In Our Headphones: Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Rivals, The Marias, Deep Sea Diver, Eartheater, KAINA, and Xyla

In Our Headphones

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.

Sarah Shook // photo by Carlos Cruz (view set)


Sarah Shook & the Disarmers - “Fuck Up” (2017, Bloodshot Records)

The bulk of reaction to the fact that I’m a huge pro wrestling fan (and that I devote just as much of my time to writing about it as I do music) ultimately boils down to two responses. It’s either a “fuck yeah” followed by a conversation longer than either of us intended, or a hushed, “... … … you do know it’s fake, right?” As a child, I became way more interested in pro wrestling when I found out it was an art form rather than a legitimate sport. When pro wrestling is good, it’s every bit as cathartic and visceral as music, but that is the subject of an essay for another time.

The series of essays I’ve been working on as a pro wrestling critic has been focused on “Hangman” Adam Page; ascendant star of All Elite Wrestling, “anxious millennial cowboy” (as per his own description), and extremely highly functioning alcoholic. Hangman’s story has been full of self-doubt and infinitely more successful friends and reaching the top of the tag team ranks with a friend he tried to distance himself from a year ago. Finding wrestlers who are also huge music fans is about as thrilling for me as finding musicians who are huge wrestling fans, so when I found out Page spent part of his weeks-long quarantine curating an Anxious Millennial Cowboy playlist (and the next few months adding songs according to the triumphs and tribulations of his onscreen character), I dove right in.

Most of the playlist consists of great country songs from artists I’m already very familiar with (Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Orville Peck) and a few unexpected treats (Nina Simone performing “Stars” at Montreux, Lucy Dacus’ “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”), but one song I had never heard before absolutely floored me and I ended up listening to it on repeat. “Fuck Up,” the emotional centerpiece of Chapel Hill, North Carolina band Sarah Shook & the Disarmers’ 2017 album Sidelong. In a way that reminds me of the imminent throbbing hangover ever-present on Lynda Kay’s “Jack and Coke,” “Fuck Up” is sung from the perspective of a woman whose maybe had a few too many drinks to take the edge off.

More than that, “Fuck Up” is a lively, scuffed up ballad of self-criticism, just on the wrong (or right, depending on your relationship to tinnitus) side of loud and feels like it was recorded on the liquor-soaked stage of a honky tonk bar. “I can’t cry myself to sleep, so I’ll drink myself to death,” Shook sings on the second verse, “I got cocaine in my bloodstream and whiskey on my breath.” Shook wrestles with depression in the same sad-but-funny way David Berman used to, the central lyric of the song being a line I’m sure Berman would appreciate if he had heard it: “God doesn’t make mistakes, he just makes fuck-ups.”

Pro wrestling, just like music, is all about finding the stuff you relate the most to and rooting for it. You may be surprised that I found the song I’ve been listening to the most in the past month via a depressed brawler who grew up on a tobacco farm not incredibly far from where I grew up. If I have to be honest, I’m not surprised at all. — Martin Douglas

The Marias // photo by Alondra Buccio


The Marias - “Jupiter” (2020, self-released)

I was almost ready to recommend another band that I have been listening to lately but this song kept getting stuck in my head so I decided to change my mind at the last minute. It's called “Jupiter,” it's one of the 2020 songs released by The Marias and, like the planet, it's a delightful mystery to uncover.

This song became a kind of mantra that I played whenever I needed shelter and warmth. The musical world of The Marias has a perfect atmosphere. It explores deep and infatuated connections with a magnetic psych soul that is heard throughout all of their songs.

"Jupiter" is a conversation between lovers in their own territory. It has an intense and soft melody that is constantly repeated in my mind. Like the entire EP, the LA-based quintet's single was recorded in the middle of the California desert and this is its B-side.

Though everything The Marias has released this year is worth listening to, I especially recommend that you complement the experience with the video clip of this song, which was filmed in the desert as well. One way trip.  —  Albina Cabrera

Rivals: Music's Greatest Feuds

I take the theme of this column very seriously. If I was truly listening to… I dunno, Justin Beiber or something, I would have to report as such, because this is In Our Headphones, and I take that literally. (Note: I will never be listening to Justin Beiber.) So, I will be straight-up and say that pretty much every Wednesday morning this year, I’ve been listening to the podcast Rivals: Music's Greatest Feuds, hosted by music critics Steven Hyden and Jordan Runtagh. 

Launched back in February, Rivals looks deep at band-vs-band adversaries, a concept inspired by Hyden’s 2016 book Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life. While many of the same topics are repeated here (Oasis vs. Blur, Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West), it’s nice to have Runtagh’s perspective added via the podcast. 

From Stevie Nicks vs. Lindsey Buckingham, Jack White vs. The Black Keys, or the three-part series on the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (Nash didn’t need an episode ‘cause he gets along with everyone), Hyden and Runtagh break down these conflicts, citing books, interviews, and song lyrics in their research. The Jeff Tweedy vs. Jay Farrar episode was so intriguing, it led me to reading Tweedy’s 2018 biography Let's Go (So We Can Get Back). And the struggles between Marvin Gaye and Berry Gordy were so interesting, I’d love to find a book to explore that relationship deeper. (Episodes clock in around an hour, so, aside from the multiple-part ones, you’re sometimes left wanting to know more.) The research is so fascinating, I’m even sucked into episodes on bands I don’t like, like the recent two-episode Van Halen exploration or the hilarious Creed vs. Limp Bizkit spotlight. 

So, why the hesitation to reveal this? Well… because as a woman of color, I can’t help but notice that most music podcasts are white dudes talking to each other, and while I enjoy Rivals and look forward to new episodes every Wednesday, I do wish it was more culturally diverse. Maybe they should consider having guest pundits join them on future episodes. I think it could really enhance the discussions. (Also, where are the music podcasts hosted by women of color? Send me your recommendations, please.) 

Also, I wish they’d tackle more than just music my Dad listens to, although to be fair, I don’t think bands today harbor as many resentments, or, if they do, they haven’t gotten to the point in their careers where they’re writing biographies about it. (Phoebe Bridgers vs. Ryan Adams too new? Surely Run The Jewels is fighting with someone out there?)

Ultimately, this column is titled In Our Headphones, and the truth of the matter is, this is what’s been playing in my ears lately… even if it has its downsides.  —  Janice Headley

Deep Sea Diver - Impossible Weight (2020, High Beam/ATO Records)

I had some hesitation about this choice because KEXP has already given so much love to this record, even spending the day of its arrival playing one song off the album per hour with commentary from Jessica Dobson about the making and meaning of said song. But that’s for good reason because, goddamn, this album is freaking fantastic. 

I’ve long been a Deep Sea Diver fan but even I was surprised just how quickly and enthusiastically I fell for this album. Perfectly encapsulating the turmoil, fear, and self-doubt that I think I can safely assume a lot of us have been going through during 2020, Impossible Weight appeared right when I needed it. If you read last month’s column, I haven’t been doing *super well* emotionally. This record perfectly speaks to the anxieties and questions that have been percolating in my brain but I couldn’t quite put into words.

“Do I have to be strong enough to know what to do?” “Did I make the most of it?” “I wish I was someone else,” “I’m letting people down,” and “Why do I get so down?” are all thoughts posed in this incredibly open and honest record. But, unlike most of the songs on last month’s sad playlist, the propulsive, powerfully buoyant delivery of these thoughts and themes makes sadness feel more like a celebration of the reality of humanity than a warm bath of engrossing misery. 

I was washing the dishes the first time I spun the record, expecting pleasant background music for an unpleasant task. Instead, two songs in and the dishes were abandoned for an embarrassingly aggressive solo dance party that felt completely cathartic and, dare I say, joyful? A breakthrough of sorts after spending the past couple of months reveling in sadness in an excessive and honestly unhealthy level. Another line, “I think I’m addicted to the fear” could be an apt description of where I’ve been.

The latter half of the record offers some sage thoughts and advice to the earlier questions. “Everything falls apart and that’s okay” and “Right where you are, is right where you belong” are the semi-cliche tidbits of wisdom offered on “People Come People Go.” While not completely original statements (and something I can imagine plastered on a piece of wall art that my mom would buy), they’re reminders I certainly could use when I’ve gotten too wrapped up in my head.

Dobson is known for her incredible and innovative guitar skills, playing with The Shins and Beck when she’s in-between Deep Sea Diver gigs, and that expertise is showcased fantastically on Impossible Weight. The breakdown on “Lights Out” is a shining example of a virtuoso at work. Combined with luminescent synths, punchy production, and a master’s knowledge of engaging dynamics, building and simmering at just the right moments, Impossible Weight hits all the right notes for me. Don’t be surprised if/when this ends up on one of my year-end lists. Until then, I definitely recommend throwing it on when anxiety hits... so, if you’re like me then, like, every day… — Jasmine Albertson

Xyla // photo by Mariah Tiffany


Xyla - Ways (2020, Leaving Records)

I’ve become so obsessed with Leaving Records this year that I’m constantly afraid that I’m annoying my friends and colleagues about it. The Los Angeles-based label operates under a simple maxim of “all genre,” and thus has been putting out a slew of insanely great records all across the gamut. 

There’s Nailah Hunter’s gorgeous harp-centric ambient music. Recently they released the latest record from The Growth Eternal, who performs spellbinding minute-long tracks with just a bass guitar and a vocoder while singing in four different languages. Producer Maral makes visceral, punk-like scries that heavily sample Iranian classical and folk music. The label is putting out some of the boldest and most exciting releases of anyone in the music industry. Waiting to see what they do next (they seemingly always have a few albums in the queue) has been a lifeline for me this year. 

Leaving’s latest release comes with Xyla’s debut LP Ways. Based out of the Bay Area, Xyla comes with a background as a classical musician but is now using her expertise to make sensational IDM brain-breakers. The amorphous, doppler radar-like cover of the album aptly personifies the music Ways – a feeling of a constant shift in a surrealistic reality. 

One moment you're in a dank basement, dancing and sweating to the song “Cold” before you’re suddenly ripped away to the jazz odyssey of “Narcissus.” Even “Narcissus” breaks away halfway through and becomes something else entirely, seeking out the cosmos. Her expert blend of dance, footwork, and left-field electronic experimentation is enough to hook me in, but there’s a more ephemeral component to Ways that I think has really hooked me in. 

“Sometimes you think of how things could’ve been. There’s a million different ways things can go,” Xyla says of the album’s title in its Bandcamp description. I often find it hard to write about instrumental electronic music because I hardly feel like I can articulate what it moves in my spirit. Before even reading that quote from Xyla, the essence of the record feels so apparent. It’s a record that doesn’t need lyrics to express its feel of seeking, or wonder and regret. Isn’t that what experimental music is really all about? Digging deep within and harnessing those unknowable emotions that gnaw at your heart and gut? 

In a time where certainty constantly seems out of reach, it feels comforting to commiserate with art that feels like it’s searching for answers and considering the infinite possibilities ahead – both personal and existential. Each time I go back to this record, it feels like it’s still changing as well with new rhythmic patterns to find or samples to become infatuated with. The world is in constant motion, and so is Xyla’s music. — Dusty Henry


Eartheater - Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin (2020, PAN)

Eartheater’s Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin came out the same day as our last edition of In Our Headphones, and I’ve been immersed in it since. In fact, in a way that few albums are, this one has become sacred to me. The first track, “Airborne Ashes,” enters with such delicate intensity that it immediately calls for your undivided attention – it’s not a soundtrack, it’s the centerpiece. The opening line, “The only way out of this is through,” begs you inside, and promises transformation. 

As the album progresses, it finds Eartheater (born Alexandra Drewchin) connecting to her songwriting roots, with acoustic guitar and warm, orchestral arrangements that pull effortlessly at the heartstrings. Paired with her better-known touches of dissonance and electronic experimentation, the album feels like a tug of war between nature and machine, flesh and spirit, earth and the sacred beyond.

Drewchin continues to find polarities within the realm of her most important and versatile instrument, her voice. In "Below the Clavicle,” she reaches an octave that lands her between operatic and screeching, expressing both pain and ecstasy in her strain to get there. On “Burning Feather” and “Kiss of The Phoenix,” her ethereal chants and a solo harp create levity against harsh, industrial soundscapes that convey destruction and chaos. And each time the music veers into a dystopian world that’s just a little too realistic for these times, she gently catches the listener with her guitar, reminding us of the sometimes dormant beauty of the familiar.

In her lyrics, too, Eartheater explores paradox. She wrestles with romance and temptation as essential to the human experience, yet she acknowledges their interference with personal ambition and the search for purpose (“Abandoning my dream and mission / For a fantasy collision” and “You and I don’t need to be more than just right now / But just right now could steal a lifetime / So I’m inclined to break away”). While seemingly escaping this particular romance for artistic liberation, she still embraces the play between the two. In “Volcano,” what she describes as the album’s central peak, and the following “Fantasy Collision,” she vividly demonstrates that the merging of bodies can ignite the fire from where an individual is reborn. “A phoenix rising / From the ashes / I return / To where I belong.”

For me, the power of the album lies there, in the cradling of multiple truths. Resistance to this can create a sort of purgatory (not unlike the one Americans are in at the time of this writing), one where we’re searching for answers outside of ourselves. One of Eartheater’s final revelations is that hope, which leaves room for doubt, must be abandoned for faith. Whether that’s faith in the self, humanity, or some divine plan, is up to the listener. In the closing song, “Faith Consumes Hope,” she opens again with the first line of the album, “The only way out of this is through,” and rather than leading us neatly to the other side, she gives us the tools to sit with the fire and trust that a phoenix will rise from the ashes. – Isabel Khalili


KAINA // photo by DDesigns


KAINA - "Could Be a Curse" feat. Sen Morimoto (2019, Sooper Records)

In the ocean of anguish that was (and still is) this year, “Could Be A Curse” from Kaina’s ‘Next to the Sun’ EP has been a life preserver, keeping me afloat among sickness, death, and a salty sea monster that rears its orange head at every opportunity. Whenever I’ve needed distance from the tsunami of bad news lapping at my sanity, I’ve turned to this song. It’s my Wilson, you could say. And like Wilson, it smiles in the face of ruin and stands in perfect contrast to the tide of hopelessness tugging at our ankles.

One of four collaborations between Chicago’s Kaina and labelmate Sen Morimoto, “Could Be A Curse” highlights the strength of their combined brilliance. Kaina’s full-bodied pop production is a boon for Morimoto’s jazz-grounded sound; the two artists contrast and beautifully complement each other for a dynamic union. The song opens with a spacious, organic beat, no doubt the mark of Morimoto’s high-textured rhythm work, followed by a listless guitar that fades in from a nearby dream. We’re not waiting long before stronger guitar tones, warm and drenched in tender reverb, land gently into the intro. For a full minute, we sit, suspended in a heavenly instrumental lead-in before vocals layer into the track.

When we’re finally greeted by Kaina, she sings to us in Spanish – about loneliness, working with few returns, impatience with an intolerable world – but despite the problems that hit home, her resplendent vocals amplify the warmth of her backdrop and everything else fades away. Morimoto matches Kaina in his own mother tongue. In Japanese, his verses dance across the music, speeding up and slowing again at their leisure. In English, he assures us “You are not the sum of your fears” – and Kaina puts it to rest with a resounding “Just try to sleep.” Code-switching between English, Spanish, and Japanese, the song gives the impression that it pays no mind to who’s listening in, which is exactly the reason I want to. 

“Could Be A Curse” is anchored in contentment that feels entirely foreign ever since we dove headlong into what KEXP DJ Gabriel Teodros calls “the decade of 2020.” At six-minutes and change, it’s a song that takes its time, blossoming patiently with the slowness of a summer day or gradual wade into warm shallows. Every element hums with a rich serenity that defies the urgency of reality. And it’s this uncompromising leisure that takes the listener, breaking free from the insurmountable pressures of an increasingly complex every day. For those who want to indulge in the restless panic of 2020, I’d recommend Sen Morimoto’s “Woof” (equal parts blasé and incredulous, add anxious introspection to taste). But for anyone looking for a break from it, who needs a sonic salve as we hold our breath for results of the most important election in our country’s experimental political history, “Could Be A Curse” awaits you. And if that’s not doing it, there’s always Kaina’s advice: “Just to try sleep.” – Tia Ho

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