2019: Albums of the Year

Joanna Sternberg – Then I Try Some More

Joanna Sternberg is a life saver. It was a quality they discerned in Elliot Smith when hearing him for the first time, a moment that inspired the then freelance musician to make the step centre-stage, writing and performing their own songs. A self-drawn portrait of their bedroom adorns the front cover and that’s indicative of what to come, an invitation to burrow in Sternberg’s personal spaces unearthing hard truth after hard truth. 

Sternberg has led anything but an easy life, their childhood was blackened by other kids ridiculing their looks, they’ve experienced trauma at the hands of abusers and just recently come out of a ten year addiction battle with alcohol and heroin. “I wish I was scared of poison, pills and pain / I wish I was scared of damage to my brain” they sing on opener ‘This Is Not Who I Want To Be.’ These painstaking experiences are remembered in every flinching detail here, not in a ‘woe is me’ like manner but more in the spirit of ‘here are some practical tools to help you work through your current situation.’

Usually centred around a piano or acoustic guitar, the songs, armed with whistles, hums and theatrical endings, have an inimitable, panto-like quality to them. There’s no gloss here, instead it’s incredibly raw, at a stretch you can hear their hands moving up and down the fretboard or the sliding scales of the piano.  

It’s the words they sing and the integrity inbuilt within them that really steal the show here though. The damaged self-esteem left behind by their childhood bullies announces itself on ‘Step Away’, “Anyone who’s watching knows / you’re too beautiful for me”. While on ‘Trying to Say No’ they subject themselves to victim-blaming, “I figured I’m a beggar not a chooser”.

It’s on ‘Pimba’ though where they sing their greatest line, “I am small but that don’t mean a thing.” It’s a show of strength, the affirmation that ‘no matter what I’ve been through, I can impact others positively.’ As mentioned earlier, Sternberg first discovered the life-saving qualities of song through Elliott Smith. Yet they couldn’t expect years later to be hearing stories of how their songs were instrumental in people’s recoveries from mental health battles, addiction, whatever it might be, yet that’s often how they spend the aftermath of their shows.

Fittingly the album closes with the line, “Don’t you dare feel that you’re alone.” Their idol Randy Newman sang “you got a friend in me” – ‘Then I Try Some More’ is as loyal and as helpful a friend as you’ll ever need. 

Miyha – World’s Biggest Crush

Miyha’s vocalist and songwriter, Alejandra Perez moved back in with her parents after a difficult break up in the summer of 2016. The following three years were her most fruitful songwriting years. In her brother’s old bedroom she poured the emotion of her break-up and other challenges life had thrown at her into song, so much so, that she often ended up in tears. Perez would then leave the bedroom to show them to her band mates Erik Fredine, Mike Pellino and Kyle Kohl who added meat to the bones.

The rhythm section produced brooding, sweltering soundscapes, while Perez’ lyrics lofted an aerosol can on top of the fire. Like Adrianne Lenker is to Big Thief, Perez is Miyha’s emotional anchor, her raw honesty breathing life into her band’s dense atmospheres. Perez draws from a rotating cast of characters for inspiration, in ‘Palm Trees’ you meet Nathan, the heavy drinker, and Christine who’s busy doing laundry, while in ‘Lake Tahoe’ she introduces you to her father; ‘he’s got desert skin and dark eyes.’ She has the power to absolutely floor you, on closer ‘Raspberry Kombucha’ she sings “5am seems like a really good time to hurt someone you said you loved”, or tie rings around you with her multi-layered narratives. Perez admits herself that “each of the songs has an under layer of meaning not necessarily obvious to the listener.”

“World’s Biggest Crush is a look back at the times we thought we were very weak but were really actually very tough. Moments were depression, stress, and other people felt like waves beating down on top of us as we struggled to get to the surface. World’s Biggest Crush is about getting to the surface”, Perez explains beautifully. With World’s Biggest Crush, Miyha has whipped up a violent storm of emotion, run into its’ rain.

Molly Sarle – Karaoke Angel

Griots hold an esteemed position in West African society. They are reservoirs of truth, maintaining the histories of families and land. They tell and re-tell these stories to music, keeping the people within them alive, and enlisting pride in their relatives. If Molly Sarléhappened to be born in Senegal, Mali or the like, she would’ve assumed such a position with ease, such is her aptitude for storytelling and understanding of humanity in all its forms.

We talk of hunters and gatherers, and Sarlé is a gatherer of stories; her nomadic experience, living in a cliffside trailer in Big Sur, spending time in a monastery and returning home to Durham (NC) over the past three years, granting her access to a hodgepodge of human experience. 

In a record that verges from strident, thrusting folk-rock to sparse, atmospheric vignettes, Sarlé mingles her own story with the humans she met along the way. Mike who promises more than he can provide, Billy dancing, shirtless, in the living room and Kimberley, the ex-wife of a new flame, are just a sample of the flawed caste we meet. 

The album’s opening line, “He’s got long skinny legs / And holes in his pants” gives an insight into the level of detail Sarlé goes into when exhuming the sharpest edges of these characters. Sarlé though is not a heartless voyeur, rather ‘Karaoke Angel’ is a shrine to compassion and empathy, giving people the time of day, a shoulder to cry on. In her mind we are Mike, we are Billy, we are Kimberley. On ‘Twisted’, the album’s missive, she sings: “Who says there’s anything wrong with being twisted?” An admission that we are all struggling and in desperate need of each other to make it through.

Nora Petran – What It Takes to be a Man

“Even as a child / I was drowning in contemplation”, Michigan’s Nora Petran sings on album track ‘Dream Again’. Her debut full-length, ‘What It Takes to be a Man’ is a space for Petran to air these life-long contemplations, and a designated space for listeners to work through their own. The structures holding up these thought-streams rarely vary, usually made up of an unfurling guitar and the occasional viola strain. Yet over them, she riffs on life, its meanings, its structures, its curiosities. “Life is not a book / the more I look / the more it looks like a conversation”, she sings on closer, ‘Good Company’.

‘What It Takes to be a Man’ though is not the naive child in the back of the car asking questions on every aspect of life. Rather, it bares sharp-teeth, Petran often exhibiting a Courtney Barnett-like brusqueness. While the title-track does note the toxic aspects of masculinity that lead to high suicide rates among males,  “Even when you feel like falling / you must stand son”, it’s mostly an outcry at men’s position of privilege, “I grew up with thoughts / Because no-one ever told me to turn them off” she sings, inhabiting the voice of a male. ‘No I Don’t Love You’, the only song with guitar strumming rather than plucking, sees Petran state “I think you’re stupid”, while on ‘Giving In To Time’ she bluntly declares, “She has brown eyes / I do not”. 

She utilises her voice in a way not dissimilar from Joanna Newsom, Jessica Pratt and Regina Spector. It’s an instrument itself, layering harmonies and shapes with its acrobat-like sounds. Jessica Pratt refers to that art as a “vocal riff” and Petran is a master of it.

Explaining the album’s repeat appeal isn’t easy as the songs vary so little in structure and speed.  You are sub-consciously lulled into its ether. You are like a fly resting happily on a wall, until you realise a spider has knitted a web around you. To its charms and temptations, we are totally and completely helpless. 

Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

It’s over two years now since Weyes Blood released her momentous second album ‘A Front Row Seat To Earth’. In the press rounds for that record Natalie Mering (Weyes Blood) remarked that the album was about “changes in America.” In the intervening period between that record and her new album ‘Titanic Rising’, irredeemable changes have happened both inside and outside America – Trump’s election, Brexit, the escalation of the climate emergency.

She decisively takes on all these topics on Titanic Rising – the front cover finds Mering in a bedroom that’s submerged underwater; though it’s tongue-in cheek, it keenly shows her awareness of rising sea levels and increased exposure to flooding. Our ever-increasing obsession with our phones comes into focus on ‘Mirror Forever’, whilst ‘Everyday’ exposes Mering’s cynicism towards the digitalisation of dating. 

In spite of this, Titanic Rising sounds defiantly optimistic, it’s cinematic in scale and much bolder than anything she’s done previously; in her own words it’s ‘larger than life’. Though Mering concedes that things have got gloomier since Front Row Seat to Earth, the people are fighting back and on ‘Titanic Rising’, Merring leads from the front.  

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