Unfamiliar Frequencies 3 - By Volume

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Unfamiliar Frequencies 3

In the third edition of Unfamiliar Frequencies we take a look at a trio of Bay Area musicians as well as two exciting acts hailing from the Northeast corridor of the US. Author: on November 5, 2013
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After an unfortunately elongated hiatus, By Volume’s spotlight on lesser-known and unsigned artists is back with its third edition. With this Unfamiliar Frequencies, we’ll spend some time with Friendzone, an exciting duo of producers from the East Bay area. Keeping with the San Francisco Bay, we’ll also take a look at electro-pop trio Breakdown Valentine and Lux Moderna, a producer/vocalist who has a distinct gift for eerily inviting IDM.

Along with this trio of exciting Bay Area musicians, Dylan also gushes about Baby Jazz, a mesmerizing duo hailing from Brooklyn, and Mutual Benefit, whose debut is a grand crossroads where dream-pop meets starry-eyed folk to form some truly touching, vulnerable music.

Friendzone – DX – 8.4

James Laurence and Dylan Reznick create incredibly lush music. As though they were energetic painters, refusing to use anything but wide-tipped brushes with sweeping strokes, they illustrate this mechanical world that is strangely terrestrial. A fair share of their beats are crafted from bedroom electronics, yet they’re instilled with an intense, naturalistic heat. In a similar fashion to that of FlyLo, Friendzone craft instrumental hip hop that flows in movements; these are compact little stories, postured by shit-hot basslines.

And even as FriendZone have been showcasing just how good they are at making beats for others, they’ve saved the finest cuts for DX – this is one of the better electronic and/or hip-hop records you’re going to find this year. Laurence and Reznick traffic in only the most lustrous of lo-fi house, IDM and R&B – it’s pillow-soft on your ears. The bigger and deeper the bassline, the easier it is to settle down inside. The glitchy vocal samples are at times entrancing and their luscious piano-play helps accentuate the beating heart of nearly every song on the album. This includes the second bonus disc, which is indispensable in the grand scheme of DX and Friendzone. It exemplifies the branding; indeed, it is a bonus, doubling DX’s length with music just as vibrant and essential as its proposed stronger portion. These are two incredibly exciting producers that already have more than a few eyes pointed in their direction – but they direly deserve many more.

Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond – 8.0

Sometime after the release of Passion Pit’s infectious debut Manners, I started hearing and reading more about this new Boston-sound. This hipster-approved, indie-certified, pop/rock was apparently just starting to permeate itself from the city’s music venues. Not as new as it sounds – think Swirlies, Guster, Amanda and the Dresdens, Dispatch, Blake Babies, The Lemonheads, Morphine, and on to Dino Jr., Sebadoh, Mission of Burma, Galaxie 500 and the fucking Pixies. That’s Massachusetts within the confines of a teeny-tiny nutshell when considering the state’s vast array of musical output. This is all coming from someone who doesn’t even live there.

This idea of the New England Area is very much a real thing; I cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve been told by steadfast Yankee fans I have no right vehemently supporting the Red Sox as I’m not even from Boston. You’re correct; high-five. As cultural reaches are concerned, The City on the Hill’s influence stretches for miles in every direction around it. From the Atlantic coast, that salty accent and fiercely loyal (albeit foggy) disposition stretches until it reaches the borders of a slightly saltier, harsher regional culture to its south west, or is drowned in exceptional beers and a touching kindness to its north. Even throughout Connecticut – the poor bastard, constantly torn between the powerhouses that are New York City and Beantown – New England culture pervades.

I bring up this regional-group-hug with a purpose, I swear: while Mutual Benefit were presented to me, and are frequently referenced as a Boston Band, this music is New England on record. A warm day at the beach in the summer; a temperate walk, kicking past piles of fallen leaves, everything awash in vibrant color; a satisfyingly freezing day playing in the snow – they’ve tapped into our vein of concrete folk and created a debut that moves in seasons. The seven tracks glide past effortlessly, accentuated with pretty piano keys, steely guitars, banjos and wiry strings, but they do not move without purpose. This is heart-on-sleeve rock music that, at times, is almost too easy to become captivated by; Mutual Benefit are onto something here. And for all of New England’s sake, hopefully they can continue showing everyone else outside our borders that there are massive hearts under our gruff, the facial hair and the snow.

Lux Moderna – Black Sun – 7.0

Black hole / in my soul” are some of the first words we hear uttered from Lux Moderna; with all due respect, she’s got to be fucking kidding. There is too much tangible life and distinct groove within her music to suggest it lacks physical matter. Unless, perhaps, we start approaching these lyrics from a more metaphysical standpoint – as though the black hole were a new start, a rebirth; or maybe a passageway to somewhere distant and unknown. Useless questions when considering Black Sun as a whole, really – the record is rife with delectable beats, mesmerizing vocals and spooky vibes. And by spooky I don’t mean to cheapen Lux Moderna – this isn’t frightening music, it’s far too exciting for that. Black Sun isn’t going to scare you into a corner. It’s more similar to that panic one feels when attending an exceptional haunted house as a child – you know you’re not dying from this, but each step is filled with such eager suspense that the further you continue in, the further your own mind contorts reality. This music is melodic as hell and at times it is deceptively simple to get lost in Black Sun, so much that each second’s pass feels like another tick towards some viciously penultimate moment, as though listening were some visceral fight for survival.

For the most part the record delivers in this respect: “Hyperspace” is gilded in an intense cool, “Formless Form” effortlessly traps you in its ebb and flow, while “Sweetie”  may be one of the best songs the Cocteau Twins never recorded. Sure, there is more intricate electronic music to be found – higher BPMs, more pitch shifts, tempo changes and flat-out XTC – but this downtempo IDM isn’t about gloss or flash. Black Sun is a surprisingly laid back record, jagged edges accentuated with a soft touch – a machete with a colorful bow tied around the hilt. Take closer “Wide Eyed”: ripping synths create the song’s backbone, but as the tune builds, the little touches begin to seep to the forefront and the luscious backing keys rise from the bellows. Quick finger snaps and plucked guitar strings echo in the background, keeping everything in time, coalescing into this all-at-once dangerously sumptuous piece of IDM.  Her balance of aesthetics and juxtaposition of moods deserves praise, but it is her ability to make Black Sun such exciting fun that will keep you coming back for more.

Baby Jazz – “Cool Wham”, “Tombstone” and “Michael Jordan”

Baby Jazz may be based out of Brooklyn but something about the duo’s music comes off as distinctly Southern.  There’s a certain psychedelia that runs through their tunes like a warm vein of bourbon; similar, then, to that of Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective in many ways. They share in those dissonant vocal samples from various daytime TV shows and commercials, along with 80s and 90s movies snippets; also, in that backbone of meandering psychedelic rock, that has no real place to go, and doesn’t require a destination in the slightest. Half the fun of Baby Jazz is the ride, the bounce. Sam Cooper and Elgin Braden are still in the formative stages of this collaboration, extending their feelers as they begin ingesting the records, sounds and experimental ideals that will allow Baby Jazz to flourish.

What is most exciting, though, even as we’ve only been gifted a mere three tracks from them, is how well they’ve supplanted themselves into a unique pocket of sound. Cooper and Braden exemplify The South in their music because the two of them spent so much time living there – but don’t be fooled by my pigeonholing, this is very much music possessing a distinctly metropolitan, unmistakably New York sound. Check “Michael Jordan”, their expansive twelve minute tune – it has this underlying current of warm, lush, 60s pop, but this is accentuated by warbling synths, dubby drums, all wrapped up in the disco groove. All of this comes and goes in sessions, the track built in proportional movements, and it’s deceptively exciting; you get your everything-bagel with a side of grits and it is incredibly satisfying.

Breakdown Valentine — Beautiful Distraction — 6.8

Breakdown Valentine are an attention-grabbing electro-pop trio based in San Francisco, whose effortless hooks will keep fans salivating, even though their music isn’t particularly innovative. That isn’t a sleight leveled at the band; their tunes are infectious, so much so that Beautiful Distraction’s runtime seemingly always whisks by effortlessly. This isn’t challenging music but that isn’t a problem; it’s lively, in the physical sense. Breakdown Valentine provides exactly what their name entails: danceable breakdowns for romantic souls. And while it is terribly easy to view the band as little more than pastiche constructed with an intent on some booty shaking, that would be selling an otherwise talented group of musicians a bit short.

I was fortunate enough to witness Breakdown Valentine live in concert – they opened for How To Dress Well and for most of their set one could be forgiven for assuming they were the night’s headliners. They commanded the stage. I could say it was the buttery synths and inviting bass lines that make Beautiful Distraction tick, but it is more than that. The band aren’t trafficking in any tunes or sonic escapades that will change one’s view on pop music; they do however, take that adrenaline-charged essence of great dance music and funnel it into three-to-six minute shot-to-the-heart electro-pop songs. Distant at times, sure, though touching vocal performances from Olivia Barchard and Allen Davis offset any mechanical introversion the music may innately possess. This isn’t turned outward though, as Breakdown Valentine may initially seem a bit robotic but what beats in their chests is very much alive.

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