In Our Headphones is a new column from KEXP's Digital Content Team. Put simply, it's a sneak peek into the music finding its way into our ears and soundtracking our every day lives. This month's column serendipitously aligns with Bandcamp Friday! We highly recommend purchasing any of these records through Bandcamp with 100% of the proceeds going to the artist.
For every good kid in a mad city, there are multiple streets to travel down. You can witness street life from your folks’ pad, scribble in your notepad and create a classic (Nas). You can take a left turn, finding sanctuary in the catharsis of punk rock and the escapism of visual art and film (this particular contributor). There’s the familial structure of gang life, the authoritarian structure of prison, the endless possibilities of higher education. There are dead-end jobs, mediocre jobs, lucrative, rewarding jobs. And of course, there’s the big one, the one that eventually awaits us all in one form or another: Death.
It’s true that every person’s life in the city is a road that sprouts a million forks, but you shouldn’t need me to tell you that many of them have “closed” signs depending on where and from whom you were born. Regardless of their trials and tribulations, you’re always comforted with the notion that Holden Caulfield and Hannah Horvath mostly have soft spots to fall to. But what about Nino Brown and Raheem Porter? If the one in front of the gun lives forever, what about the legions who managed to avoid getting one drawn on them? The age-old tale of the kid having to grow up too quickly because of his or her environment has inspired narrative and artistic gold for decades.
The two-song course that makes up the album’s title alone has enough thematic weight to carry a lesser rapper’s whole album: Lamar struggles within himself, with religion, with friendship versus gang culture, with police brutality, with a bad case of paranoia, with a mom who just wants her fucking van back. (His father, however, ain’t even trippin’ off the dominoes no more.) He watches two dudes crash into a light pole and end up taking off on foot. He gets a job and gets fired for skipping work to help his friends with a heist. He smokes a cocaine-laced blunt. He brings in West Coast legend MC Eiht, who spits his greatest verse in at least a decade.
Kendrick’s vivid imagery and amazing ping-ponging internal rhyme schemes remind me not only of my own upbringing, but also of another rapper charged with the Sisyphean task of “saving” hip-hop: Jay Electronica. Growing up in the streets contains a duality of knowledge best encapsulated in a perfect line from Electronica’s “Annakin’s Prayer”: “My mama introduced me to the scripture / The Channel 4 News introduced me to the shit that produced Hitler.” It’s not a coincidence that for most kids coming from poverty, the time in their life where religion was in the foreground is often when they’re the poorest. It’s not a coincidence that good kid, M.A.A.D. city begins with a prayer.
Lamar realizes the mad city doesn’t stop for him, the wheels keep turning and the locs keep throwing up their sets. The cars still move down the streets and the guns inside of them still blast. Kendrick’s story is only one of thousands, many of his peers unable to tell their stories for whatever reason, bad syntax, bad luck, bad memories that trigger PTSD. But through the virtue of Kendrick being lucky enough to be able to record such an album, his story is the one that rises to the top of the desk, and the creativity of how he laid his autobiography down has brought him a sense of importance no creator of any album of 2012 can lay claim to. He speaks for himself, but as he does, he speaks for every good kid in a mad city. — Martin Douglas
Let’s face it: present day sucks. So, lately, I’ve been retreating way (waaaay) back to the ‘90s in my headphones. It’s apparently perfectly logical. A 2014 article in Slate details the “neural nostalgia” of revisiting the music you loved as a teenager, explaining that “brain imaging studies show that our favorite songs stimulate the brain’s pleasure circuit, which releases an influx of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good. The more we like a song, the more we get treated to neurochemical bliss, flooding our brains with some of the same neurotransmitters that cocaine chases after.”
It’s like cocaine, y’all.
Anyway, my drug of choice lately has been the 1994 self-titled debut album from Los Angeles based band that dog. — yes, band name stylized in all-lowercase with a forced punctuation, which makes the copy editor in me cringe, but in truth, i love that twee-as-fuck affected shit.
This past summer, Third Man Records reissued the band’s 1995 album Totally Crushed Out and 1997’s Retreat from the Sun, and last year, the band reunited for their first full-length in 20 years, Old LP. That’s all fine, but what really captured my heart was 2019’s 25th anniversary reissue of that scrappy, naïve first release.
When the first album was written and recorded, songwriter Anna Waronker was only 19-years-old, barely out of high school. Her classmates Petra and Rachel Haden elevated Waronker’s four-track lo-fi bedroom-pop by adding exquisite three-part harmonies and Petra’s classically-trained violin solos. While some of the songs are formulaic ‘90s-fuel (as seen/heard on MTV’s Beavis & Butthead), fuzz pedals and only two-minutes-long...
(note: video directed by a young Spike Jonze, now an Academy Award-winning writer/director, then, a skateboard photographer and co-founder of Dirt magazine, the counterpart to Sassy magazine, who honored that dog. with a “Cute Band Alert,” and damn, I am a wealth of useless ‘90s trivia.)
...other songs on the album are somber, melancholy, yet still enchantingly lovely. “You Are Here” takes early-Low (a band they namecheck in their 1997 track “Minneapolis”) dirge-like percussion, combined with the gentle wail of Petra’s violin, while Anna softly riffs on the liner notes of a Beatles’ Greatest Hits album.
Rachel takes the lead on the waltz-like “She Looks at Me,” which combines reverb-rattling guitar with a jaunty violin solo. “Paid Programming” adds rain droplet plucked strings to Anna’s acoustic guitar, and you can almost see the black-and-white static-y TV screen glowing a darkened living room. Even as she cheekily deadpans a desire to see “the vacuuming haircut machine going mainstream” or “Cher doing her hair on the air,” the song is plaintive and lonely.
The sequencing on this album is a little haphazard — taking you from the riot-grrrl-y “Zodiac” to the playful “Family Functions” — but the band’s distinctive approach ties it all together.
And I haven’t even mentioned how the 25th edition of that dog. comes with four bonus tracks. I already knew two of the tracks: “Grunge Couple” (yeah, yeah, I know — they knew, too) was self-released as a 7” single, complete with cut+paste cover art using models from Sassy magazine. (Could there be a more ‘90s sentence than that? Except maybe the Chandler-esque one I just wrote there?) “I Invented a Head” was the B-Side. But having two mid-’90s-era previously unreleased tracks on the collection brought it back into regular rotation for me in 2020. It was like discovering a new room in your house you never knew was there. If you need me, that’s where I’ll be. — Janice Headley
I don’t know about you all, but I feel like my music listening has gone in phases during this anxiety attack of a year. I’ve had records I’ve turned to for venting rage, to feel some momentary joy, or falling into the comfort of old favorites. If I’m being really honest, there’s been a lot of times where I couldn’t stomach any music at all – a daunting notion for someone who has not just built their life around music, but music as a coping mechanism as well. While I’m always trying to expand my musical horizons, lately I’ve noticed I’m gravitating toward music that gives me peace. What a concept.
Last Friday I was going through my weekly ritual of listening through the (virtual) stack of new releases and came across Yves Jarvis’ Sundry Rock Song Stock. The record honestly wasn’t on my radar, I remembered enjoying his 2019 release, The Same But By Different Means, so I flippantly put it in the queue. I did not expect to be so immediately taken with it and it’s been hard for me to take it off loop.
Sundry is an understated record. Elements of folk and psychedelia delicately intertwine with the whisper of Jarvis voice and his subtle, electronic wizardry. These elements aren’t unique on their own, but it’s the way they’re transmitted through Jarvis that makes this such a special record. As a music journalist and fan, I’m always looking for something that has that unknowable spirit to it that you can’t place but grabs you and makes home in your chest. Songs like the serene and steady “For Props” amaze me in how they can structurally be so simple, yet open up whole worlds with their melodies.
Each work in Jarvis’ catalog has been themed around a color to inform the music. If you couldn’t tell by the cover, Sundry is Jarvis’ “green album.” I have to laugh at myself a bit as last month in this column I picked Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green and cited it as giving me peace. I have the temptation to overanalyze these sorts of things. It could be as simple as coincidence or the fact that green is my favorite color so I’m just more inclined to gravitate that way. But peace and green, there’s something there. Certainly nature comes to mind, and I read about how Jarvis took Sun Ra’s approach to recording with open windows and found videos of him on Instagram recording synthesizers in open fields. The imagery of creating in nature and in solitude was more moving than I expected.
Recently, the Northwest was ravaged by wildfires and the resulting smoke. Our beautiful skies and mountains were lost to endless gray, the hues of our unaffected trees desaturated to a pale, dull blah. The toxic air kept us indoors. Another cruel joke of 2020, forcing us back inside when we’ve been cooped up during this pandemic. But the rain eventually would come and our skies reemerged. As I took my evening walks with my dog this week, I couldn’t help but notice the green all around me. Vibrant, cool, and full of life. Grass rejuvenated, strong pine trees accented by the maples turning orange.
As I’m writing this, dear reader, I gotta say that I do not feel at peace. Peace feels so distant from where we are right now. But listening to Jarvis’ record reminds me that it exists. That’s not something to take for granted. I’m starting to understand that now. If we can glimpse it for just a moment, in the green of our world or a new record, it’s worth savoring. — Dusty Henry
At risk of overshare (which I clearly have no qualms with), I’m going to be straight with y’all and just lay it all out. September 2020 has been a rough month for me, mentally. Alongside the anxiety, uncertainty, and hopelessness that COVID and the current political “situation” have infected everyone with for the past seven months, I ended yet another relationship that I really only got into to try to distract myself from dealing with the previous breakup; in effect leaving me with not one, but two, breakups to deal with at once. Cool!
Because of this, my music listening habits the past month have skewed towards what I call “sad girl shit.” I’m the type of person where, when sad, prefers to soak in that sadness and try to find the most cry-inducing material to just let the tears pour out so I’ve enlisted the help of the old faithfuls who can conjure eye moisture best — Angel Olsen, Elliott Smith, Sufjan Stevens (how lucky for me that he happened to release a new album during Sad Girl September!), Bon Iver, Pedro the Lion, Mitski... you know, the usual suspects of the sad indie genre.
Since no one needs or wants to read 200 words on my thoughts on For Emma, Forever Ago, I decided in lieu of focusing on one album or artist, I’d make a playlist of a mere 130 of my favorite Sad Girl Lifestyle© songs to cry to and let them tell the story of what I’ve been listening to. Bookended by one of my current favorite Sad Girl, Billie Eilish, the playlist isn’t necessarily revolutionary in its choices but I would rate its cry-inducing probability at a good 65%. 80% if you get through the entire 8 hours and 35 minutes and have consumed at least two glasses of wine (obviously it’s 100% if you finish the bottle unless you either have no soul or are a better drinker than I am).
Here’s to October being better. — Jasmine Albertson
During this transition to fall, I usually savor the opportunity to turn inward and embrace the melancholy of the season. I look to artists who radiate depths of solitude, like Grouper, Julia Holter, FKA Twigs, all in their distinct ways. But 2020 is different. The year has felt like one long fall, physically isolating us, peeling away illusions and exposing difficult truths, and of course, being faced more than ever with death. All to say, we could use something uplifting.
Seattle duo Fifth House's debut EP, On Time, uplifts without ever hiding from the truth. The standout opening track, "Elevate," speaks to their experience as Black folks living in Seattle, a city they describe as "not just 'passive-aggressive' — but 'passive-oppressive.'" The lyrics are pointed but offer hope in lines like "patience and balance, I move with the challenge." The entire EP serves as an exercise in healing and meditation — a reminder that we always have the ability to elevate from within. This is felt sonically as well, with influences of jazz, soul and hip-hop making a clear mark on the warm instrumental backing, and the tender vocal stylings of members Toni Banx and Hanan Hassan perfectly complementing each other.
The EP is short at just around 12 minutes, but the last track, "Betta," leaves you ready to carry on. It's the sound of resilience, of appreciating each small step toward personal liberation, of finding joy and pleasure despite adversity. By the time you reach the end of the EP, one of its final repeated lyrics rings true: "I'm feeling better than I did before." — Isabel Khalili
KEXP's Digital Content team shares the music that's been in their personal rotation, both new and old.