Open Mike Eagle, Rituals of Mine
2036 University Avenue
near Downtown Berkeley BART
Berkeley, CA, 94704
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The final words sung on the sixth album by WHY? are an apt place to begin: "Hold on, what's going on?" Because while there's much familiar about the oddly named Moh Lhean—mastermind Yoni Wolf's sour-sweet croon, his deadpan poet's drawl and ear for stunningly fluid psych-pop-folk-whatever arrangement—a great deal has changed in the four years that've passed since 2012's Mumps, Etc., an LP that honed the band's orchestral precision and self-deprecating swagger to a fine point. It's significant that this is the first fully home-recorded WHY? album since the project's 2003 debut. Made mostly in Wolf's studio and co-produced by his brother Josiah, the result is obsessive, of course, but also intimate, and flush with warmth and looseness. But the biggest transformation is a bit subtler. After years of eying his world, in part, with a cynical squint, Wolf here learns a new mode. While Moh Lhean never stoops to outright optimism, it chronicles our hero finding peace in the unknowing, trading the wry smirk for a holy shrug, and looking past corporeal pain for something more cosmic and, rest assured, equally weird.
A low tone opens the album on "This Ole King" as acoustic pluck and upright bass form a Western bedrock beneath Wolf's fragile voice. But as the song pushes on, the playing gets brighter and the vocal becomes a mantra-like hum inspired by Ali Farka Touré's blues, before rolling into a second part rich with chiming keys and twisting harmony—Brian Wilson's kaleidoscopic vision of pop. If there's new litheness here, it's probably because Wolf spent much of the time between albums collaborating—with ex/muse Anna Stewart as the fuzz-pop duo Divorcee, and MC Serengeti as the puckishly depressive Yoni & Geti. And if there's a lithe newness, it may be that Wolf excised some nostalgia via his 2014 solo tapes—one re-recording choice raps from his own catalog, and another covering cuts by artists like Bob Dylan and Pavement. It's no wonder, then, that "The Water" handily morphs a moody folk tune into some strange new form of full-band dub. Or that "One Mississippi" bounces along happily over a flurry of bizarre percussion, whistled melodies, and trippy synthesizer blips. Perhaps most impressive is "Consequence of Nonaction," which vacillates between a quiet meditation for guitar/voice/clarinet, and wild, sax-strewn astral art-funk.
Movement is a key theme of Moh Lhean. It's a breakup album without a romantic interest—coded within the lyrics is a tale about fleeing the seductions of a wintry figure for something synonymous with spring. "Easy" plays like a ward against the old ghost who haunts "January February March," while "George Washington" places our host in a tiny watercraft, "paddling for land/hand on heart and heart in hand" as that faceless malevolent force stays ashore. While writing these songs, Wolf suffered a severe health scare far from home. Rather than drive him to depression, his brush with mortality imparted an incongruous impression of peace and connection to the living. At the end of "Proactive Evolution," wherein WHY? enlists mewithoutYou's Aaron Weiss to celebrate the stubborn persistence of humankind, Wolf samples not only thinkers like Sharon Salzberg and Ram Dass, but his actual doctors—the voices that helped shape his new outlook. Sure, Wolf poses as many questions as ever. Moh Lhean's gorgeously psychedelic closer, "The Barely Blur" with Son Lux, puzzles over the nature of existence. But rather than leave us with the macabre chill of death, as many a WHY? LP has, the song dissolves into the infinite—the sound of the Big Bang.
Don't bother asking Wolf what "Moh Lhean" means. He won't tell you. It's the name of his home studio, where friends and family—WHY? regulars Josiah, Matt Meldon, Doug McDiarmid, Liz Wolf, and Ben Sloan, plus a handful of Ohioans—gathered to record this (and also at Josiah's studio, dubbed El Armando). And like the titles of Alopecia and Mumps, Etc., it references a concrete thing that Wolf experienced. Most likely it's something to do with letting go, rebirth, coming home to a familiar feeling, or venturing out to discover a new one. Or maybe it's just a yoga pose. But there's something in Moh Lhean, even with all its mysteries and all its differences, that's both ephemeral and distinctive, like something the Wolf Brothers might've heard on a praise album in their father's synagogue as kids, or on some '60s hippie LP they thrifted in their teens, or, perhaps, on the other side of the records they've been making their entire adult lives. Thus, it seems appropriate to conclude with some words sung on the very first song of WHY?'s sixth album, Moh Lhean: "One thing, there is no other. Only this, there is no other.... Just layers of this one thing."
Open Mike Eagle
Open Mike Eagle might not have all the answers, but few artists in hip-hop, music, or American life are asking smarter questions. In a landscape governed by ceaseless babble, flashing lights, and hollow lies, Eagle harmonizes into the void so we don't have to.
On this descent into the digital trenches, Eagle teams up with British producer, Paul White for Hella Personal Film Festival. Released on Mello Music Group, the full collaboration finds White behind the boards, conjuring a psychedelic strain of soul-funk, booming drums, and 21st century crate-digging in tropical attics of the imagination. On the microphone, the Chicago-bred, LA-based, Eagle artfully breaks down the banalities and perils of the modern condition.
Recorded in London, Hella Personal Film Festival continues where his 2014 masterpiece, Dark Comedy left off. It's anxiety-riddled but whimsical, addicted to and scornful of social media, stuffed with old wrestling in-jokes and film snippets. Self-aware admissions blend into attacks on societal double standards.
Known for alchemical solo work and collaborations with Danny Brown, Homeboy Sandman, and Mos Def, this is White's first proper union with Eagle. The two artists bonded over the notion of diversity. The process started out with rough demos, which White ended up finishing in post-production—playing guitar, drums, bass, keyboards, percussion and pieces of wood found in a forest. Its genius ultimately comes from the pair mining a deep vein of emotional content—a discussion of the things we feel that you don't say. A movie that hits so accurately it's almost uncomfortable.
These are tense anthems for the vulnerable, consecrations to black people with rich internal lives, agnostic prayers for those grappling with pain. They're emotional landmines leavened by the wry bleakness usually only found in great stand-up comedians. Eagle exists in the lineage of They Might Be Giants and Richard Pryor, Freestyle Fellowship and his longtime friend and collaborator, Hannibal Burress.
Within the first act, the plot becomes clear. See "Admitting the Endorphin," where Eagle raps, "I chase my poison tail and get so high that voices fail." These are the movies he'd make it he knew how to make movies. Surreal vignettes about waking up with burrito hangovers in hotels you don't recognize, wondering if you remembered to charge your phone. Aesop Rock and Hemlock Ernst (Sam Herring of Future Islands) pop up as fellow travelers.
No one is better than Eagle at capturing the nauseous disorientation of day-to-day life. The deluge of sports highlights, unread texts and Twitter notifications. The compulsive need to check your phone at red lights and pauses in conversation. But his incisiveness extends far beyond observational humor. "Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)" examines the slights and casual bigotry of daily interaction. "A Short About a Guy That Dies Every Night" is a morbid rumination on death.
These are the returns after long dark nights of the soul. When the noises are loud, the lights are off, and the armor is pierced. Short films that loop over and over again, as soon as you close your eyes.
Rituals of Mine
Throughout history, human beings have relied on rituals—personal, religious, professional, social, creative, and otherwise. It's these rites that establish a modicum of control and cohesion over a world that often seems far removed from both. When swimming through tragedy, turmoil, and tumult, those practices can function as life preservers. Sacramento duo Rituals of Mine—Terra Lopez and Dani Fernandez—realized that firsthand.
Since 2010, the pair had been touring and releasing music under the moniker Sister Crayon. Their travels allowed them to share the stage with The Album Leaf, Built to Spill, Antemasque, Le Butcherettes, and many others, in addition to releasing the independent Bellow (2011) and Cynic (2013). Along the way, they earned praise from The BBC, Pitchfork, The Fader, Rolling Stone and more for their ghostly 21st century trip hop séance of soulful vocals, heavy beats, and breathy catharsis. However, 2015 would be the most trying and challenging year yet for the girls. Following the recording of Devoted and a quiet indie release, Terra unexpectedly lost two prominent figures in her life; figures who shaped both her understanding of her self and of music. In September 2015, Terra lost her father to suicide. Less than six months later, she suffered another harrowing blow when her best friend Lucas Johnson passed away in a tragic accident.
"It was a very tough two years," she admits. "The name pays respect to those years, so Dani and I don't forget what we've gone through as a band to get to where we are now. What are these rituals? They're singing, performing, and writing. The record is dedicated to my dad and Lucas. Sister Crayon was the last name they knew us going by. We had to put that name to rest. Rituals of Mine is much more than a name. It's a statement. This is a new beginning."
In the midst of everything, Rituals of Mine inked a deal with Warner Bros. Records in February 2016. They worked closely with producer Wes Jones and mixing engineer Dave Clauss to make some final moves before enlisting Tom Coyne [Led Zeppelin, Adele] to master Devoted. The album represents the realization of a vision the two-piece possessed since day one.
"Dani and I had always known what music we wanted to make," explains Terra. "We were very adamant that this record was going to be the sound we've consistently heard in our heads and the vision we've wanted for the project since day one. We were determined to create a body of work that focuses on the heavy aspects- low ends and vocals. It's very minimal in that regard. We've gone through different lineups and member additions, but we realized this needed to be just the two of us. It was very deliberate. Going into the studio, we weren't sure how we were going to execute it, but we were sure of what we wanted to hear."
After cobbling together demos in the Oakland walk-in closet where Terra slept at the time, the core sessions for Devoted took place in St. Augustine, FL. Terra and Dani spent two weeks in the studio with Jones writing and recording the bulk of material. They finished writing the final three tracks with Omar Rodriguez Lopez (At The Drive-In, The Mars Volta) in Los Angeles. Once the songs were chosen for the record, Jones dug in on production over the next several months, communicating across the country with the duo until the album was a realized vision.
"It was the first time Dani and I had ever gone into the studio as a duo," admits Terra. "It was a pretty insane experience to go into such extreme isolation in St. Augustine. The only person we really knew was Wes. There were absolutely no distractions. We could focus while there in the beauty of St. Augustine, surrounded in isolation."
As a result, the ten tracks comprising Devoted could be likened to gorgeously haunted transmissions from a bygone era where Portishead and Massive Attack summoned spirits via analog drum machines and battered keyboards. The first single "Ride Or Die" fuses a stark bass hum and droning synth with Terra's ethereal and evocative delivery before building into an angelic refrain- "All I want… is a Ride Or Die."
"I was in a place where I didn't quite understand where my next step in life or love was going to be. I felt like a lot of my friends were feeling the exact same way. It's the human condition of being lost, always looking for something, and hoping to find that connection whether it's romantic, family, friendship, or just a general human touch. It's an anthem for myself and those around me. Life can be really fucking hard. Let's stick together."
Meanwhile, Terra's howl caresses an ominous sonic blanket punctuated by industrial undertones and glitch-y computer buzzing. "The word Devoted kept popping up in my head when I thought of our journey," she goes on. "After all of the changes and hardships we had gone through, we were devoted to each other and our music. To me, it signified a theme for the entire record. I had just gotten through an incredible breakup. Instead of singing about heartbreak and loss, I wanted to transcend that and write about devotion in order to restore my faith in devotion."
Ultimately, these Rituals are meant to be shared.
"The music is created out of turmoil, and it's genuine," Terra leaves off. "It's a passionate album. I want people to connect to it in a very human way and see that it's raw. Maya Angelou said something that really connected with me. In regards to rehearsing or honing your craft, she said, 'The process isn't pretty, but it's real.' We create out of necessity. I hope that resonates and offers some solace."