DARKSOFT – Album Review: “Beigeification”

I love dream pop with an alternative bent, and the music of singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Darksoft fits the bill quite nicely (and his first name also happens to be Bill!). Originally from Seattle, where he was active in the local music scene both as a solo artist and a collaborator with other musicians, he relocated in late 2021 clear across the country to Portland, Maine. Deftly blending elements of dream pop, shoegaze and alternative rock, he creates music that’s both sumptuous and pleasing. His compelling lyrics, addressing timely and relevant issues related to technology, social media and disillusionment, are delivered with his enchanting and soothing ethereal vocals. The imaginative, talented and creative artist has released four concept albums thus far, the latest of which is Beigeification.

I previously featured him and his music three times on this blog in 2019, first when I reviewed his brilliant debut album Brain, a concept work named for the very first computer virus to attack the internet back in 1986, with each track titled after infamous viruses that followed. I later reviewed two singles, “WannaCry”, which addressed the deep cultural and political divide in America, fed by our tendency to stay stuck in our own echo chambers, and “Cybersecurity“, which questioned whether all our data floating around out there in cyberspace was somehow being kept safe. (You can read those reviews by clicking on the ‘Related’ links at the end of this post.) He followed with Meltdown (which includes the two aforementioned singles) in 2020, then Cryo in early 2022. They’re all excellent albums, but Beigeification is my favorite of them all.

Released on January 13th via Darksoft’s own label Look Up Records, Beigeification was produced and recorded entirely by him, mixed by Brian Fisher (Hibou, Éclo, Eastern Souvenirs), and mastered by Stefan Mac (Cold War Kids, No Vacation, Sea Lemon). He describes the album as “a postmodern dose of beigey moods and pastel phrases to match the disillusionment of our age.” For the album cover, he decided to use only a single beige color. He further elaborated in an Instagram post on his thoughts and inspiration for creating the album:

When producing an album, I find that having a consistent theme is really helpful to inform the overall sound, lyrics, progressions, melodies, and instrumentation. For lyrics, I’m using a lot of ‘thought-terminating cliches’. These annoying, overused phrases and idioms have the effect of ending a conversation, because they are vague, universal truths. What’s also interesting is that grammatically they say absolutely nothing but they carry a lot of weight in context. Examples are ‘it is what it is’, ‘you gotta do what you gotta do’, ‘win some lose some’, ‘only time will tell’ and ‘to each their own‘.

This theme has been fun to play with, and I think fits the general attitude after watching the world over the past few years. I don’t want to encourage inaction, but when so much negativity piles up, it’s like ‘whaddya gonna do?’ To stay sane and functional as a digital being, you sort of have to accept that an endless barrage of bad news will always be at your fingertips, and then focus on what matters to you. Also, remember when everything got beigeified? Perhaps your parents painted the walls beige to increase the ‘resell value’ of their home (even if they weren’t selling it). Or think of Carmela Soprano’s Etruscan-themed living room, or how beige was used for conformity reasons on workplace PCs for most of the 20th century. I want these songs on Beigeification to carry nothing too heavy, say something without saying anything, and sit in the background of everyday life, like how sand fits around your toes at the beach, passive like the color beige, and worn-out like these idioms.

Every song on Beigeification uses only one chord progression over and over! I was trying to simplify with less is more. I realized I could just add or remove layers to change the vibe. Or change the playing/strumming slightly or use different chord inversions. This approach keeps things cohesive and was totally different from how I used to write, which was different chord progressions from section to section. It’s more carefree. It is what it is.

The album contains nine wonderful tracks, starting with “It Is What It Is“, which was also released as the first single. The song has a fun, bouncy vibe, highlighted by Darksoft’s beautiful jangly guitar notes and breathy vocals singing the cliche lyrics he alluded to above: “Say what you will. When you know you just know. All’s well that ends well. What goes around comes around.” The charming video for the song, showing him barefoot and dressed all in white, doing a simple dance move in front of empty, nondescript office parks around Portland, Maine, was filmed on VHS recording equipment, giving it a vintage lo-fi quality.

Only Time Will Tell” has an 80s new wave sound that calls to mind some of the music of Joy Division, New Order and The Cure, but with a modern twist. I love the lush jangly and chiming guitars and snappy percussion, and Darksoft’s silky vocals are both comforting and sensuous. The lyrics speak of being patient and taking things slowly and deliberately, aware that ‘good things come to those who wait’: “You got to learn to walk before you learn to run. Everything will come to the one that waits. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Only time will tell.”

Next up is the languid “You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do“, a song so beautiful and soothing that I’m now besotted with this album. Once again, Darksoft’s guitar work is gorgeous, as are the sparkling synths and gentle percussion, and his layered breathy vocals are sublime. The way he strings together so many trite cliche sayings into something beautiful and compelling is quite clever: “You gotta do what you gotta do. You gotta be who you gotta be. Do or don’t, live or die. You never know until you try.” The beautiful video, directed by Brett Davis Jr. and filmed by Gerald Davis, shows Darksoft singing the song at Two Lights State Park and Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

The great songs keep coming. “Win Some Lose Some” is a return to the breezy new wave vibe we heard on “Only Time Will Tell”, which nicely serves to reinforce the ‘c’est la vie’ sense of resignation over life’s hiccups that Darksoft is getting at on the album – “Reap what you sow. Take what ya get. Better luck next time. Win some lose some. Win some lose others. If it’s not one thing then it’s another.” “Whatever It Takes” has a lively, toe-tapping beat, neat fuzzy guitars and colorful synths, and, as always, beautifully-layered sensuous vocals.

I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but my gosh, “Stones Unturned” is so gorgeous I can barely contain myself. Darksoft’s delicate jangly guitar work is stunning, accompanied by ambient sounds of a distant thundershower and beautiful swirling synths. His comforting ethereal vocals have been electronically altered in spots, giving them a fuzzy, otherworldly feel. The lyrics seem to be about – to use yet another cliche expression – ‘letting sleeping dogs lie’: “Some stones are best left, left unturned. Some words are better left unheard. Somethings you don’t need to see. Some views look better from dreams. Sometimes the road less traveled is leading nowhere.”

A fantastic dominant bassline takes center stage on “There’s Always Something Going On“, a song about how there will always be some unpleasant issue or problem to deal with in life: “There’s only so much I can do. There’s always something left undone. Even after we’re all dead and gone. There will be something going wrong.” And on the peppy “Fast Lane“, Darksoft sings of the perils of living recklessly: “It’s a short way down, but a long way back. Take a shortcut in the fast lane and you just might crash.” The album closes with “Such Is Life“, a pleasing song of resignation that sometimes shit happens in life, and we just have to accept it and do the best we can as we move on: “Such is life. Guess that’s the way it’s gonna be. C’est la vie.”

I don’t know what more I can write about Beigeification that I haven’t already gushed about, other than to say that I think it’s one of the best albums of 2023 so far. I love it so much I bought my own copy on Bandcamp, and so should you!

Connect with Darksoft on Facebook / TwitterInstagram
Stream his music on SpotifyApple Music / Soundcloud 
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

VAZUM – Single Review: “Double Stellium”

VAZUM is a deathgaze duo from Detroit, Michigan, consisting of Zach Pliska (vocals/guitar/drums) and Emily Sturm (vocals/bass). Combining elements of deathrock, goth, post-punk and shoegaze, they create their signature dark, haunting and melodic sound that sounds vaguely familiar, yet totally unlike anyone else I’ve heard. Since forming in 2017, the highly imaginative and prolific duo have released an impressive four albums, three EPs and nearly a dozen singles, all of which they produce, record, engineer and mix independently at their own Light Echo Studios.

I’ve followed VAZUM for over a year, and am finally featuring them on this blog on the occasion of the release of their latest single “Double Stellium“. Stellium is an astrological term that refers to when someone has at least three planets in one zodiac sign or house in their birth chart. Having a double stellium can be very intense with a lot of energy focused in specific areas. Both Zach and Emily have double stelliums in their astrological charts, hence the song’s theme and title.

The song blasts open with a jarring onslaught of shredded psychedelic guitars and explosive pummeling percussion, then settles into an eerily beautiful and melodic soundscape of industrial synths, those shredded guitars ever-present in the background. Halfway through, the music returns to the same intensity we heard at the beginning, before quickly calming back down, only to rev back up at the end for a final bombastic flourish. Zach and Emily’s echoed droning vocal harmonies are perfectly suited to the goth-flavored instrumentals, nicely enhancing the song’s overall haunting feel.

The lyrics are probably open to interpretation, but my take is that they speak to loving those close to us and living life to the fullest in the here and now, given the eventual certainty of death.

Soon it will claim us all
Drained, pale porcelain dolls
Swept in a sanguine pulse
Dark dreams, nothing else
Doesn’t really matter who we were
All that really matters

I’ll lie here with you till nightfall
I’ll bleed here in you till nightfall
I’ll lie here with you
There’s no end
I’ll bleed here in you
There’s no end

VAZUM also created and produced the trippy video for the track.

Connect with VAZUM: FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream their music: SpotifyApple Music / SoundcloudYouTube

Purchase on Bandcamp

PORTS – Single Review: “Swimming Pool”

Photos by SMC

PORTS is a talented four-piece based in Derry, Northern Ireland who formed in 2012 while at music college. Influenced by such acts as Phosphorescent, Big Thief, Andy Shauf, Aldous Harding and Stars of the Lid, their music is an incredibly pleasing blend of folk, indie rock and shoegaze. They released their beautiful debut single “Ancient Wave” in 2014, then followed with several more singles which culminated in the release in 2016 of their album The Devil is a Songbird, featuring 13 stunning tracks. It’s really outstanding, and I strongly encourage my readers to check it out.

The guys then toured extensively throughout the UK, the US, Canada and Australia in support of the album, garnering play and live performances on numerous BBC radio channels and MTV, which earned them a strong following. Additionally, eight of the songs from their album have been used in a number of TV shows, including Teen Wolf, Bloodlands, Awkward, Wild Ireland and Love in a Day. Collectively, their songs have been streamed more than 3.2 million times on Spotify alone.

The band took a brief hiatus after touring, then began writing and recording songs again in early 2020, before Covid brought things to a halt. Nevertheless, they managed to drop another lovely single “Reading in the Dark” in August 2020, and once restrictions against gathering together were lifted, they continued with writing and recording songs for their forthcoming second album Wild Awake, replacing some of those they’d previously written with new ones. The songs on the new album will feature a mix of folk rock, Cajun, and electronic lo-fi shoegaze soundscapes. One of the tracks to be included on the new album is “Swimming Pool“.

Band member Steven McCool explains their inspiration behind the song: “During our short hiatus, we didn’t know what we wanted from the band. We had some discussions on what direction to go and what sound we should create, but it became frustrating. When we decided to start writing again we decided we’d stop overthinking and just write. We were just messing about between takes and ‘Swimming Pool’ started to take form. The music and melody fell together within minutes, so we decided to record it. We were using a new lyric writing technique, where we would imagine a scene. So I said I can see someone diving into a swimming pool at night in slow motion. The song ultimately became a metaphor for our emotions, if you fight them they become harder to manoeuvre. So, like swimming you just go with it and it gets easier the more relaxed you are.

The song is beautiful, with a serene, contemplative vibe that nicely conveys the feeling of someone slowly gliding through the waters of a swimming pool. PORTS creates this enchanting soundscape through the use of a lush array of instruments, including what sounds like cello and mellotron, along with lovely piano keys, gently strummed acoustic and twangy guitars, subtle bass and delicate drums. The warm, soothing vocals, who I’m guessing are Steven’s, perfectly complement the music.

When you held your breath til' the sun came down
Beneath the surface a muffled sound
When you can't make out the synthetic sea
Bead of air attempt to flee

Can't stop the overflow round your body
It's just a motion, these emotions
You can let it go, let it move on
It's just a motion, these emotions
 
You sink back down and the picture slows
Projected chaos above you glows
The water breaks to reveal the sky
A road to take reflects in your eye

Can't stop the overflow round your body
It's just a motion, these emotions
You can let it go, let it move on
It's just a motion, these emotions

The beautiful video shows gauzy images of the band performing the song interspersed with those of a swimmer slowly gliding through the water, all filmed in a deep shade of blue.

Connect with PORTS:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream their music:  SpotifyApple Music YouTube

ROADKEEPER – Single Review: “Take the L”

From the moment I first heard their single “Old Man’s War” back in the spring of 2019, I’ve been a big fan of Texas alt-rock quartet Roadkeeper. Blending dreamy shoegaze and dramatic psychedelic rock with complex melodic structures, they craft lush soundscapes that are a perfect backdrop for their intelligent, socially conscious, sometimes political, and always thought-provoking lyrics. Formed in 2018, the band consists of songwriter/producer John Hetherington (vocals, synths, rhythm guitar), Trevor Tull (lead guitar), Nick Cogdill (drums) and Daniel Griffith (bass). All long-time friends, Roadkeeper is completely independent and self-produced, doing their recording, producing and mixing in John’s studio, and releasing their songs on their own label Equal Temperament

I last featured Roadkeeper in January when I reviewed their magnificent single “Enemy Mine” (which spent more than four months on my Weekly Top 30). The song is a scathing attack on far-right white nationalist professional pundits who radicalize vulnerable young people by feeding them propaganda on social media and YouTube. Continuing in a similar vein, on June 24th, they dropped their 8th single “Take the L“, which addresses the ongoing immigrant and refugee crisis along the US/Mexico border, which has had an especially profound impact on Texas.

Written during the Trump administration and recorded in the Biden administration, the song shines a light on the fact this issue hasn’t gone away with the change in the White House. In an article in the webzine Clash, John explained “The song serves as an important reminder that the two major political parties in the US are just punting this issue back and forth to one another, so when is real change going to happen?

Roadkeeper never fails to amaze me, and with “Take the L”, they once again deliver an exceptional single. The layered mix of psychedelic and shimmery guitars are gorgeous, backed by sparkling atmospheric synths and thumping rhythms, all creating a melodic and captivating backdrop for the powerful lyrics. John has a wonderful and mellifluous singing voice, and here his smooth vocals remind me at times of Mark Foster (of Foster the People) as he laments “Just take the L and go, so we both get our way. We’ll burn at both ends and say ‘Who started it anyway?’. All these stolen kids who die in their sleep don’t mean anything.”

Connect with Roadkeeper:  Facebook / Twitter  / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

DAWNING – EP Review: “Petals”

Photo by Amman Khan

I’ve previously noted several times on this blog of my fondness for dream pop, as I’m a sucker for beautiful melodies, luxurious instrumental arrangements and pleasing vocals. With that in mind, I’m excited to feature the artist known as Dawning, who’s just released his stunning debut EP Petals. Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dawning is the music project of singer-songwriter Aaron Senor, who’s quickly making his mark on the Michigan music scene with his gorgeous songs and captivating live performances. All the songs on Petals were written, performed, recorded and produced by Aaron, with the exception of “Rose Hips”, which was co-written by Jake LeMond of the band Michigander, and the guitar solo at the end was performed by Aaron’s father Brian Senor. The EP was mixed by Jacob Rye and mastered by Mike Cervantes.

Released on Valentine’s Day, Petals was initially to be comprised solely of love songs, but Dawning’s approach evolved toward creating something altogether different. “The plan was I’d write each song about a former relationship, tie all those memories up in a bow, put it out, and never write a love song again. ‘Petals’ was always meant to be the carrying out of this, but it never was. Contrary to my plan, most of these are not proper love songs at all, but rather, explorations of feelings I’ve had in the past that I thought were love, but really were not. This has been my effort to decipher what those feelings in fact were, if not love. Embedded in each song is a question: What is the difference between infatuation/having someone make you feel really good, and love? Is it possible to be obsessed with someone romantically, but still not truly love them? Where does physical attraction end and love begin? Why do we seem to sometimes realize how much we love someone only after they’ve gone? I have not presented anything in Petals as a definite answer to any of these questions, because this project was never an essay. Rather, it’s an expression of my own experience, and that mere expression gave me the solace of a satisfactory answer. I hope ‘Petals’ gives you that same solace as well.⁠”

The first track “Bloom” is a lush, dreamy affair with sultry R&B overtones in the vein of artists like James Blake. Using a rich palette of fluttering shimmery synths, crisp percussion and sparkling keyboards, Dawning creates a sumptuous atmospheric soundscape replete with well-placed moments of chirping birds and flourishes of soaring brass. His soulful vocals alternate between ethereal croons and commanding entreaties as he sings of being besotted by a lover: “Love full of color / Skies turning blue / I like the way your eyes always see the world / Everything, all in bloom / You are an ocean / Precipitate / My breath becomes so easy when I drown in you / My little hurricane.”

Dawning dials up the heat on “Liturgy“. With it’s sensuous thumping beat, sultry bass, and that bewitching organ, combined with his silky falsetto and breathy whispers, it’s downright sexy! When I didn’t think he could top the first two tracks, Dawning blows me away with “Rose Hips“. The songs starts off slowly, with pulsating synths and his gentle, plaintive croons, then explodes into a gorgeous cinematic wall of sound, highlighted by Brian Senor’s fiery guitar solo that leaves me covered in goosebumps. His vocals turn more passionate with the music as he channels The Weeknd with a beautiful soaring falsetto.

On the Sufjan Stevens-esque “Rose Lights“, Dawning sings of a brief love affair that didn’t survive the summer. The only sounds we hear are his lovely acoustic guitar and enchanting layered vocal harmonies, yet the song has a vibrant fullness of sound. His echoed breathy vocals evoke a sad resignation as he softly laments “I did you wrong it’s apparent, just know that I always cared but messed it up / Summer love, rising through the month of June / In my life, August came and went too soon / Summer love, falling in and out of you.

Though it contains only four tracks, Petals is a rich and colorful feast for the senses. Every song is brilliantly executed and sonically beautiful, and I’m really impressed with Dawning’s incredible songwriting, musicianship and vocals. My only criticism of the EP is that I wish it were longer! I guess I’ll have to wait for him to record more music.

I’ve included links for the EP in two formats, YouTube and Spotify:

Follow Dawning: FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream/purchase his music: SpotifyApple Music YouTube

New Song of the Week – ROADKEEPER: “Enemy Mine”

One of my favorite American indie bands is alt-rock quartet Roadkeeper, who since forming in 2018 have released a string of exceptional singles. Based in the eastern Texas city of Tyler, the band consists of songwriter/producer John Hetherington (vocals, synths, rhythm guitar), Trevor Tull (lead guitar), Nick Cogdill (drums) and Daniel Griffith (bass), all long-time friends. Roadkeeper is completely independent and self-produced, doing their recording, producing and mixing in John’s studio, and releasing their songs on their own label Equal Temperament. Blending dreamy shoegaze and dramatic psychedelic rock with complex melodic structures, they craft lush soundscapes that are a perfect backdrop for their intelligent, socially conscious, sometimes political, and always topically relevant lyrics that give us something to think about.

I’ve featured them three times on this blog over the past two years (you can read my reviews under ‘Related’ at the bottom of this article). I love all their songs, but two that stand out for me personally are “Old Man’s War”, a beautiful track about anxiety and worry over things, both real and imagined, and “Downs”, stunning song about impostor syndrome and not finding one’s place within the cultural and sociopolitical milieu. “Downs” went to #1 on my Weekly Top 30, and ranked #15 on my Top 100 Songs of 2020 list. Now they’re back with their 7th single “Enemy Mine“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week. While still featuring their dream rock elements we’ve come to love from Roadkeeper, the song is darker and more sonically intense than their previous singles, befitting the politically-charged lyrics.

The band doesn’t shy away from making their progressive-leaning views known, and states that the song “is about the far right radicalization of vulnerable young people in the U.S. by white nationalist professional pundits who are fed viewers and readers by algorithms on social media and YouTube. There is an organized effort to convert impressionable young people into radical white supremacists and encourage them to undertake radical action against marginalized people and progressive political movements. ‘Enemy Mine’ is about the dissonance between the perceived realities of radical white supremacists and that of everyone else.”

The track opens with ominous cinematic synths that build for nearly a minute, then pounding drumbeats ensue along with wailing guitars, only to calm back down as John begins to sings the verses in his beautiful falsetto. John and Trevor’s blend of jangly and psychedelic guitars are enveloped by shimmery synths, while Daniel and Nick drive the rhythm forward with their thumping bass line and aggressive drums. Everything erupts into an electrifying crescendo of wailing guitars, screaming synths and explosive percussion in the bridge, continuing through to the end of the track for a powerful climax to a gorgeous rock song.

 Even words we never say 
 Turn their heads from soft to something strange 
 Waiting on some kids to sign on 
 Twisting up their roots to point their sharp to Zion 
  
 Their undeveloped brain’s distastes 
 For things they’ve never seen are set in place 
 It’s such a shame 
  
 Bitter little loners 
 Look to those who look like them to find themselves 
 Born without a purpose 
 Led to think they’re worthless until now
 Feed their doubt 
  
 Give them some kind of god to worship 
 Weapons always find their way to 
 Enemies’ front lines 
 Spreading lies, blacking flags 
  
 Even if they hesitate there’s 
 No way that they’re ever coming back 
 Safe behind the soft glow waiting 
 Self appointed sergeants have their backs 
  
 Faceless basement 
 Terrorist replacements 
 Holy war, hiding places 
 The worst of them will steal our words  

The dramatic video, produced by Robert Woodward, shows digitally-altered footage of recent political protests juxtaposed with old footage of 50’s films, atomic blasts, space exploration and scenes of the band performing the song.

Connect with Roadkeeper:  Facebook / Twitter  / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / SoundcloudApple Music
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

BENJAMIN BELINSKA – Single Review: “Young in Baltimore”

Ben Belinska

Benjamin Belinksa is an earnest and thoughtful young singer-songwriter and musician based in Newcastle, England. Born in Stoke-On-Trent to Welsh and Polish parents, Benjamin moved to Newcastle when he was 17, but soon thereafter spent time in Glasgow, Berlin, and then Paris, working at a series of menial jobs while also writing music as time permitted. After meeting fellow musician E.A.R in Paris, the two formed the band Paris, Texas, and released two albums with cult producer Kramer (Low, Will Oldham, Daniel Johnston). Eventually, they moved back to Newcastle together, where Benjamin suffered two serious setbacks: First, while rushing to catch a connecting train in York station, he left behind a suitcase containing most of his early songs, which he never recovered. Then, months later, he was viciously assaulted in a random attack by four guys in broad daylight as he was walking home from work, suffering injuries to his eye and throat that landed him in a hospital.

It was during his recovery period that he decided to stop drifting once and for all, and set down roots in Newcastle. He also got the impetus to write songs for what would become his debut solo album Lost Illusions, set for release on August 28. Thinking back on his years of drifting, and how it became an inspiration for the album, he told Ali Welford in an interview for NARC. Magazine: “Drifting is not a bad thing – it allows you to let go of many illusions, but still, they are very attractive. I wanted to grab hold of one again – namely, that I am the master of my own direction. The title ‘Lost Illusions’ is a reference to the childish disappointment that we all go through when we discover that the world is just a lot of silliness. But despite this, it only has one theme – the extraordinary sadness and wretchedness of human life, and my amazement at the fact that this wretched life can nevertheless be so beautiful and precious.”

On July 31st, Benjamin released “Young in Baltimore“, the lead single from the album. Like all the tracks on Lost Illusions, the song was recorded by Benjamin with a back-up band, and mixed and mastered at Soup Studio in London by Giles Barrett and Simon Trought. It’s a charming dream pop track, with a sunny, retro vibe that calls to mind some of the great soft rock and synth pop songs of the 1980s. The song has a lovely, upbeat melody, with a lively toe-tapping beat overlain by chiming synths and warm guitar notes. It all creates an enchanting soundscape that serves as a pleasing backdrop for Benjamin’s gentle, heartfelt vocals as he sings the bittersweet lyrics about a woman contemplating love’s regrets: “When you were young and dumb, he promised to make you his wife. Natural, and he’s cold, you say you’ve wasted your life.” The song also strikes a particular chord with me, as I grew up in San Jose, California, which is mentioned in the lyrics: “Was the winter in San Jose, yeah, the heart attack by the bay? What will you do, your past is blue, and your life is stuck there.”

About “Young in Baltimore”, Benjamin told me “While writing the song, I was thinking about the pressure to conform that we all go through, and how some of us enter into situations, relationships – not out of passion, but out of the illusion that we have no choice. I had moved to a new city, I was working a job I hated. I kept asking myself questions like ‘Have I made the right decision? Should I be doing this? Was it better before, when I was younger?’ I was also obsessed with Robert Frank’s photo-book ‘The Americans’, thinking about the people in those pictures, imagining their lives. I kept coming back to this image of a woman on a train. All of my regret, reluctancy and nostalgia collided with this image. It became a prism out of which another formed; somebody considering the end of a marriage. Only later did I realise it was a symbol of my life at that moment.

As for the bright-sounding music, it’s there to counteract the story. I was living in Glasgow at the time, too. It rains a lot there, so it was also in defiance of that. A rainy place needs sunny music.

Connect with Benjamin:  FacebookTwitter
Stream his music:  SpotifyApple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase: BandcampGoogle Play 

New Song of the Week – ROADKEEPER: “Downs”

Roadkeeper

There are a lot of really talented indie bands around today making great music, and I enjoy giving at least some of them a bit of press to hopefully introduce them to a wider audience. One of my favorites is Texas alt-rock band Roadkeeper, who since forming in 2018 have consistently put out a string of exceptional singles. I featured them twice on this blog last year (you can read my reviews under ‘Related’ at the bottom of this article), and especially loved their single “Old Man’s War”, a stunning track about anxiety and worry over things, both real and imagined. It spent 18 weeks on my Weekly Top 30, and ended up at #51 on my Top 100 Songs of 2019 list. They’ve just released their sixth and latest single “Downs“, a beautiful song that I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week.

Based in the eastern Texas city of Tyler, Roadkeeper consists of songwriter/producer John Hetherington (vocals, synths, rhythm guitar), Trevor Tull (lead guitar), Nick Cogdill (drums) and Daniel Griffith (bass), all long-time friends. Roadkeeper is completely independent and self-produced, doing their recording, producing and mixing in John’s studio – dubbed ‘Yacht Country’ – and releasing their songs on their own label Equal Temperament. Blending dreamy shoegaze and dramatic psychedelic rock with complex melodic structures, they craft lush soundscapes that are a perfect backdrop for their intelligent and topically relevant lyrics that give us something to think about.

With that in mind, the band states that “Downs” “is a personal contemplation of impostor syndrome and not finding one’s place within the cultural and sociopolitical zeitgeist.” The lyrics speak to feeling disconnected with one’s surroundings and the people we interact with: “I feel so disconnected from the qualities of people. My sense of self is out of style. I dread to leave my house and the comfort of this down. I just wanna stick around. I just need a better life.”

Musically, Roadkeeper starts with a simple two-chord progression and layer a lush palette of glittery analog synths and beautifully-strummed acoustic guitars to create a dreamy soundscape. The track opens with an enchanting minute-long introduction of atmospheric synths, then a toe-tapping beat kicks in, along with the aforementioned acoustic guitars and a sublime piano riff that are really gorgeous. John has a smooth and pleasing vocal style that’s well-suited to the band’s sound, and his slightly echoed vocals are especially wonderful here. “Downs” is a superb song, and one of Roadkeeper’s best yet.

Connect with Roadkeeper:  Facebook / Twitter  / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes / Google Play

KIDSMOKE – Album Review: “A Vision In The Dark”

Kidsmoke album

Kidsmoke is an exceptionally talented indie dream rock band based in the city of Wrexham in northeast Wales. On June 19th, after many months of hard work, they released their debut album A Vision in the Dark via Welsh label Libertino Records. Like so many bands, they’d planned to tour over the summer to promote their album, but those plans were dashed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, they decided not to delay the release of their album, and just wanted to get it out so their fans would have some new music to look forward to. And what a beautiful album it is, featuring 11 superb tracks. Their lush and beautiful guitar-driven sound is strongly influenced by such bands as Joy Division, The Cure, Wilco and The National, among others.

Formed in late 2012 by Lance Williams and James Stickels, who’d been friends since their school days, Kidsmoke was named after a song by one of their favorite bands Wilco. They released their first EP Higher in 2013, followed by a second EP So Long, Emptiness in 2015. Various members came and went, but the band finally came into its own with the addition of Sophie Ballamy and Ash Turner in 2016. Since then, the lineup has been Lance on Lead Vocals & Guitar, James on Bass & Vocals, Sophie on Guitar & Vocals, and Ash on Drums. The band continued to release numerous singles, along with an EP Save Your Sorrow in 2017, and had the experience of a lifetime when they performed at SXSW (South By Southwest Film & Music Festival) in Austin, Texas in 2019.

Kidsmoke

A Vision in the Dark opens with “Passenger” a lovely, uptempo song that sets the tone for the album. Its sunny, upbeat instrumentals, highlighted by jangly guitars and snappy drumbeats, contrast with the rather poignant lyrics “I’m moving on to God knows where, I’m dressed to kill the time I’m moving on, I’m a passenger.” Lance explained that the song is “about losing your direction in life, being swept along with the crowd and feeling helpless to stop it.” The song was chosen for NPR’s Austin 100 playlist.

The warm, summery vibe carries over to the next track “Layla’s Love“, with its swirling guitars and dreamy, ethereal melody. Lance states that the song “is a retrospective story of a relationship, where one partner begins to dwell upon the many ‘what ifs?’ we all face.” The male character in the narrative ultimately realizes that, though not perfect, the relationship remains strong and they’re still together: “Baby, the sun won’t rise over you. But I know we are still together. Layla’s love is the only love I’ll never lose.” I love the interplay between Lance and Sophie’s enchanting vocals as they sing “You gave me everything I had (I hope I did). Everything I wanted (you know I tried). But sometimes everything just isn’t enough.” This beautiful song stayed stuck in my head long after hearing it, and is one of the highlights on the album for me.

Kidsmoke continue to deliver the breezy feels on “Colourfield“, with its chiming guitars and cheerful, bouncy bass line, “Higher“, a beautiful reworking of a song from their first EP, and “She Takes You Under“, where they seem to pay homage to The Cure with bouyant jangly guitars and sparkling synths. Lance and Sophie’s vocal harmonies are particularly wonderful here, as well as on the brief but enchanting “Kaleidoscope“. The track is a chorus from an old song the band had previously written but never recorded, and serves as an interlude between side 1 and side 2 of the album.

Another standout track is “Rising Sun“, a high-energy tune with a retro 80s new wave vibe. The fast-paced driving rhythms and exuberant guitars are fantastic, and as always, the vocal harmonies are sublime. The lyrics speak to pushing back against others’ expectations, even when they’re coming from people who are closest to you: “Your days are done. I turn the black to blue. I turn the night to day. I’m the rising sun. I feel your love, I don’t want to follow.

The hauntingly beautiful “Take Me to the River” is another re-imagining of an old song from their debut EP Higher. A fan favorite, Kidsmoke decided to re-record it for the album. The song was featured on an episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror, and is about being led astray from one’s path by negative influences. The bouncy, guitar-driven melody contrasts with the dark lyrics that seem to touch on a relationship doomed by the suicidal tendencies of one of the partners: “If I leave you, I’ll miss you, I’ll never make you mine. We’re sinking fast. We’re running out of time.” The richly layered guitars and pulsating bass are wonderful.

They continue to dazzle us with dreamy melodies and exquisite guitar work on “Still Dreams“, a deeply personal song Lance wrote based on his own experience having to come to terms with a life-changing event that made it hard for him to face the world. He elaborates “The song is about the expectations from family, friends or work to ‘get back to normal’ after something traumatic has happened. The overarching sentiment is about giving people the time they need to heal.”

Kidsmoke slows things down with “Little Easy“, a gentle song of thanks to someone for their love and support: “Little easy. You’ll never know how much you mean to me. You play the part, you play it right.” With its languid beat, mix of acoustic and electric guitars, and lovely vocal harmonies, the song has an early Fleetwood Mac feel, at least to my ears. About the inspiration for the song, James explains “I felt a little bit directionless at the time; I’d moved back home to Wales from Manchester for a job that didn’t work out and I was missing city life. I always aim for emotion in my music, but this one felt a bit more genuine…I just wrote how I felt.”

They save the best for last, closing out the album with “The Bluest You“, my favorite song of them all. Being a lover of music who cannot write a note of it, nor play a single instrument, I’m always awestruck at how people can create such gorgeous melodies, then bring them to fruition with various instruments. What Kidsmoke has achieved with “The Bluest You” is nothing short of spectacular, creating a song of such incredible beauty and depth that it renders me speechless. The glorious swirling guitars are as dreamy as they come, and James and Ash keep the spellbinding rhythm with their pulsating bass line and perfect drumbeats, respectively. Once again, I must make note of the stunning vocal harmonies delivered by Lance, Sophie and James. This song is honestly one of the most beautiful I’ve heard in a long while.

I’m not the only one for whom this song is a favorite. Lance said “This song is a live favourite of ours”, while James noted “This is my favourite track. I originally intended for it to be an instrumental – thankfully I soon decided against that idea. I knew from the moment it was written that it was destined to be the last track on the album.”

The song lyrics address mental health, specifically the effect someone’s issues have on loved ones around them. Lance explained: “It is a fly on the wall look into a household where one person’s depression is affecting everyone else who lives there. The song doesn’t address the feelings of the person suffering with depression, it is a sort of commentary from the viewpoint of the rest of the family.”

I’ve gushed about A Vision in the Dark throughout this review, so I don’t know what more I can say except that it’s an absolutely stunning album from beginning to end, and ranks among the very best releases I’ve heard so far in 2020. Listening to it is an immersive experience, as one gorgeous track flows into the next, keeping the listener in a continuous state of thrall. Other than for the minute-long interlude piece “Kaleidoscope”, the other ten tracks could all be hit singles, they’re that good.

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dizmation – EP Review: “Who Are the Experts?”

Dizmation

Dizmation is the solo music project of Irish singer-songwriter and musician Joey Doyle. The talented Dubliner is also front man for the band Fiction Peaks, a wonderful alternative folk-rock group I featured on this blog a number of times in 2016 and 2017. He released his debut EP The Future is a Bubble in March, and followed a month later with the lovely piano instrumental “Paint Clouds”. Now he returns with a new three-track EP Who Are the Experts?, which dropped May 3rd. He’s also a pretty talented visual artist, and created the trippy artwork for the EP cover.

On his Instagram page, Dizmation offers a hint as to the meaning of the songs: “These are our identities being swallowed up by algorithms, to be homogenised.” Each of the three tracks has a completely different music style and sound. The first track “Render” features an urgent piano-driven melody, accompanied by soaring orchestral strings and pulsating waves of distorted synth bass that give the song a beautiful but rather unsettling vibe. Doyle has a lovely voice, which here sounds plaintive and somewhat distant as he sings: “No sense in making sense now / The time awaits all fools / That deeper stain behind us / The truth’s no longer the truth / But sail away so far away / For truth and darkness lies in the light.”

“Shadow Band” is an unusual instrumental track with a fascinating mix of scratchy, undulating lo-fi industrial synths, sharp percussive beats and somber piano keys, punctuated by brief moments of delicate glittery synths. The lovely but rather haunting echoed chorale vocals lend a mystical air to the song.

“Where Life Awaits” is a pleasing folk-style song that starts off with a strummed acoustic guitar and bold hand claps. The music expands to include moody horns and string synths that give the song a poignant feel. Dizmation softly croons the lyrics that seem to speak of trying to break through to someone he cares deeply about: “I tried to know you, to see inside. To light the path where the darkness lies. But every time I’m getting close, all I see is closing doors. But it’s not too far, And it’s not too late. We’re dying to be where, to be where life awaits.”

Who Are the Experts? is a fine little EP that provides a glimpse of Dizmation’s creative imagination and songwriting skills, as well as his strong musicianship.

Update: Dizmation subsequently deleted this music that I spent time reviewing.