Nick Bollinger discusses an exploration of identity from honey-voiced singer Moses Sumney; a melancholy and atmospheric set from Lyttelton all-rounder Ryan Fisherman; and the first album in three decades from L.A. punk originals X.
Grae by Moses Sumney
It’s hard to forget where you first heard a voice like Moses Sumney’s. For me, it was back in 2013 on the Beck album Song Reader.
It was an all-star disc featuring everyone from Norah Jones to Jarvis Cocker, and to open it with an unknown and unsigned artist could only be heard as a strong endorsement. Moses Sumney has indeed gone on to great things, though the path he’s taken hasn’t been the obvious one. Seven years on from that debut, Moses Sumney isn’t a pop star. He’s an artist.
This is Moses Sumney’s second album, at least it’s the second part of it; the first portion arrived digitally in February and has just been completed by what could be heard as a 25-minute coda. Yet the album really demands to be taken as a whole, and it’s a demanding yet rewarding experience; both visceral and intellectual, held together by a strong and coherent theme.
The son of Ghanian immigrants, Moses was born in California, but had the dislocating experience of returning to Ghana between the ages of 10 and 16. Being an immigrant in two cultures is certainly part of the album’s theme, but there’s also much refection on his identity as a man - specifically a black man in America. To throw even more ingredients into the cocktail, Sumney identifies as ‘aromantic’. In fact, Aromantic was the title and underlying theme of his first album which came out three years ago.
The remarkable thing is that he makes it so listenable, which brings us back to that voice. In many ways it’s a classic soul singer’s voice; not just the falsetto, that brings to mind sweet black angels like Curtis Mayfield and Prince, but also the kind of bluesy melismas that pour from his throat like honey.
Ad yet it is a deconstructed soul music that Moses Sumney offers us. In ‘Cut Me’ - one of the more conventional tracks - he still does little more than gesture towards a bassline and a backbeat. There’s a trombone, abstract flurries of piano, and that voice, stacked in towering harmonies.
And when a beat really kicks in, in a song like ‘Virile’, it’s not so much a groove as a lurch, while the subject matter is a long way from any R&B song I’ve ever heard - or any song, for that matter. It’s nothing less than a reasoned rejection of masculine ideals.
The realisation that ‘none of this matters/‘cause I will return to dust and matter’ that he articulates so clearly in that song isn’t the only time Moses contemplates mortality; in fact mortality is another strand that is woven right though the album’s thematic fabric. And it returns starkly in the song ‘Two Dogs’ which opens the second half.
While Sumney is an exacting and articulate wordsmith, he sometimes collages in other people’s words to bolster his themes. And it is the voice of Nigerian-Ghanian writer Taiye Selasi you’ll hear speaking to the heart of Sumney’s disquiet in one of several brief but significant interludes when she says: “I insist upon my right to be multiple. Even more so, I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity.”
In Moses’ case, that involves all kinds of multiplicities, hence the title: he’s called it Grae, which implies subtle shadings, the kinds you find at the margins, where nothing is either black or white. And the music is like that too, at times going to some unsettling sonic places. Yet it all revolves around the voice, and in those moments when he brings it back to just that voice and his guitar, you can almost forget that there are few bolder practitioners of sound art making records right now.
Vibe by Ryan Fisherman
There’s something that seems to happen when anyone enters Ben Edwards’ Lyttelton studio The Sitting Room; wherever they came from and however they went in, they come out sounding as though they have just driven across the Texas Panhandle with the radio playing all the way, and soaked up every particle of sound.
This is the latest record to come out of The Sitting Room. It’s the debut of Ryan Fisherman. That’s the performing name of Christchurch singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Chin, and last time I heard of him he was playing drums in the band Doprah, whose electronic-based pop conjured all sorts of fantastical landscapes, but the plains of Texas weren’t among of them. Yet to be fair, any geography triggered by the sounds of pedal steel and twanging guitars, is mostly in my head; and the more I listen to the songs or voice of Ryan Fisherman the more I hear New Zealand. Take this first track, ‘Bailed’, for example. Fragile, hungover and tormented with self-doubt, it’s the confession of a lover who has just walked out on a relationship. He could be in any local town, and Paddy Long’s mournful steel guitar hovers above and around him like a conscience. There’s paddock-fulls of space between the notes, another thing that’s inclined to get one imagining Texan landscapes. But as this collection of songs unfolds, it becomes more and more apparent that the real location is this singer’s mind.
Chin’s songs are personal and frequently melancholy, and the sensitive group he’s assembled play beautifully to the mood. At the core is guitarist Simon Gregory, bassist Symon Palmer and drummer Joe McCallum, a stalwart of so many Sitting Room sessions. I’ve already noted Paddy Long’s steel, but there are other players who come and go, adding their own very personal touches. There’s Indira Force, former front woman of Doprah, who plays piano and sings harmony on ‘How Cool’. It’s a very different genre than any I’ve heard her in before, and yet there’s still some residue of the dreamscapes she creates in her own music.
nd there’s a substantial contribution from Anita Clark, the violinist, singer and songwriter who performs as Motte. She sings as well as contributing some lush and gorgeous violin, and when Marlon Williams steps up to add a harmony vocal to ‘Old Man In Me’ it’s just the icing on an already mouthwatering biscuit.
Though the tempos are mostly slow, there are both sonic and rhythmic surprises, like ‘El Spicy’ which seems to morph into both psychedelia and reggae at the same time.
And there are moments when things change gear altogether. Counterintuitively, the track that rocks hardest is the one Chin has called ‘Down’. The tempo is definitely up, even if the subject is depression.
Though there are beautifully arranged instrumental passages and lots of detail in these well-crafted songs, Ryan, Ben Edwards and their cohorts have left room in this music for that intangible thing that can be neither crafted nor arranged. People have come up with various different names for that thing, but Ryan Fisherman has called his album Vibe - which it most certainly has.
Alphabetland by X
One of the surprises of lockdown was a new album from one of my favourite bands. No one expected it. After all, it had been more than thirty years since their last one.
The buzzsaw guitar, whipcrack rhythm, and the he-and-she harmonies of Exene Cervenka and John Doe; it’s all here, just as it was on their startling debut Los Angeles, back in 1980.
It might be easier to write a prog-rock opus than a two minute three-chord rock’n’roll song that hasn’t been written before, yet X have done it; blistering blasts with all the wit and fury that defined them.
“There’s a heaven and a hell and an oh well…” has to be the rock’n’roll rhyme of the year, and with guitarist Billy Zoom matching Exene’s offhand nihilism in licks that casually combine Chuck Berry with Johnny Ramone, it’s an object lesson in the things that made this band great and unique. X might have had as much energy and volatility as any of their punk contemporaries, yet beneath the stripped-down exterior were some sophisticated undercurrents. Billy Zoom was already hitting thirty and had played with rock’n’roll pioneer Gene Vincent before seeing the Ramones and hearing his future. Exene was a 20-year-old beat poet from Florida when she met John Doe, a singing and bass-playing son of Baltimore librarians, while drummer D.J. Bonebrake didn’t let his training as an orchestral timpanist get in the way of a merciless backbeat. This was punk, with a complex system of cultural references just below the surface. On the face of it they sounded something like a collision between Jefferson Airplane and the Ramones. And they still do.
Putting a band back in the studio thirty-plus years after they last recorded together is no guarantee of success and though the four founding X members reunited in the late 90s and have been touring intermittently since, they have until now resisted the idea of recording again. Their wariness is understandable. Exene and John Doe are now an ex-married couple, while the 72-year-old Billy Zoom is a Republican and a Christian. But evidently such frictions work in their favour. They have reactivated the sound, and the new songs are good, though not all entirely new. ‘Cyrano De Berger’s Back’ first appeared on their mid-80s album See How We Are and had been written long before that. But this is somehow the way it was always meant to sound.
Clocking in at just on half an hour, X’s Alphabetland is the perfect punk length. But whether it represents a rebirth or a final hurrah is another thing. There’s a track right at the end that makes me suspect the latter. With Doors guitarist Robby Kreiger noodling over a three-in-the-morning piano, Exene returns to her beat-poet roots with a mordant monologue that might literally be the last word:
We are dust, it's true
And to dust we shall return, me and you
But it was fun while it lasted
All the time in the world
Turns out not to be that much