Bandcamp Picks of the Week is back and better than ever
Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble – WHERE FUTURE UNFOLDS
Genre: Spiritual Jazz
Favorite Tracks: “Sounds Like Now,” “Solar Power,” “The Colors That You Bring”
It’s only every once in awhile a release comes along whose overall context and message is as uplifting as the music on display. WHERE FUTURE UNFOLDS, the debut album from Damon Locks’ multimedia Black Monument Ensemble, culled from their live debut on the West Side of Chicago in 2018, is one of the rare pleasures fitting the bill. Having started out with Locks making sound experiments involving samples of Civil Rights-era speeches over improvisatory beats, the Black Monument Ensemble is now 15 strong (including Angel Bat Dawid on clarinet, whose excellent debut THE ORACLE is also worth checking out), featuring a singing section consisting of alumni from the Chicago Children’s Choir and a full dance troupe. While the dancing unfortunately doesn’t carry through on record, the vitality and drive the entire ensemble brings to the table is undeniable. Starting off with a fiery speech from Locks himself over ethereal chimes and light percussion, WHERE FUTURE UNFOLDS is a sermon of change, perseverance, and hope, all over a fresh musical bed of gospel, jazz fusion, and Afro-Jazz that feels respectfully situated to reference the past while urging the artform forward with a futurist bent. Whether it be the sparse but effortlessly grooving production that highlights the intricacies of the vocal timbres on “Solar Power,” the brief, colorful groove of “Which I Believe I Am,” which evokes the solo keyboard work of something you’d hear from Awesome Tapes From Africa, or “The Colors That You Bring,” whose beat could have comfortably fit on ENTER THE WU-TANG (36 CHAMBERS), WHERE FUTURE UNFOLDS continually surprises, its tapestry of powerful and evocative messages of activism and progress made all the more potent by its ever-shifting musical palette. There is pain here, but Damon Locks never forgets to remind you there is a better world that’s possible. Give it a deep dive over on Bandcamp. [Thomas Seraydarian]
Telethon – HARD POP
Genre: Power Pop, Punk
Favorite Tracks: “Loser / That Own Private Hell,” “Wanderparty,” “How Long Do I Let It Go For?” ““Youdon’tinspiremelikeyouusedto”
My days as a camp counsellor in Arizona remain some of my fondest—to this day, I remain in a Fantasy Football league made up exclusively of friends I shared that experience with, and am friends with countless others who also spent their summers in Prescott, AZ. When I recall those memories, more often than not the soundtrack to that time in my life, a time where a summer vacation of hijinks played meet-cute with genuine responsibility (a dangerous cocktail for anyone between the ages of 14 and 17), was “Dog Problems” by the Format. Nevermind the number of sing-alongs I had with campers and staff members alike, “Dog Problems” encompasses some of the most theatrical times of my life, an over-the-top soundtrack for a musical I was living; sure there was no singing and dancing, but the aura of the musical endures in my mind, with memories that a decade later signify more than ever the carefree and dramatic emotions associated with being trapped in cabins with teenagers for seven days straight—as strong a community as ever could be built through shared experiences that are comfortingly familiar to some and head-shakingly surreal to those who never experienced anything similar.
To their extreme credit, Telethon capture the complex, carefree moments of adolescence incredibly well, tapping so much into an inherent theatricality that the Wisconsin rockers said fuck all and made a five-part, 90-minute rock opera entitled THE GRAND SPONTANEAN in 2017. Frolicking guitars pulled straight from the garage, ska interludes, choir classroom pianos, and some of the showiest vocal arrangements post-Bomb The Music Industry!, the entire thing didn’t have another word to describe it but epic. But this was different. Telethon, for much of their career, have been specifically internet epic, the kind of epic used to describe stories about High School productions of ALIEN or the internet naming a boat Boaty McBoatface. In a series in which we try to highlight the insane and exciting releases that are possible, in many ways, only because of the power of the internet, and more specifically, Bandcamp, perhaps no modern punk release fits that bill better than THE GRAND SPONTANEAN.
All of this somehow makes the group’s latest, HARD POP, a more miraculous and joyous release. It represents not the actual performance of ALIEN or the act of naming of a boat, but instead the make-good that comes after those stories, like Sigourney Weaver and Ridley Scott acknowledging the production, or Boaty McBoatface making meaningful contributions to climate change research. While not as epic as a five-part rock opera, HARD POP is every bit the potential that THE GRAND SPONTANEAN held in its palm, a much more concise and focused-sounding vision with delightfully rich vocals, powerfully catchy guitar parts, and the kind of songwriting that makes you want to want to sing along to every word. Even more than THE GRAND SPONTANEAN, I can hear myself singing these songs at 16 with my friends—that opening line, “The magic of being a loser / Is that nobody has to find out” in the context of awkward adolescence is about as joyous and relatable and optimistic as any carefree summer lyric possibly could be. That opener “Loser/That Own Private Hell” successfully builds musically into a massive celebration and affirmation of loserdom is as much as you need to know HARD POP’s unique interpretation of joy and hardship. While their earlier work certainly sounded like it existed in the DIY sphere, HARD POP is beautifully recorded, sonically pushing it in the same league as Ted Leo’s SHAKE THE STREETS; had it hit a decade-and-a-half ago when this kind of bright and histrionic punk rock sound was more in indie rock’s mainstream, Telethon would be as big IRL as they feel on sects of Twitter.
HARD POP is, in a word, rewarding, seamlessly moving through sparklepunk highs, stage musical bombast, and earned reflective pauses (I suppose you don’t write a 90 minute rock opera without learning a thing or three about sequencing and structure). Still, these songs work by themselves—single “Wanderparty” evolves from searching punk anthem to a groovy ska dance party without breaking a sweat, and “Time To Learn (This Whole Building Runs on Windows 98)” is a rousing punk build that doesn’t forget to take time to include a brief clarinet solo. This band’s brand of punk and rock and music feels just as magical as it has over the last several releases, but with a renewed sense of mainstream focus—it’s unlike a lot of things filtering through the musical sphere right now, even in its respective musical corners of the world. HARD POP succeeds because both it and Telethon are easy to root for. Just like I did with “Dog Problems” a decade ago, I could see my 16-year old self driving up to Northern Arizona for camp blasting “Chimney Rock” and singing along. Hell, I could see my 27-year-old self doing it, because I already have. HARD POP is available on Bandcamp right now. [CJ Simonson]