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Pandemic Sounds: 12 Baltimore Albums Released Since the Start of Quarantine

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For most of a year, I stayed indoors. When I could not leave home, listening, reading, learning, and talking felt like active things I could do to engage my senses and relationship with the world around me. Not being able to participate in the world in a palpably meaningful way compelled me to pay closer attention to how I’d been listening and what I’d been hearing, and this heightened awareness has altered the way I record memories.

The past year has broken down huge chunks of my life into plainer compounds. Senses are stimulated, heightened, then dulled in waves. On a late summer day, I stayed outside in the warmth and listened to the audio version of a long essay by Alexander Provan, which functions as the intro text for Triple Canopy’s Two Ears, One Mouth issue that explores the valences of speaking and hearing. Near the end, Provan considers the limitations of listening during a time of intense solitude:

“To me, the convenience of experiencing the world from home—the ease of broadcasting and consuming voices, logging on and off—is also a reminder of how much I can say and hear without changing myself or others, without having any revelations or provoking any doubts. In other words, I sense the media working on my thoughts, my being; I feel like an avatar of a strangely dualistic notion of communication, which insists that I speak or listen, act as a free agent or an obedient receptacle.”

Those lines made me want to consider the pandemic’s effects on my senses, particularly what I was hearing and listening to. I’d been absorbing media urgently, frantically, and passively, even when I was already saturated. And I’d been using that desire for knowledge as a coping mechanism: If I can try to understand where we are and why, I’ll gain some kind of control over it. 

Paying attention to how I’m listening reminded me that despite how it often feels, the world is still way bigger than the small life the pandemic had circumscribed for me. Even just the ordinary sounds that interpolate my day—church bells from Greenmount, a rush of cars down the street, the cat’s meow, the neighbor’s whistle, the domestic tedium—became a little more special. Going out for a walk, overhearing conversations and music blaring from car windows, seeing little kids trying to ride their bikes up the sidewalk—these moments expanded the smallness. But only when I let myself notice them.

Those are the ambient sounds. What about the sounds I’ve intentionally sought out? Aside from the informative distraction of so many podcasts, there’s the music that gives me comfort, the old staples, and the jazz records my boyfriend’s getting into. My music listening has slowly wound down over the past couple of years but especially so last year, with fewer occasions to really listen. No trips, fewer walks, no bus rides, and even less psychic space. But I think that’s made the music that I have sought out more memorable. Despite my gerbil-sized attention span, there have been several albums by Baltimore artists, released since the pandemic’s start last March, that have blessed me with twenty or forty minutes or an hour of something else to sit with. Some of these records inevitably confront themes that are pertinent to our present circumstances and upheavals, some take the listener to places subterranean or extraterrestrial, and many others pull off an inventive combination of all the above. 

Listening to the following albums, I think about a few minuscule but memorable aspects of going to shows (aside from temporary hearing loss) that have little to do with the music: the awkward run-ins with people you sorta know, the way a spilled beer makes your shoe stick to the floor, and the foreign/familiar scent of someone else’s sweat. These things mean nothing and everything, and I guess right now I’m seeking any and all reminders of how we used to live, thinking about what we’ll leave behind when we can re-emerge. Parts of the before-times are intangible right now, but their memories do ring through when listening to the sounds of this city. 

 

Lil Perc The Thot God, Sticky

I knew before I even heard the first song that this would be an intense trip. “Kimya Dawson,” named for the Seattle-based folk singer-songwriter, tells a story of desperation. Lyrically and rhythmically, Lil Perc keeps pace with Dawson’s fast addiction-requiem “The Beer,” but there’s a dragging, sweeping beat here. This and other bedroom rap songs on Sticky allude to substance use, escapism, self-hatred, cop-hatred, love, and longing. That’s a lot to carry at once, and on Sticky, the anger is just as palpable as the pain. 

So is the sense of common conflict and refusal. In just a few bars on “No Future No Hope,” Lil Perc synthesizes all these “songs of love and hate for the modern american revolution,” as the album is described: “I’m just tryna fuck you while / We torch a fuckin’ cop car / Yeah I got some clout but I am / Not a fuckin’ pop star / Always fuckin’ working I ain’t / Even really got far.” 

Another strong influence here is mid-2000s emo and indie rock—an era I viscerally remember being full of music that made me feel less alone (but still depressed and angry), songs about intense and absurdly unhealthy romances, etc. (In particular, “Lovesick/Plan B” seems to directly riff on a Taking Back Sunday’s “You’re So Last Summer”: “You could stab me to death I’d apologize / Just for gettin’ my blood all on your shirt.”) Like its influences, Sticky is all catharsis. It’s hard to know what the fuck to do with the difficult emotions and impulses that stem from our own brain chemicals, life experiences, and the external forces that shape our lives. Lil Perc expresses so much of that with a frenetic dynamism—and manages to float a reverberant sense of humor and wit above it.

 

The Soft Pink Truth, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?

Ostensibly another solo release under the moniker Drew Daniel (of the duo Matmos) uses, this album never once feels like the work of just one person. Created as “an emotional response to the creeping rise of fascism around the globe,” this album is built on fellowship, in a sense. Each track is expansive with contributions from notable collaborators including Angel Deradoorian, JB Hunter, Andrew Bernstein, Koye Berry, and MC Schmidt (Daniel’s partner and the other half of Matmos), among others. 

Daniel says he arrived at this project “to get past a private feeling of powerlessness by making musical connections with friends and people I admire, to make something that felt socially extended and affirming.” Other than its name, taken from a Biblical passage by Paul the Apostle, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? is all scene-setting and feeling rather than exegesis, creating an experiential, phenomenological sound-world. 

Listening and feeling out the soundscapes here is a bodily pleasure. There are water drips and splashes, like a baptism or a bath; subterranean drums; alarms after an exhilarating moment winds down. Daniel uses these components and guest artists’ vocals and instrumentation to create these capacious and ethereal environments. On the first track, “Shall,” vocals repeat the title phrase, layering up and harmonizing in holy/haunting patterns, leading into the wavy club beat and handclaps structure of the next track, “We.” The elements all dash in and out, overlapping or giving way to one another with a blink or a glance. There’s no chaos building in here, not a bad vibe in sight. Each song seems to take cues from others, cooperating and building upon their predecessor’s logic, cohering into the album’s sweet blend of clarity, precision, and complexity.

 

Infinity Knives, Dear, Sudan

On the prismatic Dear, Sudan, fourteen largely instrumental tracks written by Tariq Ravelomanana, the solo musician and producer known as Infinity Knives, create a strange and lush textured landscape. Brian Ennals, Bobbi Rush, Tyler Moonlight, and Allison Clendaniel provide vocals for nearly half of the songs, adding weight to the ambience of this dynamic, moody, and beautiful record.

Some tracks have the feel of warm-ups or cut-ups—all with an expert touch making it mutable but careful and intimate. (I’m thinking here of Baltimore painter Ryan Syrell’s admission that he works super hard to make his paintings look so carefree and full of life.) It’s hard to choose a standout or two; pieces of songs stick around in the mind for a while. Like the operatic warble of Clendaniel’s voice against a shaky piano on “Sway Me, Sway Me into the Arms of the Lord,” or this line by Ennals on “Brian’s #1”: “Lookin’ for a shorty who still drink 40s / and I do love god but to the devil be the glory,” or Tyler Moonlight’s slow swinging repetition of “no one / but me” on the second track.

Along with the fact that Ravelomanana grew up in many places (including Tanzania, Kenya, Madagascar, and South Africa) before coming to Baltimore, what’s often noted in his press coverage is an eclectic set of musical influences like Erik Satie, John Cage, and Sparklehorse along with his “first love” of hip-hop. I wanna say you might recognize some of all that here, but it’s more that they loom quietly and emerge in moments of scant recognition. Like, thought I saw so-and-so when I was out, but I’m not sure it was them. Call it killing your idols or sublimating them, it sounds amazing here.

 

eu-IV, fr

This tiny project with a tiny name, by the prolific Baltimore beatmaker eu-IV, seems slower or longer than it actually is, messing with the sense of time as singular and linear, much like recent events have done. Though fr is quick and by the artist’s own admission, “a project i decided to put together at the last min fr,” it really stands up for itself. 

For good reason, eu-IV frequently collaborates with other artists, and he clearly takes his art very seriously—beatmakers don’t always get their shine, as the artist wrote last year. He compares beatmakers to the jazz greats who were using what instruments are available to them, and asserts that these oft-undersung creators, whose work gives a song its spine, have “studied hip-hop, experimental techniques and it helped form a sound that moves people all over the world.” The ability to integrate divergent components is a healing power, he says.

Disparate sounds—glitching beats, dizzy vibrations, slowed and stretched and reversed samples—spar with each other but ultimately cohere on fr. They create, for me, the texture and mood of those rare days when I unplug and manage to have a full day without doing too much of anything, with little outside contact—days of solitude that are restorative rather than melancholic. Like when it’s gray and rainy but you weren’t planning to leave the house anyway and you’ve got everything you need right in front of you now. One sitting with the immersive fr is not enough though; put this on repeat for a while and then seek out his other work.

 

Ian Power, Maintenance Hums

What happens to everyday sounds that still exist but that you don’t hear anymore? Does routine swallow them? Taking “the drones that surround us in our daily life” as inspiration, composer and performer Ian Power’s second album, Maintenance Hums (recorded prior to the pandemic and released last summer), contains three pieces written for solo, duo, and trio, and they each take wild turns. Though the drones in our daily life carry a lull in their natural state, in Power’s orchestration they become more present and suspenseful.

The album starts off playful and almost comical, with simple piano arpeggios and a simultaneous plodding, clanging bell. It feels childlike, these two aspects of a song—melody and percussion—like little siblings trying to race. The melody changes pace and style and the percussion slows down a bit before barging back in, this time as a drum, a simple steady beat eventually sounding more like an agitated washing machine, then a door being knocked, along with other shifts. 

The unexpectedness of each piece on Maintenance Hums is often beautiful, and even the abrupt and jarring sections become disarmed. There is a surprising amount of almost-blank space here and there: just a faint ringing, or a quiet bass note holding on for so long. The last piece starts slow with an electric organ, and before long here enters the unmistakable whirr of a power drill—or a blender—a weedwhacker? Electric mixer? While playing the organ, the performer uses their feet to switch these household appliances, plugged into power strips, on and off. As the final track continues, all those warm, granular sounds overlap and meld into one another, filling your ears like the thrum of cicadas. 

 

Amy Reid, Isolated Bliss

Released on the DC-based Atlantic Rhythms in May 2020, Amy Reid’s ambient album Isolated Bliss fit in all too well to that early-pandemic time, when the shapes that “quarantine” and “isolation” would take were unknown and, yes, terrifying but maybe also, somehow, weirdly fruitful. There’s a calming warmth to these sounds, which Reid assembled while living on an island in Maine over the summer of 2019, taking field recordings on hikes during the day and working them into songs after waiting tables at night. 

Those field recordings (water rippling, birds and crickets chirping) anchor Reid’s ambient compositions whose components create a kind of game: Here’s this echoey keyboard tune, and over top of that there’s the airy synth, and underneath it all some slow electric beat pushes everything along. And there they go again, on another track coalescing in entirely new forms. It’s an unpredictable and rewarding listen, and it reminds me of the way I see paintings sometimes, trying to trace the artist’s movements and decisions. 

The gently propulsive “Tunneling” could be four or five times longer than its three-minute runtime and I’d be happy about it. And I particularly love “Acid Island” for its running beat and scattered, distorted, wordless vocals. It sounds like what it feels like to have spent the whole day at the beach, in the water, and then to come home feeling like the currents are still careening against and caressing your body, moving it around in tension. With enough listens, Isolated Bliss becomes a meditative experience—not the kind that quiets the mind entirely but the kind that helps it focus on just this one thing for now. 

 

Woven In, Profess

Woven In is the name under which Mariah Fortune-Johnson has been making (primarily solo) music since 2013. Her latest release, Profess, uses sounds sampled from clips that go viral online along with lo-fi fuzzy guitar, beats, synths, keys, and her own cavernous voice that’s reminiscent of goth and post-punk singers like Ian Curtis and Nick Cave.

The album starts off with a catchy depression jam, “Sad for the Season,” punctuated with what sounds like a coach’s whistle—as if signaling, “ok, time to get it together now.” Profess continues with a short but contemplative set of songs of grief, love, independence, desire, kink, and oppression. As the artist puts it, Profess as a whole is a “social commentary on being a Black woman in America.” 

Fortune experiments like a collage artist, shifting a song’s tone and content playing chords that are sludgy with reverb while a jaunty, inky beat provides structure. Several songs end abruptly, like when you realize you’ve had enough of something and just have to go, close the (browser) tab. The clips that Fortune-Johnson weaves are varied—something from rapper Riff Raff, an unhinged white mom, Donna Goudeau—and certain selections bring to mind the way viral videos (especially news footage) can be remixed and meme-ified and ultimately “stripped of context or any possibility that these individuals could be seen as human, and reconstructed as a caricature, as farce,” as Laur M. Jackson has written. From certain angles, the clip selections might seem playful or ironic or like intriguing ambience and texture, until curious listeners track down their origins, which only adds more layers to the artist’s sonic flips. 

 

Greg Hatem, Springlight

This solo album by Greg Hatem is described on Bandcamp as a chronicle of “a wild and psychedelic evening, during which the fog of winter’s night transforms into the dew of spring’s morning.” I can’t help applying that phrase to the rare and hedged optimism I have felt some recent days: The year 2020 was a wild and psychedelic evening, and soon will come the dew of spring’s morning and hopefully some kind of end to the fucking pandemic.

Released nearly a year ago now, Springlight is a strange and pretty artifact of the before times, and it does take the listener on a wild ride. The energy of the album’s first few songs is hot and eerie, like a state fair after dark, with fun-house vocals swimming around tangles of dense instrumentation in Hatem’s busy compositions. Dark pop flourishes and distortions shimmer, drip, and echo as the album progresses. These sonic and theatrical environments take turns feeling like what I imagine drowning sounds like, or like the marbles in my head rolling around, or like my brain’s being decorated with too many balloons and crepe paper. Eventually these elements fall away and taper off. The mood shifts, slows, and calms. 

If reading about my experience of this album doesn’t do it for you, that’s fair enough. It’s like trying to describe a dream or an incredible realization you had when you were stoned. Give it a listen and do yourself a favor by checking out the music video for two songs from Springlight, made by and starring The Witch Twins, Alen and Robi Predanic. It reminds me of the video for Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”—another good one when you want to go elsewhere.

 

Randi Withani, Chiron

Most people I know who are into astrology don’t use the planets’ placements to dictate how they move, think, or treat other people, contrary to popular stereotypes and memes. Instead, astrology helps them figure out how to participate in the world around them spiritually, physically, emotionally.

Spirituality is complicated, personal, and controversial, and I’m no evangelist or prognosticator, but on many levels it feels like humanity is facing a collective spiritual crisis. Lots of us are in really bad shape. Enter Chiron, a celestial body orbiting Saturn that, in astrology, can teach us to take the wisdom from our past pain to heal ourselves on personal and intimate levels. The ambitious singer Randi Withani’s latest EP, released this February, is named for that “wounded healer.” Chiron is a slow, quiet three songs, primarily just a guitar and Randi’s voice, sometimes multi-tracked or looped so she’s harmonizing with herself, or with angelic guest vocalist :3lon, especially on that multidimensional final track. 

The lyrics tell a story of moving on from a lost love—or the struggle to do so—and to be okay by yourself, with yourself. The double and triple recurrences of certain lyrics start to sound like mantras: the way the line “all I wanted was for you to fucking love me” echoes and then dwindles down to just the phrase “love me” on repeat in the second track. Sometimes the closure or loss of one thing is an opportunity for you to keep for yourself some of that love you pour out on others. Although the astrological figure of Chiron by definition deals in discomfort, Randi’s Chiron shows the potential reward for learning how to work with our wounds—the outcome is something beautiful, assured, and sustaining. 

 

Carillon, The Whole Earth

Sometimes you want a whole story. The whole plot and all of its tensions and the denouement and resolution. You want to feel like you’ve earned that peace after struggling for it. This electronic ambient album by Carillon, a solo project by Ken Quam released last summer, stays entirely within the realm of a utopian happy ending. 

Buoyant synths and a soft beat begin a compelling journey through The Whole Earth with a calming repetition that puts the listener at ease, and it slows down further at one point as if to say, hey, we could stand to be even a little more gentle. The second track kicks up the energy, with a circular structure populated by bells, synths, and claps, as well as a recording of the humanist architect R. Buckminster Fuller offering a statement against a scarcity/austerity mindset: “It is highly feasible to take care of all of humanity at a higher standard of living than anybody has ever experienced or dreamt of, to do so without having anybody profit at the expense of another so everybody can enjoy the whole Earth.” I believe we do have the ability and resources to meet everyone’s basic needs and on a good day I believe that we could actually do it, too (tax the rich).

This short album sounds like what I imagine the happy chemicals in my brain are doing when my antidepressants are working. Veils lifting. Sun coming through the clouds. Spring arriving. David Attenborough monologuing at the last five minutes of a Planet Earth episode, making you remember how full of wonder the natural world is, how small—and yet how consequential—your life and actions are in the grand scheme of it all.

 

Sickle Cell, You Might Be Dead Tomorrow

The other side of the foreboding phrase in this title could go in a number of ways: dark, depressing, or exhilarating. But underneath that title and the somewhat brooding veneer of this album’s sound, the message transmitted is a big, gracious exhortation to live. Keep going in spite of everything: the weight and confinement and chains that appear in the early tracks “Signs” and “Chains”; the dark forces largely out of your control; the feeling you’re stuck in life’s dumb game; the attendant struggles of mental illness. 

The first release by Alexander Briscoe, Jr. (also of Oda Red, Lip, and Slow Jerks) under the solo act Sickle Cell, You Might Be Dead Tomorrow takes many left turns over the course of 55 minutes. Several songs have an upbeat, almost pop sense to them, while others are dark, horizontal, and noisy. Briscoe’s yawning deep voice often sounds like it’s far away or in some other room. Sometimes the careening guitars start to swallow him yelp-singing like Lee Ranaldo—before his voice jolts back in with renewed fervor.

Several instrumental songs allow Briscoe to experiment with the whole psychological environment and to expand individual sounds. The bad-dream-punk track “Satan” features a hellish clinking against a distorted beat and the sound of someone coughing all repeating on top of each other before blending into the chillier “Tendencies.” Kicking off the final third, the instrumental “Arc” marks another shift, with a slightly purer sound and more self-assured energy. The darkness certainly doesn’t disappear at any point; in fact, it hardly lets up. But it doesn’t consume you either.

 

Zadia, Vacants

When I was growing up in church, I always thought that the most beautiful hymns articulated the darkest and most morose stories. Grace and hope nestled into stories of salvation and crucifixion, but the minor-key compositions inspired a gloomy, guilty melancholy. Zadia’s Vacants embodies a similar complexity (with none of the religious baggage), with nine gorgeous songs that carry love, pride, warmth, and strength in their melodies with stories of loss and grief.

Church was a big part of Zadia’s upbringing, along with her musical family, and gospel music “heavily influenced” this album, the artist told Alanah Nichole Davis in an interview for BmoreArt last summer. “Christianity was used traditionally during slavery to build conformity among slaves,” Zadia noted. “Though [gospel music] stemmed from religious practices that were meant to condemn, we flipped it.”

Vacants was recorded at home, and it showcases the dynamic possibilities of sound and mood that the rooms and corners of the home can create. But it also flowers outward down the streets and through West Baltimore. The album’s first song captures the season in which it was released (June 2020), with vignettes of late sunsets over boarded windows, that person selling cold water at traffic lights, among other ambient street-sound reenactments threaded throughout. Gifted with words and rhymes, Zadia uses her voice as an instrument. In “Henny on the Pavement,” a meditation on the rampant pain of loss (through death as well as through incarceration), a refrain—“God rest / and bless / your soul / your soul”—gets pulled and stretched in repetition, alternating stress on syllables for different effects (think Solange’s “Things I Imagined”). There’s a relatable struggle with and a reliance on spirituality and “God” throughout, and Vacants ultimately creates a timely but timeless picture of aspiration, interiority, and resilience.

 

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