguous to me, the song’s arrangement and Surrija’s captivating vocals are incredible. The song starts off almost tentatively, with wobbly industrial synths set to a slow dubstep beat as Surrija’s softly croons. Subtle keyboards and haunting guitar notes enter as the song builds, soaring to a dramatic crescendo in the chorus as she passionately sings “I’ll be waiting in Barcelona”, covering me in goosebumps.

A number of songs are named for Picasso’s paintings, muses or lovers, the first of which is “Sylvette“, which is also the title of Picasso’s 1954 painting of a young woman with a pony tail. The model for the painting was a young French woman named Lydia Sylvette David, who worked in a pottery studio near Picasso’s studio. Finding her appearance appealing, he ultimately created 40 works inspired by her. It’s been said that she was an inspiration for actress Brigitte Bardot and the Roger Vadim film And God Created Woman. Now 85, Lydia starting drawing to pass the time while she sat for Picasso, and became an artist in her own right. (Wikipedia) Musically, “Sylvette” has a throbbing synth-driven dance vibe with funky guitars and sharp drumbeats. Surrija’s soulful vocals remind of a bit of Madonna on this track, which actually sounds to me like a song Madonna could have sung in the 90s.

Minotaur” is inspired by Picasso’s fascination with the mythical creature, which was a prominent and recurring motif in his artwork from 1928-1958. The bull is a significant element in Spanish culture, representing power and strength, as evidenced in the rituals of bullfighting and the running of the bulls. For the online art webzine Widewalls, art critic Balasz Takac observed that Picasso “apparently perceived himself as the Minotaur, a creature of huge physical power and sexual energy, which suited his need for expressing the male principal in all of its glory. He somehow saw the battle in corrida through the prism of his own relationships with women. On the other hand, it is also important to point out that the bull is a rebellious and durable animal eager to resist the attacker, which is relevant in the light of Picasso’s political engagement and reaction on the rising Fascism in the 1930s.”

I may be way off, but the lyrics “Behind the terror where the gentle lives / Breathing heavy always counting on the scars and open wounds / She knows those lilies and nightlight” seem to speak to how one of Picasso’s lovers would deal with him in the context of his identity as a Minotaur.

Another favorite track of mine is the enchanting “Dora“, highlighted by beautiful violin, deep, resonant piano keys, and Surrija and Albert Chiang’s exquisite vocal harmonies. The song is named for French photographer, painter and poet Dora Maar (aka Henriette Theodora Markovitch), who had a tempestuous affair with Picasso from 1935-43 (even though he was still somewhat involved with his previous lover Marie-Thérèse Walter). He painted many portraits of her, often depicting her as a tortured, anguished woman, which she did not appreciate. The most well known of these portraits is “The Weeping Woman.” Her sentiments are vividly expressed in the lyrics: “You introduced me to your war / I learned a lot keep folding it in / Take care of the dark / Knife between the roses on the table top / The blood I kept and promised / Like a dream come true / You’re a dream come true.

Serial philanderer and overall louse that he was, Picasso dumped Dora for his next lover Marie Françoise Gilot, with whom he had a stormy affair from 1943-53, and subject of the song “Gilot“. She was also an accomplished artist, but her professional career was eclipsed by her involvement with Picasso. After they split up, he discouraged galleries from showing or buying her work, and tried to block the publication of her memoir Life with Picasso. (Still alive at 98, she later married Jonas Salk, developer of one of the first polio vaccines.) “Gilot” has a harsher, lo-fi sound, with a skittering dubstep beat and spacey synths, highlighted with some somber piano keys. With breathy, ethereal vocals, Surrija softly laments as Gilot, coming to terms with Picasso’s shortcomings and finally choosing to move on: “You could be here with history waiting / Keep still for a moment / ‘Cause I know you and all you want to take / I see you through your loops and endings / Sweet wreckage awaiting / It’s hard but i will walk away.

Turnstile Hostile” seems to address Picasso’s penchant for having a revolving door of lovers, and his mistreatment and ultimate discarding of them: “Turnstile hostile temperamental / We lined up for your blows / Arms up gun point my anger hollowed / Can’t feel the quiet it’s time to go.” The gnarly synths, gritty bass and punchy drums create a discordant vibe that suits the biting lyrics. “Semibelieve” is a rather haunting, ethereal song with ambient psychedelic synths, delicate piano keys and distant sounds of crickets. I can’t figure out what the lyrics are about, but Surrija’s soft, breathy vocals are lovely as she sings them.

Mercy Street” is a beautiful and haunting cover of the song written by Peter Gabriel that originally appeared on his 1986 album So. Though unrelated to the subject matter of the other tracks, it seems to fit the album’s overall theme quite well, The album features two brief instrumental tracks, the first of which “She Learned to Not Be Scared” consists of a pensive but lovely piano melody accompanied by ambient sounds of rain and thunder, broken at the end by sounds of a tape recorder being turned on with some entirely different music playing before being abruptly shut off. The second is “H.U.M.“, which is essentially 30 seconds of deep synth bass.

The album closes with the beautiful piano ballad “Almost Time“, a bittersweet song that seems to speak to broken relationships and the pain they leave in their wake: “Well it’s almost time / Maybe you’ll get lucky / At least in my mind / No answers for I know I’d lose / But i can say ‘least I tried so I can hide.” The only sounds we hear are Surrija’s captivating piano and vocals that start off tender and heartfelt, then rise to an impassioned plea in the chorus that brings chills.

Surrija is a brilliant and innovative work, and one of the most fascinating albums I’ve heard so far this year. Though each track can stand on its own, I think the album should be listened to in its entirety from beginning to end to fully appreciate its beauty, power and nuance. Surrija and her fellow musicians have crafted a stunning work that should make them all quite proud.

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Stream her music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase: Google Play / cdbaby

New Song of the Week – WONS PHREELY+theHorses – “Restless to Run”

Wons Phreely Restless to Run

I’ve been following Australian-born, and now Los Angeles-based, singer/songwriter Wons Phreely (aka Justin Wonsley) since first learning about him in 2016. He’s an interesting, funny, thoughtful, hard-working and highly creative guy, and I love his music and off-beat vocal style. He grew up and began his music career in Perth, but relocated to Los Angeles in 2015 in search of a more dynamic and varied artistic environment where he could grow as a musician and artist.

In 2016, with his backup band The Horses he released an autobiographical single “Stars” that addressed his experiences overcoming self-doubt and fear of change, and enabling him to make the life-altering move from Australia to Los Angeles. In November 2017, he followed up with another great single “The Night Has An Alibi,” accompanied by a strange but brilliant video he directed in which he’s portrayed as only a head.  I reviewed both singles, each of which ended up placing on my Top 100 Songs lists for 2016 and 2018, respectively. (You can check out those reviews under “Related” at the end of this post.)

Now he returns with a brand new single “Restless To Run“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week. As with all his songs, Wons was inspired by his own life experiences: “I wrote the song about your (my) famous first romantic tryst and how it got all messed up.”

But he elaborates on a larger, more philosophical level: ‘Restless To Run’ is about all the many paths we can choose in life, and how sometimes we have to run down the wrong ones, fall down, get back up and then choose a new road to head down. We all mess up, fail and have false starts, I signed a with a big management and publishing label, but I had this feeling like it wasn’t right, like I had to get away, start again, and run in my own direction. Then I got to LA, where I felt more like myself. Even if I’m struggling daily, I’m doing things on my own terms, like directing music videos, or writing songs for people. Its not easy, but it’s the right road for me. And sometimes the failures can be what make us feel alive. 

I’d like to dedicate this song to the spirit of embracing failure. That’s what I connect to in rock and roll. I wrote it after the passing of David Bowie. I actually found myself crying a little, which is something I’ve never done over the passing of a famous person. It felt almost like the end of an era when artists could experiment, and still be accepted by pop culture, with no consideration for commercial results. Just self expression on who they are and how they felt. Bowie’s first few albums completely flopped, and yet an industry and the public still supported him until he had formed his musical identity and began to connect through a very personal expression of who he was. Same goes for artists like Springsteen, Prince and Elton, who were failures for their first couple of records, but carried on anyway. And these artists arrived at some truly unique styles and self-expression that still resonates today. Time is a tricky one. It’s about learning who you are as you grow into yourself. Bowie made me want to make music that’s fun, camp, glamorous and sexy.”

Like all his songs, Wons starts with a catchy melody and bouncy, head-bopping beat, then layers jangly guitars, snappy drumbeats, and exuberant, swirling synths that evoke a sun-kissed and carefree Southern California afternoon. But the real highlight are his delightfully quirky but pleasing vocals that start off with a plaintive croon, then veer off into a joyous, breathy falsetto that’s so endearing. And I love how his Australian accent shines through.

He’s also released another clever video to accompany the single, about which he explains: “I wanted the video to feel like simpler times. It was deliberately shot with a lo-fi approach using a handheld iPhone with no lenses or smooth, stabilized shots. The aim was to convey innocence and romanticism—a longing you can only really capture and express through music.”

Wons also made a lyric video for the song that opens with an aerial shot of Hollywood that zeroes in on a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard that shows the video playing.

Follow him on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music on Spotify / YouTube / Apple MusicSoundcloud
Purchase on Bandcamp / Google PlayiTunes