Let RIFF pick your playlist! This week’s highlights include a gleefully creepy Midwestern gothic tune by Ethel Cain, Balmorhea’s beautifully hypnotic sound and Sorry’s two-minute smoke break.
Sorry, “Cigarette Packet” — At only two minutes, North London group Sorry’s new single “Cigarette Packet” lasts about as long as a quick smoke and has the same kind of dirty buzz. Singer Asha Lorenz’s world-weary recitation isn’t rapping. It isn’t even poetry. It’s more like a hectic internal monologue rendered external, while the concurrent emotions at the end of a very late night jerk along in a syncopated soundtrack. “Started with a bang, ended with a kiss/ The middle’s all a muddle, got lost in the abyss,” she sings. It’s a short-short story that feels caught on a closed loop in the singer’s head that becomes gradually compressed into listeners’ heads.
Packed with earthy electronics, quick pauses and spaces keep the busy texture from turning into sonic mush, instead remaining an impressively differentiated grab-bag of percussive noise and grungy rock textures. It invites a repeated hearing (or 20) to take in all the tiny details: shrunken, miniature vocals; electronic grunts and pops; one-off effects and knob twisting worked into the sonic substrata. With the dark, urban, jittery mood of “Cigarette Packet,” Sorry keeps charting its own experimental but approachable brand of pop It doesn’t sound like punk (or any one genre), but it has the same energy.
Ethel Cain, “Crush” — The new single by Ethel Cain, “Crush,” creeps up on you. Starting with raspy, low vocals relating the damaged working-class guys she once knew and crushed on, the story fleshes out and the sound along with it: warm swells of guitar and faint synths follow, never quite eclipsing Cain’s voice and weaving in and out of delicate backing harmonies. It’s damn pretty, and creates a mood that hits the nostalgia-for-wasted-youth sweet spot hard.
Shaun Ross, “LIVIN” — This song sounds familiar but fresh, propelled by a satisfying disco beat but held down by warm lo-fi synths that swell, stab and echo – the kind of sonic palette that New York indy hip-hop acts like Cannibal Ox explore. Ross’ vocals’ first signature is a low-key confidence that, on its own, is very successful. But in moments he can let it soar into high notes. The timing and restraint really give the track sophistication. Ross is not new to showbiz or even to music. His debut single in 2017, “Symmetry,” featured Lizzo on backing vocals, and he’s appeared in videos by the likes of Beyoncé and Katy Perry. But “LIVIN” achieves the kind of addictive listenability that take Ross to new heights as a musician.
Shaun Ross is already familiar to many: he’s a famous model — groundbreaking for being the first major model with albinism. He’s also a performer in the underground ballroom scene as well as a musician. His seasoned skills of self-presentation come across in the visually striking video. It’s a cool anthem to resilience that’s more soulful than glitzy, in which Ross’ voice and arrangements make his presence felt as powerfully as in any other medium.
The Parrots, “Maldito” — Madrid’s stalwart garage rockers The Parrots have always been uncomfortable staying in the retro rock lane. They proved they can do oldies with attitude, and then kept pushing into a looser, more experimental style of rock en español while staying rooted in the dirty vinyl sounds of the past. Their new single, “Maldito,” a collaboration with Spanish rapper C. Tangana, is cinematic even if you skip the inspired weirdness of the video, which brings to life the lyrical themes of regret and fighting your demons as life passes you by.
Driven by a solid, gritty rock sound, “Maldito” adds experimentation without being fussy, keeping the story front and center and opening the way for C. Tangana’s ambivalent verses: “No sé si estoy contento porque ya te has ido /O triste por ser libre otra vez” (“I don’t know if I’m happy you’ve already gone/ Or sad to be free once again.”) The very light through the window might be cursed, but in “Maldito” there’s excitement at being free of expectations.
Balmorhea, “La Vagabonde” — Sometimes you just need something calming, hypnotic and beautiful, and Balmorhea’s new single is all that. A spare composition bringing together piano, french horns and a trio of double basses. Along with some very cool and ghostly layering of these sounds, “La Vagabonde” charts a direction that is far from un-conflicted but ultimately uplifting. That’s fitting for its backstory: The song is named after the ship Greta Thunberg sailed on to bring attention to the global climate crisis.
Balmorhea is a collaboration between Robert Lowe and Michael Muller, composers and multi-instrumentalists who pieced “La Vagabonde” and other tracks from upcoming album The Wind together from recording sessions in Berlin and Austin, Texas. “La Vagabonde” (and other music from Balmorhea) is as accessible as modern classical gets, with hints of jazz, electronic and a feeling of the open spaces and arid winds of the remote western landscape that first inspired this duo.
Tom McGuire & The Brassholes, “Super Solid Soul Vehicle” — Glasgow might not ever be funk’s first city, but Tom McGuire and company are holding it down in Scotland. “Super Solid Soul Vehicle” is an earnest tribute to Bill Withers, who passed away a year ago. The group’s horn section is indeed solid, as is the rest of the band, who you have to imagine can’t wait to play in live clubs again. A recording is fine, but this is the kind of music best heard in a crowded venue, physically un-distanced. Tom McGuire & the Brassholes have the kind of dedication to creating vintage soul and funk sounds that is rare, and might even be less common in the States than across the pond.
Justin’s pick: This week the track I put on the heaviest rotation was”Crush” by Ethel Cain, which introduced me to a really intriguing young artist who happens to be in my neck of the Midwest. Though Cain is from Florida and formed a Southern Gothic aesthetic before moving north, she’s now based in rural Indiana where she literally lives in a church, which she’s mined for visuals along with her recent surroundings with results you might call Midwestern Gothic. I’m a long-time sucker for dark, Lynchian Americana and Cain’s music, gleefully creepy but also generous, and with shades of some of my favorites like The Cure and the Cocteau Twins, just hit me as the right vibe one year into this long pandemic.
Follow writer Justin Allen at Twitter.com/_justinallen_.