KEXP is counting down the best records of the year with our annual Top 90.3 Countdown. Ahead of the countdown, KEXP staff make the case for some of their favorite albums from 2021. Make sure to vote for your favorites by December 10 at 6 PM PT and tune in to hear what makes the list on December 17.
There is a Black American proverb (that is to say, a Fannie Lou Hamer quote) that goes: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired”. Within those ten words, and the experience they describe, lay a whole universe of terror, indignity and terminal frustration I hardly need to unpack. If it’s something that resides generations-deep in your DNA, chances are you’re bone-tired of explaining it. Roll all that up with our shared human experiences of right now: the effects of late stage capitalism, environmental collapse, plague, and the spiritual slaughterhouse conveyor of social media. I’m tired just thinking about it.
Yet I’m still not tired of Fatigue, the sophomore album from L’Rain, the hard-to-pin-down heartchild of Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Taja Cheek. “That is kind of the prevailing feeling,” Cheek tells me of the album’s title. “I’m always doing a lot of things at once, there are a lot of things happening.”
A fitting descriptor for the album’s intro, which kicks off like an endtimes blockbuster, full of apocalyptic gravitas. It opens with jagged chops of sound, rising sirens, a single voice multiplied into a choir, evoking children reciting a pledge: “justify earthquakes bubbling up inside of me.” There’s a crackling, impassioned haters-get-from-round-me rant courtesy of NY rocker Quinton Brock (punctuated, gloriously, with airhorns) that ends with a question that resonates like a bell struck: “what have you done? To change?”
“The album,” Cheek explains, “is about change, in a loose sense…and that is really tiring to embody and think about.” That part: embodying change. Which bodies are being called upon to do that?
“This sounds selfish to say,” Cheek during our interview, “but I use L’Rain as a space to just figure things out. And so it all kind of begins and ends with what I need, and healing is something that I feel like I need, and also just kind of realizing that it could be useful for other people.” (Fittingly, accompanying limited numbers of Fatigue vinyl is a pamphlet of fatigue remedies written by friends and collaborators.)
The healing intention that sits at the center of Taja Cheek’s artistic practice has indeed been a balm to me since I first came across L’Rain’s eponymous debut album in 2017. L’Rain’s kaleidoscopic dream-palette, R&B that’s eaten from the trees of drone, dream pop and cosmic jazz, subsumed me in a deluge of feeling. Sublime instrumentation, loops, and intimate field recordings laced with Cheek’s multi-tracked, opaque vocals, was to me holistic medicine of the highest order, a garden of peace that allowed me to sit with myself and breathe. It spoke to me like a fellow traveler. The palpable, unspoken grief that permeated the album—due to the sudden loss of Cheek’s mother, Lorraine—was one I’d known well.
That loss, and the attendant, inevitable guilt, is unmistakable in “Blame Me”, Fatigue’s second single (whose “secret name” is simply “Guilt”). “I was born naked into this world/ you never let me see you cry/ gave you nothing inside of my time/ maybe that’s what ends your life.” Reading those lyrics, I could still recall a phantom of the guilt I’d felt after my own mother’s passing, for things I hadn’t said or done.
Grief is, as Cheek explains, “part of the L’Rain DNA”, but it’s no dirge, and it’s far from the only part. Leading up to L’Rain’s 2019 show at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, she invited fans to contribute to a Spotify playlist called Grief and Joy. “It’s like the Death card in tarot, right? Like, it’s more about rebirth and beginnings, and I think that’s something I’m always thinking about.”
NYC’s art scene has benefited from Cheek’s thoughtfulness and discriminating sensibility for years—her day job as Assistant Curator at MoMA PS1 has put her in a position to advocate for brilliant art that has similarly resisted categorization. She helped organize the first-ever US performance of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, the once-obscure singer-songwriter now enjoying a newfound appreciation onstage and onscreen. In February of 2021, Taja sat in conversation with ambient/new age pioneer Laraaji, and her delight was infectious as he demonstrated his famed laughter meditation technique. (It prepared me for my own interview and session with Laraaji, where I was shocked to find out that he’d collaborated with my father on a duo of long-shelved Marvin Gaye songs that I thought I knew all about.)
Back in June, I had the privilege to host L’Rain’s Live at Home on KEXP session from L’Rain. Watching the video as soon as it hit my inbox, I was struck how different it was from every other session I’d ever seen. With all the deep reverence of a ritual, Taja lit a bundle of sage and sprayed herself with rosewater. There was no “Hi, we’re L’Rain,” no 1-2-3-4, just a slow swell of sound that coalesced into “Find It”. The camerawork added to the dreamlike quality, making a slow, steady circuit on a track encircling Cheek, keyboardist/saxophonist Ben Chapoteau-Katz, guitarist Justin Felton, and drummer Alwyn Robinson.
With a processed peal of laughter, the band launched into “Two Face”, Fatigue’s first single. Upon first hearing it last spring, that song’s cascading piano melody immediately gave me a thrilling, uneasy sense of displacement, something like the feeling of a rollercoaster, or whitewater rafting. Cheek’s deliberate, airy cadence, deceptively sweet, details a friendship’s end. Just as with all of those experiences, by the end of it, I felt noticeably lighter.
“Find It” is one of Fatigue’s defining moments, it’s hook a mantra that distills generations of Black ingenuity: “make a way out of no way”. Over its six-plus minutes, it traverses set pieces evoking Enya, Pharoah Sanders, and the musical tradition of the Black church. (Though Cheek wasn’t raised in the church and wasn't particularly spiritual growing up, she notes that “there’s something about gospel that just hits me in a place that nothing else does.”) Waves of keys and vocals enfold an electrifying rendition of the Rev. Paul Jones’ “I Won’t Complain,” sang by the pastor at a funeral. “Oh, I've had somе weary days, and some sleeplеss nights/ but without them, I look around/ I think things over/ all of my good days/ outweigh my bad days.”
And there’s the tradeoff, the faces of the coin, the terms that define each other: loss and healing, grief and joy. That wholeness, as complex and hard-won as it is, is the heart of L’Rain’s music. And if Fatigue is the order of the day, so too is the word you (naturally) see over and over in that Fatigue Remedies zine: rest, truly a revolutionary idea for our time. If you’re really about that change, make sure you get yours.
KEXP staff make the case for some of their favorite albums of the year ahead of our Top 90.3 Countdown. Dusty Henry reflects on Japanese Breakfast's third album, themes of loss, and the complicated nature of happiness.