Each month with In Our Headphones, members of KEXP's Digital Content team share the music that's resonating with them right now. For this installment, in conjunction with Women's History Month, the team shares reflections on music from women artists in their personal rotations.
Back in 2016, Emotional Response Records launched their Typical Girls compilation series, a fantastically-researched collection of “current female-fronted punk and indie bands from around the globe.” (Fun fact: the label was founded by indiepop super-couple Jen Turrell of Red Square Records and Stewart Anderson of long-running indie-pop group Boyracer and 555 Recordings.) (Seattle fun fact: Jen’s dad designed the Skyspace at the Henry Art Gallery!)
The series is named after the 1979 debut single from UK post-punk band The Slits, a perfect title for this collection of artists who carry on that pioneering group’s DIY approach to music and defiance of prevailing gender roles.
Volume Five came out last year, but (like many of us), I was having a really, really, really, really, really bad year, so I forgot about it until K Records mentioned in their weekly email newsletter. (Thank you, Calvin!) Discovery highlights include Indonesia-via-Australian band Empat Lima, who definitely take a ‘70s Slits-style approach, mixed with a bit more twee; Olympia’s Table Sugar make an appearance with their moody, minimalist synth song; Portland power-pop duo Patsy's Rats (featuring Howe Gelb’s daughter Patsy and Billy Jeans from Mean Jeans) bring back memories of ‘80s band The Primitives; the Kamala & The Karnivores track sent me down a rabbit hole learning about the East Bay Punk scene; Spanish band Linda Guilala bring a dream-pop touch to the tracklist; and so on and so on.
Some of it is not particularly this girl’s taste: London hardcore punks SNOB and San Francisco trio DRAMA are just a little too raucous for little ol’ me (and, probably perfect for Sonic Reducer), but that’s the fun of a compilation CD, like those sometimes-maddening Japanese blind boxes of toys. Back in the day, before algorithms and having the world’s discography accessible by a click, I used to discover new music through buying compilation albums. Usually, if I liked one artist on the tracklist, I would discover ten more favorite bands at the same time. (Shout out to spinART’s One Last Kiss… comp and the March Records Pop American Style 2-CD set.) Typical Girls brings back that old-school feeling of organic discovery, thanks to Jen and Stewart’s excellent curation skills. – Janice Headley
What I simultaneously love and hate about this column is how distinctly, with each of our individual blurbs stacked neatly on top of each other in a column, our different writing styles are and how we think about music. Love, because that’s the incredible thing about music and writing about the art — we all glean from and gravitate towards different aspects of it. Hate, because it produces intense anxiety about the way I consume it (probably wrong) and my near incapability of separating my personal life from the music (wrong, wrong, wrong), especially when writing about something I really love (have some boundaries, you idiot).
Perhaps that’s why, despite the fact that we’ve pushed this In Our Headphones deadline back multiple times, here I am an hour and a half before the final hard deadline just finally writing it. Partially due to a propensity towards procrastination which has only gotten worse over the past year but mainly because the aforementioned anxiety over my selection, which felt like such an obvious choice. “More sad girl indie,” I imagine my coworkers thinking. “Ugh, of course that’s what she’d choose.”
But here we are and I still haven’t heard anything that I’ve gravitated towards more in the past month than IAN SWEET’s Show Me How You Disappear. Falling somewhere between the “we get it, you’re sad” playlist I made and wrote about in October and the “propulsive, powerfully buoyant” (according to Jasmine Albertson, Associate Content Producer at KEXP) catharsis of November’s choice Deep Sea Diver, IAN SWEET’s latest record balances hushed longing with anthemic swells for an emotionally and musically kaleidoscopic listen (aka things you can cry and dance to simultaneously aka the sweet spot).
Born out of a two-month stint at an intensive outpatient program to treat her severe anxiety (seeing any patterns to this piece yet?), Jillian Medford realized that perhaps digging deep into her soul for music wasn’t helping her unless she helped herself first. Following treatment, though, apparently the songs that make up Show Me How You Disappear just poured out of her. And the lessons learned are apparent.
As anyone struggling with mental health knows, there’s no quick fix. And, even after two months in treatment, Medford is still working on retraining her brain. A lot of the methods she learned there come up in the songs. “I’ll start saying your name backwards so I’ll forget,” is a concept in “Drink the Lake” that I’d never considered but am more than willing to try if it’ll Eternal Sunshine me.
But it’s the ideas of striving for better and getting out of the same cycles of sabotage that really resonate on the record. “I want to get better, better, better /But in my mind I’m still laying in your bed,” on the appropriately titled “Get Better” strikes the perfect balance of sorrow and optimism while also being possibly the most relatable lyric I’ve ever heard.
After a few listens I almost think the album is biographically chronological, going from “I want to stop loving you,” on “Dumb Driver” to “I want to feel the power of knowing nothing/ I want to feel the power of holding no one,” two songs later on “Power,” which feels like a drastically different sentiment. Medford goes from not wanting to be plagued by a particular person to not wanting to be preoccupied by anyone. And, that, truly is power.
Medford’s journey continues on throughout the record. Now that she’s realized that spending so much energy pining over someone (read: anyone) is not serving her, her independence grows. On the record’s title track, Medford muses, “And now I’m free to turn on the light /I can’t find the switch/ I’ll keep dancing in the dark /It’s alright, I’ve already seen all of it.” It’s true, when you’ve seen it all, there’s little to be scared of.
Her ultimate growth, her “final form” you might say, comes in the closing track, “I See Everything.” Medford proclaims with such confidence that you almost believe her, “I know it now /I know what they’re talking about /I’m not afraid anymore.” While I know that’s likely not true, I do know what days like that feel like. I’m seeing them a lot more lately as well and I really hope we’re both right. Maybe it’s just the antidepressants talking but I don’t feel afraid anymore either (ugh that’s corny as hell, Jasmine, who are you? Mister Rogers??). – Jasmine Albertson
It’s not often that I listen to an album for the first time and let it play out from start to finish, with no skips. Normally, I start by searching for an entry point, a way to connect with the artist, and I pass over tracks that might not resonate immediately. But when I came across 25-year-old Fana Hues’ debut album, Hues, I was rapt for the whole (admittedly short) 24 minutes. I couldn’t peel myself away from her unconventional flow. Every move felt deliberate, building more curiosity with each song.
The sultry, bass-driven “Slippin'' opens with a warning, “Don’t get caught slippin, baby.” It sets up what becomes a sort of break-up record, a channel for Hues’ various stages of grief, from regret to reflection to acceptance. Part of what makes this collection so interesting is that she navigates the complexity of her emotions alongside an uninhibited exploration of her sound. She jumps from lo-fi to punchy pop to acoustic ballad, carrying with her a voice I can’t help but compare to other contemporary R&B masters like Solange or SZA. This is all the more impressive considering that as a child, Fana lost her voice for nearly 5 years due to a combination of scarlet fever, tonsillitis and strep throat. Since then, with the help of a large musical family, Fana has wasted no time honing her craft as a singer, and it shows.
On “Icarus,” my personal favorite, she tells her story through heavily distorted vocals that somehow manage to come across as tender and delicate. Floating on a dreamy instrumental track and bolstered by angelic backup vocals, she plays on the Greek myth of Icarus flying too close to the sun, but in this case what leads to the fall is getting too close to another person, despite warning signs. She takes back control of the narrative with the cathartic “snakes x elephants,” spitting out her last bits of anger and frustration with the relationship, before breaking free. “Death on the Vine” launches her into a nostalgic ballad of love lost where she finally belts out her full range, in a way she might’ve dreamed of doing as a child. The album’s closer, “Yellow,” is triumphant and optimistic in its acceptance of moving on. It’s also catchy as hell, and ideal for welcoming the sun and warmer days to come. It’s the perfect soundtrack for right now. – Isabel Khalili
I’ve been taking a lot of baths lately. I have a ritual: with the faucet running the hottest it’ll go, the water fills the tub and delicate silver bubbles multiply by the hundreds, perfuming the space with the scent of chamomile. Next, I set “a bath scene” as my friend calls it, collecting my monstera, which sits on the windowsill, and my pothos, which hangs from the curtain rod so its vines dangle on the upper edge of my periphery when I sink in. Ana Roxanne comes, too. With everything in place, I close the door, turn off the lights, and Because of a Flower fills the corners of the negative space.
And then I light eight candles.
A glow fills my self-care cave and I watch the flames stretch from their wicks, moving in what is surely the perfect dance to Roxanne’s ambient music, as I buoy among the bubbles.
Because of a Flower is an album you take in all of. There’s no reading the chapters out of order or skipping ahead. As soon as “Untitled” begins, you listen, like a school kid rapt, as you’re told about the harmony of oneness in a stark spoken word piece. It’s a re-education around the binary of sex in a single voice that splits and surrounds in higher and lower registers. The exploration of intersex identity, which Roxanne states is the central theme of the record, is immediately apparent – but it’s not exploration colored with uncertainty. It’s the exploration of a newly realized self, of someone marveling in her own existence with the wonderment of new love – new love for her own body and essence.
It’s hard to resist extrapolating Roxanne’s words to other aspects of life and its divisions, real or imagined. With generous light emanating from my eight candles, I think of all the beautiful colors epithelial tissue can be, all the rich and varied shades of tan, brown, black, and beige. And then I think about how, through socialized hatred and divisiveness, melanin becomes the basis for murder. With “Untitled,” the listener begins the journey not ever wondering, but fully knowing the perfection that comes from joining yin and yang, the power of reconciliation between impossibly different things, and how “the spirit of harmony as it condenses produces all beings.”
You carry this knowledge with you as you move through the album. Actually, it may be more accurate to say the album moves through you. “A Study in Vastness” is a sublime tone setter that wields the union of a choral loop and an anesthetizing drone to create atmosphere. True to a romantic’s definition of sublime, it’s both frightening and beautiful, and from the eerily comforting ether Roxanne’s voice reaches in from all directions to caress you. Vastness, now sonically rendered and tangible, seeps into your pores and pools at the feet of your consciousness. This gentle hypnosis laps at you and nearly seven minutes later, you find (somewhat reluctant) reprieve in “Suite Pour L’Invisible.” But you open your lungs, breathe in the amber tones of guitar, and Roxanne’s phantasmal vocals graze your innermost self. The song becomes unbound from time. It has no beginning that you can remember or an end that you anticipate. It just is. And so are you, listening.
Suspended in the forgiving ambiance, you drift. You drift to the unkempt shores of frustration, knotted by anger and helplessness. You drift to the moment someone informed you that you were yellow and all of the million tiny shifts in perception as you realized the world’s relationship with you was different than you thought. You drift to the secret stores of sadness you’ve given safe harbor, built up over years of half-acceptance. You drift to the fresh, tender sorrow of knowing people want to hurt your mother because of her perfect almond-shaped eyes. You drift to the disgraceful joy that your grandma is already gone so she can’t be Vicha Ratanapakdee.
And then Roxanne delivers you to “- - -.” The wind changes direction and you drift elsewhere, to happier places. You drift to memories of your grandma smiling with her face in the sunlight as she looks at the garden, to the feeling of her soft skin as she pats your hand. Against the gentle ebullience of Roxanne’s sparkling synths, you drift to all the little ways she transcended the language barrier to show you love that you felt resonate in your marrow. You drift to memories of being raised in a multi-generational and multilingual household by resilient women who conversed in Vietnamese, English, and French. Buoyed by the joyful textures of the instrumental, you drift to the kinship you feel with elders who are complete strangers, and the knowledge that they’re family and how you’d never think to regard them as anything but.
Through intricate ambient songcraft, Ana Roxanne abstracts feeling to create place, and wherever that place is for you, you heal. The songs that follow the opener have an innately meditative quality, inviting you to places of hurt, joy, and hope while never allowing you to succumb to their indulgent luxuries. The music is a buffer between you and just about everything, a generous spirit filling the void. Even “Camille,” with samples of strained French dialogue backed by a driving drum beat, is a compelling piece that stimulates tense emotional muscles, like sonic acupuncture.
“Venus” delivers us to the last song on the record. Samples of water washing over pebbles greet us, an organic sound that calls to a world outside of the sound bath and physical bath. Over a humming drone, Roxanne’s vocals oscillate between impressionistic strokes of sound and crystal clear reminders that water unifies, “indiscriminately merging with everything and everyone.”
The anguish and sorrow, the sublime and beautiful, the fury and catharsis - they all reach their pinnacle in the stunning “Take the Thorn, Leave the Rose.” The final track flexes Roxanne’s talent for creating a remarkable amount of energy and emotion with so little. Guitar creeps across the first three minutes with virtually no support. It’s a slow, sorrowful melody that acknowledges the heaviness that still hangs in the air. But halfway through the track, we’re greeted with the sound of rushing water. Bookending the release in its two most spacious arrangements, Roxanne makes what feels empty and hollow warm. With vocal incantations floating above a waterfall, she leaves us with the promise that unity and harmony can be found in some of the simplest and most universal things even if we’re unable to see their presence.
With the album over, I savor the last few moments of weightlessness with the shadow of monstera dancing on the bathroom wall. Deep breath, then I stand, stretch, and feel the weight of gravity sit on my shoulders and lock into my joints. I blow out the eight candles and the world feels a little heavier now, but it’s reassuring knowing there’s some peace and safety in the sound. – Tia Ho
The way in which Javiera Mena immerses herself in musical darkness through ballads, and emerges to the light through songs such as her new song “Dos” released ahead of a new EP, fascinates me. She is our undisputed queen of South American indie pop. When I say that I love seeing her in this facet, it is because it allows us to enjoy her in her true element, behind a piano, front and center, while she confesses a love story in which I will surely see myself reflected. In this case, a love triangle.
The thing is, Javiera has nurtured and accompanied the loving and musical construction of various youths in Latin America for the last two decades. From irreplaceable records such as Esquemas Juveniles, her debut LP released in 2006, to her new songs “Flashback” and “Corazón Astral”, our Chilean synth-pop ambassador has contributed key sounds and a queer narrative about what it’s like to grow up, fall in love and hurt. A true heroine.
“Dos” was composed in collaboration with another key voice on the map of Latin American music, composer and singer Marian Ruzzi. This song shows us a dramatic ballad but is amalgamated with the other two released singles that maintain a classic electronic heart and record in Javiera Mena.
Javiera has other fundamental albums including Otra Era and Espejo. Both were featured in our KEXP studios and DJ Chilly from El Sonido was the host of that session. – Albina Cabrera
So much has been said about ferrying serious ideas through the Trojan Horse of dance music that even though my initial idea for this blurb was to speak to that idea in the context of the herky-jerky UK post-punk band Shopping, it’s mostly untrue to what I actually feel when I listen to the band. While I definitely feel seen in their messages of anti-consumerism and their screeds of lethargy in the face of depression, when I think of Shopping’s music, I become drunk with the guitar lines swirling through my head.
I thought deeply about the concepts behind Shopping’s songs when their debut, Consumer Complaints, made it to U.S. shores — to the point where I thought the band itself was an art project about the ills of capitalism. But then Why Choose dropped and all I could think about the brilliance of frontwoman Rachel Aggs’ guitar playing. The guitar in opener “Wind Up” appropriately sounds like a spinning toy unfurling from a string; the machine gun stutter in the main riff of “Straight Lines” is just as danceable as the beat it flutters around; the fact that Aggs can play the tangled lead of “Knocking” and sing at the same time is a superhuman feat of musicianship.
Most of the hooks on Why Choose come from the guitar and not the vocals, and they still manage to be way catchier than most bands’ best choruses.
(An aside: The bulk of the coverage of Shopping feeds into what I don’t like about the distinction “POC,” because so many sites will designate Aggs as a “queer woman of color” without referencing her being specifically of African descent. This is a failure of white music journalists grasping at the racial identity game, lumping an artist with all non-white people when she is a biracial musician who explicitly communicates through the African style of Highlife music. Even if you include the signifiers Black and Indigenous as a prefix, POC for a lot of people is just a generational update of the word “colored.” But maybe that is a think piece for another time.)
The contributions of drummer Andrew Milk and bassist Billy Easter — both also vocalists for the band — cannot be ignored of course; the precision of all three musicians working together is a marvel to behold. You simply can’t have a dance band without bass and drums, and it’s not as easy as you think it is to make people dance. But Why Choose is so obviously an explosion of guitar pyrotechnics — Aggs’ guitar is what clearly sets them apart from the dozens of bands that come out every year sounding like the Slits or Delta 5 or ESG — it’s what’s burned into my mind long after my listening session is over. It’s what I hum to fight the silence after the music stops playing. — Martin Douglas
The sound of a tape looping and disintegrating mirrors a year in isolation. A hazy tone, crackling and mutating, monotonous and illuminating. For the past 12 months, I’ve reached to ambient music as a sort of musical salve, letting it wash over my brain for moments of relief from everything happening outside my apartment walls. Through this time, I’ve found myself gravitating toward the sound of tape loops especially. But I don’t think I’ve heard them used so movingly as I have with Karima Walker’s latest LP, Waking the Dreaming Body.
The genesis of Waking The Dreaming Body starts with the familiar story of canceled plans in 2020. Walker had planned to take her demos to New York and flesh them out with a collaborator when she suddenly got sick. What was initially a temporary postponement became indefinite as the world went into COVID-19 lockdown. Walker returned to her home in Tucson and began to rethink her process. Normally the desert heat would lead her and the other locals to take refuge in the nearby cooler mountains, but wildfires made that impossible. So she stayed home, forced to take in her sweltering surroundings and reconfigure her music herself.
Walker wrote, produced, and performed all of the music on the record utilizing tape loops, field recordings, acoustic guitar, piano, and her own voice. With these tools she crafts a stunning sonic collage – music colored with the warm brown and orange hues of the Arizona desert under the clear-pitch-black starry sky. The songs drift in and out, like continuous sleeping and waking.
Songs like “Window I” begin with Walker looping piano chords, singing about a year in debt and the longing of looking outward through a window into the outer world, wondering if it’s actually just a mirror. Slowly the song turns into a wordless drone that extends for minutes. It becomes a seamless meditation, Walker’s words lingering in the afterglow. Some songs are purely instrumental, like the 13-minute “Horizon, Harbor Resonance” which melts as the centerpiece of the album like a dream that fades away as you wake up. When she does perform a more straight-ahead folk song, like the title track, there’s even more power in her directness and a feeling grounded in the physical world.
It’s the opening song “Reconstellated” that I come back to the most. The tape looping the eerie rise and fall of a glimmering note. The loop embodies the feeling of our looping days. And while in moments she feels like she’s going to succumb to it, she reflects as she sings “Don’t we move like water too? Don’t we pick up in the night?” And further, she dreams of new beginnings, “reconstellating the ground beneath our feet, reconstellate the stars inside of me.”
There is no upside to a global pandemic. But a year separated will have no choice but to be formative for all of us. It has shown what we can do alone and revealed what we can only do together, made us restock what it means to interact with the world and earth around us. Through the waking and dreaming of Walker’s record, there’s a sense of being grounded – something I want to take with me beyond quarantine. – Dusty Henry
In this month's edition of In Our Headphones, KEXP's Digital Content team shares music by Black artists that have been in their personal rotation lately.
KEXP's Digital Content team shares the music that's been in their personal rotation, both new and old.
KEXP's Digital Content team shares the music that's been in their personal rotation, both new and old.