Review: Loud and Sad - "unknown species"

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Loud and Sad - unknown species
(2012 Greenup Industries) 

Though abstract and, at times, impenetrable, this record’s worth of ambling banjo riffs and electronic noodling is surprisingly accessible. To listen too closely, to try to take a deconstructive approach to unknown species is a mistake – the record is too unstructured, too organic to pick apart and analyze. Separated, these minimal arrangements of twangy pluckings, manipulated loops and ambient noise are rather clumsy and strange, but combined, they are sublime.

The Pennsylvanian duo fashions ecosystems of sound; the most immersive of these worlds appears halfway through unknown species’ B-side on “Beth”. Whispery hums of what I think is an oboe traverse like wispy clouds above an empty Archean earth, in anticipation of the ethereal guitar loops and percussive tectonic rumblings that later enter the picture. Each track is the birth of a new planet, abandoned as quickly as it is lovingly created. Such is the nature of improvisation. We humans can produce staggering beauty as accidentally as we can generate anything. It’s these haphazard masterpieces, moments of extemporaneous brilliance that are the rawest and most organic works of art one can absorb. This is experimental performance at its finest – primal, yet refined.



Review: Real Swell - "Adults"

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Real Swell - Adults
(2015 Self-Released)

On the surface, Real Swell's most recent album appears to be yet another tape's worth of fuzz-laden twee, but attentive listening reveals the marbled blend of textures and influences that doesn't so much break the bedroom-pop mold as it does create a unique, heterogeneous recipe within that said mold. Kris Lavin, the head chef behind the London-based solo project, starts with a flaky pie crust of Teen Suicide's signature no-fi aesthetic, dripping with reverby angst. Within the crust sits a gelatinous pool of nostalgic flavors, from Ariel Pink's tongue-in-cheek glam goofiness - appearing quite prominently on the bouncy punk tune, "Puppy Party" - to antiquated cuts of synth pop like "Computer Dreams" and "Gifts", both of which bear a striking resemblance to Yazoo, the early 80s new wave duo comprised of Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet. There are also quite a few tracks that throw back to the inception of Brooklyn's Captured Tracks label, employing the wiry guitar tone often associated with acts like Blank Dogs, Beach Fossils and Christmas Island. Adults' 16 tracks are filled with screwball experimentation and charm, making for a release that grips one's attention throughout. Despite the record's consistency, its title track is a standout cut by far, trudging forward with moaning keyboards that bear the haunting spookiness of a Merrie Melodies soundtrack. 


Upcoming Autumn Compilation // Submissions Wanted

I've been in the mood to curate another Half-Gifts compilation lately, finding much inspiration in the gradual shift from summer to autumn and the metamorphosis that this seasonal change activates. The transformation isn't limited to the changing hues of the leaves that act as an autumnal canopy above my neighborhood - it's evident in many other facets of life. Plastic tombstones and faux wrought iron fences sprout from front lawns in anticipation of Halloween. Students' spirits are reined into the cozy mundanity of class schedules and hour long lectures. Band t-shirts develop a symbiotic relationship with unbuttoned flannels. Although these changes on their own are subtle, the fall is a period of constant flux. My aim for this compilation is to harness these vibes and create the perfect companion to the autumn months ahead, which, if you weren't aware, begin today. If you have the idea for a tune that fits with the theme, drop it in my inbox at jude.noel3@gmail.com by October 10. All genres are acceptable!


Single Review: DIIV - "Dopamine"

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DIIV - "Dopamine"
(2015 Captured Tracks)

Though only three years have passed since the release of DIIV's much-anticipated freshman effort, Oshin, I feel as if I'm witnessing the band's resurrection. Though in the realm of music, a couple of years is by no means a great stretch of time, that time span between the band's full-length debut and the surprisingly quiet unveiling of "Dopamine" marks a signifigant epoch in the lives of both myself and frontman Zachary Cole Smith. For me, these three years have been pivotal in my own character development. Post-Oshin, I've entered college, felt more confident in my own opinions regarding art and have begun to feel like a truly independent person. It's as if DIIV's first two LPs act as rough bookends for my entry into teenagerdom and exit into adulthood. For Smith, the span has been a much more tumultuous period, but no less transformative. Since 2012, he's written and scrapped over 100 songs, faced conflict with multiple band members as well as an arrest in late 2013. Though new songs were often added to and/or dropped from the band's live setlist - like any dedictated member of DIIV's cult-like fanbase, I check regularly to see if any new live footage has been uploaded to Youtube - I felt as if the sequel to Oshin would never come. Even when I finally got the chance to catch a DIIV set in late 2014 at a Lexington Urban Outfitters, it felt more like I was attending a farewell tour, despite the wealth of new material on display.

At the tail end of this three year wait, "Dopamine" feels a bit anticlimatic, yet it is wholly satisfying, the sort of tune that doesn't grab your attention on your first listen, but worms its way into your subconscious, becoming a regular fixture on morning busrides and walks between classes. It's as beautiful as anything the Brooklyn krautrock quartet has dropped to date, cozily wrapped in buttery reverb and propelled by distant motorik percussion. Centered around a hypnotically repetitious lead guitar riff, "Dopamine" slowly gathers noise and distortion, building up to a triumphant burst of shoegazey fuzz in the outro, a satisfying conclusion to my ascent into adulthood.


Single Review: Meishi Smile - "Pastel"

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Meishi Smile - Pastel
(2015 Zoom Lens)

If its lead single and cover artwork are indications of what's to come, Meishi Smile's sophomore LP, ...Belong is bound to be the Los Angeles producer's most human effort to date. Though Meishi's shoegazey synth tone is still as present as ever - frost-tipped, conversely noisy and cozy - the overall vibe of the production has changed significantly. 2012's Lust seemed to exude sterilized forms of emotion, crudely projected by the silicone facial features of advanced artificial intelligence. It always felt to me like the sort of music that might blend into the background as a muffled hum over the PA system in a futuristic Urban Outfitters. It was like the ultra-danceable, Utopian counterpart to the Blade Runner score: one can detect the ghost of humanity behind a steely veil of synths.

The most recent Meishi Smile single seems to be a sort of prequel to Lust; man and machine work as a single unit. Atop a dreamy, 80s-pop inspired arrangement, Garrett Yim's vocals are the most prominent they've ever been, albeit bombarded by a smattering of grainy filters and effects. The combination of brittle shoegazery and vocals that seem to take cues from power electronics is brilliant. Meishi's lyrics are also much more human, but surprisingly depressing, using blood, veins punctured by an IV drip and pale white flesh to paint a grief-stricken soundscape. Pastel's world of flesh and blood is fraught with heartache, but it is the parallel to Meishi's older work that is needed to fully realize his vision of intense emotion and beauty in the digital age.


Review: Naomi Pop - "Self-Titled"

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Naomi Pop - S/T
(2015 Self-Titled)

Their name a tongue-in-cheek nod to Captured Tracks' fuzz-rock outfit Naomi Punk, - and possibly to Iggy Pop as well - Bostonian quartet Naomi Pop's debut cassette is an eloquent depiction of teenagerdom that feels as if the band's future selves are writing in Updikean remniscience of their formative years. Frontman Ben Wiley muses upon bike rides, "Halloweens and birthday cakes" in the album's opener, "Farewell Navigator", a wiry garage rock tune that drapes trebly chords around sinewy basslines and shuffling percussion. The song creates a utopian, sun-drenched suburban atmosphere that's as cozy as it is catchy: it does a splendid job of setting the mood for the rest of the record. Sandwiched in the center of the tape is perhaps the record's strongest cut, "Daydream", a quaint slice of bummer-pop hewn of a doo-wop chord progression and twinkly lead guitar. The tape's final two tracks venture off into some Minutemen/Of Montreal territory, pairing twangier instrumentation with goofy lyricism, capping off an extremely fun and ultra-catchy release that fits perfectly into the eclectic Z Tapes catalog.


review: happy hell - "focus on the better things in life"

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happy hell - focus on the better things in life
(2015 Captain Crook)

I can't help but think of this happy hell tape as a very botanical album; though by no means is it comparable to a vibrant bouquet, focus on the better things in life certainly does conjure the image of a lush tangle of greenery deep in the center of a forest, perhaps obscuring some hidden treasure or mystical portal to another world. It's not just the wonderfully expressionist cover art that gives off this vibe: the music itself feels very alive. Nimbly plucked acoustic guitar riffs branch off of each other, forming tapestries of ambling, vine-like melodies while mellow droplets of electric piano nourish the guitar arrangements, adding some jazzy flair to this emo-folk effort. The peak of the album lies two-thirds of the way through, on "maybe in the future i'll say something to you". Fusing Midwest math-y instrumentation with some Sentridoh-esque bummer pop vibes, the cut is charmingly melancholy, delivering the sort of hazy warmth that fans of Julia Brown and Alex G will enjoy. 


Review: ἡσυχασμός - "δι' ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι"

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ἡσυχασμός - δι' ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι
(2015 Self-Released)

Inspired by the Greek Orthodox tradition of hesychasm - a system of prayer comprised of careful repetition, silence and total solitude - δι' ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι is a cavernously eerie drone record, a mosaic of fractured field recordings and piano loops that, minimal as the composition may be, can elicit a multitude of emotions that stem from isolation. Act one of this tripartite dronescape, for instance, opens quite unnervingly, as samples of hollow, metallic tones form a rather surreal ambience, yet as this sonorous sample gives way to a slowly building wall of powdery ambience, this creepiness gradually gives way to comfort. The highlight of part one, however, is its beautiful centerpiece, an echoey piano solo, awash in reverb, that resembles are darker, grittier reboot of Eno and Budd's Plateaux of Mirror; with each piano key pressed, the listener witnesses the life of a droning note - it is born, it contributes to the composition and it slowly disintegrates, scattering its atoms into a cosmos of reverb. 

Part two's center of focus is still the piano, but its tone is much more clean than in part one. Despite the lack of reverb, a surreal atmosphere is still created through the manipulation of the recording, giving this section of the record some pluderphonics flavor. Act three is the album's strongest section, though, an amorphous drone of shimmering choir samples that gives way to a minimal coda played on the organ. A chiaroscuro soundscape that that demands attention despite its sparse arrangement, δι' ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι is a masterful ambient effort that by no means overstays its welcome at 30 minutes.


Shojo Winter - "Eternal Snow"

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Shojo Winter - Eternal Snow
(Rok Lok 2015)

Shojo Winter's debut cassette EP is perhaps the strangest shoegaze release you'll hear all year, an ultra lo-fi dreampop effort that suffocates trebly, gothic lead guitar under a blanket of punishingly loud bass and drums, forming an igneous mass of crusty noise that is comparable to black metal, or perhaps even noisy dark ambient compositions. Imagine the sound of your car's tape deck slowly warping, then eating a copy of Cocteau Twins' Head Over Heels as you slip into highway hypnosis. All elements of the album - from frontman Patrick Capinding's sleepy intonations, to Kevin McVey's weighty basslines to the endless splashes of percussion that benignly crash like ocean waves - work as a whole to form a mind-numbing drone. The effect is pulled off most successfully on the EP's eponymous closing cut, which, in a beautiful way, is nearly devoid of melody or rhythm, but rather, it acts as a single viscous unit that oozes into the listener's ear, wrapping their conscious in an impenetrable cloak of bassy post-punk vibes. Embrace the coziness of total emptiness. Enter the the realm of Eternal Snow


Review: Woody Grant - "Summer Songs"

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Woody Grant - Summer Songs
(Self-Released 2015)

Today marks the conclusion of the last summer I'll experience before I officially become an adult, but interestingly enough, I don't feel too bummed about it. Though my three months off from school have been well-spent going for walks around the neighborhood, starting my first-ever job, hitting up Taco Bell on the regular and beating a couple Pokemon games, to look back on this chapter of late-adolescence is like trying to accurately recall a vivid dream after waking. Sure, there are certain themes and motifs that can plucked from my memory, but it seems as if many specifics have evaporated, causing my recollection of the summer as a whole to compress into one wall of sensory debris. Perhaps this is the reason so many "summercore" acts, (Beach Fossils, Ducktails, Wild Nothing) opt to work in an impressionist pallet of vague lyricsm and shoegazey instrumentation. Their muse - the three months sandwiched in the middle of each annum - is reflected by their sound. Few have matched the breezy, transient vibes of summer quite as well as Woody Grant has on his appropriately titled Summer Songs EP. Shimmering riffs swelter under a humid layer of reverb while abrasive vocal harmonies seem to crowd the mix with their distorted warmth. Mourn the end your summer vacation with Woody Grant's latest record - especially if bedroom pop outfits like Woods and WAVVES make frequent appearances in your music rotation.


Single Review - GIRL PUSHER - "OKAY OKAY"

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(Memory no. 36 Records 2015)

There's always something gratifying about being able to aesthetically connect with a band you admire; maybe in an interview they cite your favorite movie as a source of creative inspiration, or perhaps there's an obscure reference hidden in their lyrics that only you and a chosen few happen to recognize. Sometimes, though, it is that same sort of spiritual bond that can lead me to discover a new band. For instance, another pair the same of black Vans high-tops that make a cameo appearance on the cover of GIRL PUSHER's EP2 often makes an appearance in my own wardrobe, and it was a sudden glance at this unassuming pair of kicks that led me from the depths of Bandcamp's "lo-fi" tag to the EP's official page. Only one cut off of the release ("OKAY, OKAY") is streaming at the moment, but it is certainly enough to encourage me to give the site a peep tomorrow, when the record is slated for its official unveiling. The aforementioned tune is a coarse slice of synth-punk, its ominous synths bubbling below a drum machine rhythm that is surprisingly clean for such an industrial song. With the addition of vocals that sound like they were shouted from the top of a soapbox through a cheap megaphone, "OKAY, OKAY" ventures into riot-grrrl-meets-cyberpunk territory, as if Zach Hill and Flatlander produced and album for Pussy Riot.


Review: The Choo Choo Trains - "Foggymotion"

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The Choo Choo Trains - Foggymotion
(2015 Meat n Tatty)

A textbook example of original-wave twee pop, The Choo Choo Trains' sophomore effort, titled Foggymotion adheres devoutly to the paper-thin, often endearingly clumsy timbre of Tiger Trap, Beat Happening, and even The Magnetic Fields (circa Distant Plastic Trees). While in terms of jarringly lo-fi sound quality, the London-based trio could easily draw comparisons to acts like Julia Brown or Jackie Trash, but it's their employment of doo-wop inspired chord progressions and bluesy riffs that set them apart from their "tweemo" contemporaries. For example, opening track "Things You Do" utilizes a Spector-ian arrangement of tinny percussion, a groovy bassline and translucent guitar chords that coat the rhythm section like watercolors, blending with echoey, delicate vocals to form a sound that would fit surprisingly well in the rotation of the Beach Boys Pandora station that plays all day over a Bluetooth speaker at the popcorn/candy store I've been working at over the summer. Now that I think about it, perhaps my newfound familiarity with the Ronnettes and the Shirelles has really turned me on to the Choo Choo Train's reverby rock 'n roll twang. Aside from the smattering of c-86 influenced tunes, there are a few outliers clumped in the middle of the record: "Unlucky" is a rickety waltz that glides on a bouncy beat and rather dark piano chords. "The Sky" borders on Doors-era psychedelia, pairing organ drones with gritty lead guitar licks. If you have to check out any cut off the album, though, let it be "Margo T and Me", an addictively catchy tune that sounds like a cross between the McTells and the Shaggs. 


Review: Marcel Foley - "Songs About Life"

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Marcel Foley - Songs About Life
(Self-Released 2015)

Ever since I founded Half-Gifts at age 14, I've made a concentrated effort to scour Bandcamp and Soundcloud for the work of fellow teenage creatives - I've found that for many younger people interested in art, their formative years are fraught with nervous creativity and a raw, unbridled passion that seems to fill in the gaps left by a lack of virtuosic talent or equipment to help them polish their craft. Out of all forms of teenage art, though, I find music to be the most fascinating to study. There is a sense of urgency that almost universally can be found in the discographies of young artists, a creative force that is responsible for many of the most prolific Bandcamp pages I've seen (Kill The Intellectuals, High Sunn Alaris O'Heart). This time in a kid's life, especially in recent years, is often primarily influenced by a struggle to make the most of their childhood's last gasps while still looking towards the future - from a high schooler's perspective, it feels like one's whole livelihood hangs in the balance of even the most minute decision. When you're constantly reminded of your push to adulthood, it can make you hyper-aware of your artistic footprint on the world, goading you to fill up your iPhone's Voice Memo app with sloppy, lo-fi demos, to experiment with noise music, to try anything to join the ranks of your favorite artists someday soon. Few artists are as possessed by this spirit of teenage creativity as much as Californian journalist/producer Marcel Foley, founder of Marcel's Music Journal and a budding experimental composer. In addition to boasting an impressively diverse back catalogue of reviews, Foley also has a treasure trove of well-composed IDM and ambient music stashed away on his Bandcamp account, the sort of page that begs to be explored again and again. 

Standing out among his intimidating discography is Songs About Life, an album's worth of greyscale electronica that pairs off-kilter yet punchy rhythms with gloomy clouds of drone-y synth tones that float benignly above the tumult. Opening cut "Spiner" acts as a happy medium in between the grainy chillwave lull of Com Truise's "Brokendate" and the manic 8-bit frenzy of Flying Lotus' "Kill Your Co-Workers", lacing a squelchy beat with tinny chimes and a frission-inducing chord progression, dripping in VHS-tape grime. It's a solid demonstration of Foley's greatest strength: the ability to seamlessly combine textures to form a warm, engrossing ambience that the listener can curl up inside like a heated blanket. He pulls off this harmonic convergence most beautifully on "Flache Face", icing a layer cake of skittering percussion with glassy keyboard riffs that sound both jazzy and trancey. Most addictive, though, are the heavier moments on Songs About Life, employing a pulverizing D'n'B beat to join forces with a spooky looped pad progression to form a cut that pounds at one's consciousness like a dream-poppy jackhammer - it demands one's attention. I just started a playthrough of Pokemon X and Y the other day, and I've chosen Songs About Life to act as my soundtrack to the game. The two have proven to match quite nicely, as both the game and this album have both mastered a strange balance between coziness and up-tempo action. Definitely check this release out if you're into Flying Lotus and old Warp Records releases.


Issue 14 Out Now!

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Half-Gifts issue 14 includes interviews with San Bernardino jangle-pop project Foliage and two local record stores; Sugarcube and Torn Light. This volume also includes a look at the most exciting record labels of 2015 and, as usual, plenty of album reviews. GET YOUR COPY HERE


Review: Alaris O'Heart - "Self-Titled"

Alaris O'Heart - Alaris O'Heart
(2015 Alien Tapes)

Californian bedroom-popster Alaris O'Heart has quietly released some of the most innovative and well-composed lo-fi music over the past two years, masterfully synthesizing elements of late 00s freak folk, drone and even hip-hop to extract cinematic grandeur from his humble arrangements for guitar and keyboard. His recent self-titled cassette, pressed by southwestern imprint Alien Tapes, functions as an introduction to O'Heart's discography, (maybe even as a best-of album), exhibiting the full breadth of his abilities as a composer. "Bird", for example, replicates the bustle of Philip Glass' Music In Twelve Parts - handclaps, layered vocal harmonies, percussive rhythm guitar, liquescent keyboard riffs and faint glockenspiel tones all seem to hustle separately toward their own destination, directionless, moving as pedestrians on city sidewalks rather than as one unit marching to a motorik beat. "Cough Drops" brings O'Heart's music into Flying Lotus territory, chopping up nearly concrete walls of jumbled piano tones with trill hi-hats and a hollow snare. "The End" makes for a more conventional closer to the tape - O'Heart's usual frenetically played piano notes are herded into chords atop stomps and claps - until layers of ambience consume the track, morphing into a Sigur Ros-ian cosmos of swirling beauty, capped off with a sample from Finding Nemo. All in all, Alaris O'Heart's new tape resembles Sung Tongs-era Animal Collective covering the Juno soundtrack; it's a primal take on twee-pop that provides some much-needed variety in the lo-fi pop tape scene.