Sounds That Mend Us: Must-Listen Music

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In 2021, some ended friendships, some parted from relationships, and some reached the end of a journey. Everyone has their own rituals for saying goodbye and grieving these experiences, leaving them in the past or keeping them as secrets buried deep in their memory. In Taiwan, before the Lunar New Year, we usually clean our house—to reorganize or discard old things that we’ve stored for a long time, and to adjust our inner space as well. The process of physical cleaning allows us to clear out cloudy thoughts or emotions that have disturbed us over the past year. For me, music is always the best companion for this extensive process. As the ever enchanting Prince wrote in his autobiography, The Beautiful Ones, “Music is healing. Some secrets are so dark they have to be turned into song first before one can even begin to unpack them.”

With every end-of-year cleaning, I reflect on whether I’m living just in terms of right or wrong, or whether I’m embracing the gray areas of life. In our current era, people are trying to deconstruct binaries, to examine our own original emotions, identities and orientations, and even our daily logic. Binary thinking is so deeply ingrained in us, it is easy to narrow our vision unconsciously. 

The ongoing pandemic has narrowed my social life and my daily activities in drastic ways. Some of my relationships have become codependent, and thus my practice of developing personal inner space has gradually moved towards coexisting with my own solitude. I even choose music related to these themes when I’m cleaning. Knowing that loneliness and being alone are in reality two completely different things, dualistic thinking tends to direct “alone” into a negative direction, and the word becomes frightening. I am reminded of what Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her book Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, “Alone: for the first time I understood the terrible significance of that word. Alone without a witness, without anyone to speak to, without refuge. The breath in my body, the blood in my veins, all this hurly-burly in my head existed for nobody.” 

When the world seems full of darkness and societal collapse feels just around the corner, we need music that makes us put down our weariness and vent our emotions wantonly. Most of the albums that I chose for this article are about facing unbearable loneliness and making a qualitative change from toxic codependency. With themes such as complicated friendships, intimate relationships, and fragmented daily lives, they gently carve out all kinds of heartbroken states, openly face their vulnerabilities, and unfold personal emotions into in-depth musical narratives. 

Suppose we see time as a forward line. Many of the songs on these albums use the past as the beginning of the story, like a metaphor for the seasons changing as one experiences sadness with human relations, the various traumas in life, the emotional pain from heartbreak, and the loneliness of the process of self-identification. These beautiful narratives comb out journeys of self-examination and transformation. Loneliness exposes anxiety and brings out the darkness inside of us, reminding us that the past has never ceased, but we can flow and coexist through it.

Along with the Baltimore and DC artists listed in this article, so many musicians in the area put out new material that attracted abundant attention in 2021, such as Do You Like Salt? by BRNDA and both feet en th infinite by experimental duo Model Home. Baltimore hardcore band Turnstile’s Glow On was included on many music media outlets’ best album of the year lists.

Even though COVID is still around, and we’re struggling through the always-depressing wintertime, 2022 is already shaping up to be a good year for new music, with releases expected from Natural Velvet, Midnight Sun, Outcalls, Zomes, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, and more. Also, the Baltimore experimental music organization High Zero just relaunched a series of online performances called “The Red Room in Your Room” on Twitch every Thursday. Participating musicians include local legends Matmos and Lexie Mountain, New York sound artist C. Lavender, People Like Us, and many other experimenters. Entering 2022, it is gratifying that this city’s music is still full of such vitality.


Linda Smith: I So Liked Spring

Raised near Catonsville and settled in Baltimore for many years, Linda Smith has only semi-recently been hailed as an icon of lo-fi indie music. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Smith recorded music at home on a four-track and released her works independently on cassettes and eventually on vinyl and CD in limited quantities via independent labels. In 2021, Captured Tracks put out Til Another Time, a compilation of Smith’s recordings from 1988-1996, and the record sold out quickly. (It’s now available on limited-edition white vinyl.) For me, Smith is the pearl of American indie music. Low-key and humble, her music is down to earth with a charisma that leaves listeners with a rich aftertaste.

Her reissued tape I So Liked Spring was released initially by the label Shrimper in 1996. The lyrics stem from the works of Charlotte Mew, a Victorian-era British poet of solid realism and softness; some of her poetry reminds me of Taiwanese poet Hsia Yu, whose work transforms the daily fragments she picks up into beautiful flowing images. Mew’s rhythms and free-writing style complement Smith’s music, which is composed freely with guitars, keyboards, tambourines, and other instruments. Many of Smith’s songs are like a whisper, with a refreshing and slightly melancholy melody, embodying keen and delicate observations in fragments and revealing some truth and purity without pretense. If you want a timeless and captivating album to listen to, I So Like Spring, re-released late last year, is a lovely must-have cassette.

Linda Smith’s cassettes are sold at Normal’s Books & Records and on Bandcamp


Randi Withani: Chiron

Heal ourselves first, then we can heal others. Randi Withani is a professionally trained artist and jazz singer in Baltimore. The songs she writes combine various soul and folk styles (she calls her sound “Afro-folk”), and her previous album, Portfolio (Drafts) from 2020, is an exquisite work worthy of attentive listening. On her second solo release, the mini-album Chiron, released in February 2021, her soft and deep vocals reconcile with gentle textures and sentimental lyrics, along with a slightly melancholy guitar melody. Sometimes electronic sound floats in, like a translucent crystal, accompanying those journeys through darkness, pain, cruel reality, and longing for love in her singing as it slowly winds into the heart. Like the bright moon over a bleak and woeful Saturn, this comforting sketch is exceptionally lucid in healing the hurt soul.


Snail Mail: Valentine

We all have demons inside us that instigate us to hurt others unintentionally and to negatively interpret all responses or non-responses from others. In Snail Mail’s latest album, Valentine, Lindsey Jordan is open about the disintegration of her mind due to the overwhelming media attention vortex caused by fame, as well as the different stages of heartbreak. She expresses love as various forms of internal friction in her soul. This album is nothing like Lush, her previous album with hidden secrets. Here, she lays out her vulnerability to the listeners, facing endless sighs in the dark night. She digs out deep feelings like she’s bursting into tears, an honest and direct depiction of heartbreak and love in youth.

Jordan’s singing has shed Lush’s youthful tone. On Valentine, her mature, unique voice emerges from bathing in sadness, with warm melodies and much less sweeping on the guitar; the synthesizers reflect in the background, and the bass line is occasionally amplified. The whole work has a continuous forward flow, allowing listeners to let down their guard and then break through unbending hearts and reveal our vulnerabilities. “Light Blue” perhaps best expresses Jordan’s wholehearted admiration for the person she loves deeply, completely disclosing such madness, sadness, and longing in her lyrical world.


Bartees Strange: Live at Studio 4

Bartees Leon Cox Jr., under the alias of Bartees Strange, is a producer and songwriter currently living in Washington, DC, who was born in the United Kingdom and grew up in Mustang, Oklahoma, a town where more than 80 percent of the population is white. One of the things I enjoy most about Bartees Strange’s music is the softness in his voice, where some punk also resides. He used to be a member of the New York punk band Stay Inside before going solo in 2017. In 2020, Memory Music Label released the artist’s debut album Live Forever, which flows through various genres. The album is full of powerful and moving musical narrative, depicting the multiple struggles for freedom that Bartees faces in life as a Black queer artist.

In youth, the artist was immersed in various musical genres such as gospel, punk, folk, emo rock, and hip-hop. These sonic experiences naturally became themes that serve as the root in his current creations. His voice is uniquely changeable, expressing himself with indignation and mournful loneliness to singing an inner longing with trembling falsetto. His emotions are freely expressed, running throughout the music, full of enthusiasm and breadth. Last January, the Memory Music Label manager Will Yip recorded and released a live version of Bartees’ Live Forever album in his Studio 4. Considering how COVID is on the rise again, listening to this live album, without an audience, reminds us especially of the opportunity to feel the energy (without the hazard) of a live show.


Flock of Dimes: Head of Roses

In a world full of brokenness, how do we look out upon heartbreak with honesty, harmonize insufferable emotional pain, and practice self-healing? Released by Sub Pop last April, Head of Roses is the latest solo album of Flock of Dimes, the music project of Baltimore-born (now Durham-based) Jenn Wasner, one half of Wye Oak. The composition of the whole album has a slower pace and leaves space for every guitar note to breathe, occasionally crawling over the surface of electronic sounds and saxophone. Without too much distortion, it’s clean and bright, but deeply and directly heart-wrenching.

The song “Two” genuinely touches the softness of my own life at the moment. It is a minimalist but clear expression of how to find a balance between independence and interdependence with ourselves and others, while at the same time reconciling the desire for building connections with people. When it feels like life is in low tide, like a never-ending breathless depression, this album can ease some of the heartache. Perhaps a while later, we can understand what we have lost, recognize the pain, and accept the uncertainty in life and how others see the incomplete self.


Greg Hatem: Ghost of Spatula

Welcome to the psychedelic realm of Ghost of Spatula, which leads you into a universe that resembles a wandering meditation. The drummer for Natural Velvet and member of Moth Broth, Greg Hatem’s latest solo album ambles from alternative folk to restless post-punk. The album, released by the label Bumpy last September, is inspired by library music of the 1980s, especially British composer Paul Williams’ “Aquarius” and Belgian composer Joel Vandroogenbroeck’s “Digital Project.” 

Hatem’s Ghost of Spatula is a far cry from the soft, traveling musical direction of his last album, Springlight, which is collaged with a large number of sampled and distorted vocals. The sense of space built underneath the fabric of the synthesizer on Ghost is broad and deep, and all the sounds are stretched with just the right amount of weight. The long and winding soundscape seduces the listener into the realm that Hatem creates. This album is a good choice if you wish to experience a phantom-like and dreamy ambiance that will also playfully stimulate your nerve cells a little now and then.


Pinkshift: Saccharine

If you’re looking for a fiery outlet, Pinkshift’s EP Saccharine, released last April, might be just right. Formed in Baltimore, Pinkshift began as vocalist Ashrita Kumar and guitarist Paul Vallejo’s project called Sugar Crisis. Later, with the addition of drummer Myron Houngbedji, they combined their different tastes and came up with Pinkshift, whose songs are absorbed with grunge rock of the 1990s, pop-punk after the 2000s, and riot grrrl style. They express the rebellious essence of youth, with anger as a torch that seems to burn away anxiety between high-volume singing and raging rhythms and guitar melodies. 

The first thing that impressed me about their music was the song “I’m Gonna Tell My Therapist On You,” which became a surprise hit. In their interview with SPIN magazine, Kumar recalled chatting with Vallejo who said, “if it wasn’t for the pandemic, I don’t know if ‘Therapist’ would have caught on like it did.” This pandemic has made people more aware of problems in their relationships. It’s not easy to stay away or withdraw from unhealthy relationships; we might feel stuck and resent each other and hate ourselves. This song embodies the anger of those situations and reminds us to treat ourselves gently. It is indeed the sweet revenge of the feminine in full strength.


Smoke Bellow: Open For Business

Dwelling in flow is Smoke Bellow’s creative substrate. The experimental duo from Australia now resides in Baltimore; following their 2018 album, Isolation 3000, Meredith McHugh and Christian J. Best experienced a change in band members and now perform with drummer Emmanuel Nicolaidis.

The title of their latest album, Open for Business, satirizes the questionable decisions that people in power have made during the pandemic. The songs themselves are less direct. Smoke Bellow fuses Kosmische with their soft and unwavering tenacity, making dulcet, minimal melodies and persistent rhythms out of solitude, memory, and inspiration. The layered instrumentals, the percussive rhythms expanding depth in the sound space, the alluring bassline that loops, and all of this merging with McHugh’s vocals remind me of Yo La Tengo’s album Fade. McHugh and Best’s lyrics “drew from life in Baltimore,” and the album, produced here with a couple of collabs with local artists, is in its way a touching love letter to the city. 


Beach House: Once Twice Melody

“Centuries of light/ Diamonds down her back/ Sunday song, the way home is long/ Sailing to the stars, I wonder why it’s so hard”

— “Illusion of Forever,” Beach House

In this song, just past the middle of Beach House’s latest album Once Twice Melody, stars are likened to love—misty and intoxicating, floating in a dream-like soundscape, while a sustaining synthesizer sound opens up an enchanting and magical atmosphere. Those stars symbolize love, and the journey to them is uneasy, but ancient light from the sky accompanies us to the end, where we no longer feel hopeless or fear eternal darkness. We will eventually roam under the soil where flowers bloom. Some of the scenes in the lyrics seem private, heartbreaking and infinitely desolate; the album is embedded with various kinds of moods and sentiments common in modern life. 

Once Twice Melody, a four-chapter double album featuring eighteen songs, is, in my opinion, Beach House’s magnum opus, and it is also the first time that the band has used a live string ensemble, arranged by David Campbell. Drummer James Barone has been working with them since their previous album 7, and he brings with him deep and profound rhythms for this new album, melding with Alex Scally’s compelling guitar, keyboard, and organs along with Victoria Legrand’s vocals. The lyrics in the album’s opening titular song, “Once Twice Melody,” state that “no matter where you go, there’ll always be your shadow.” As an opener, it lifts the curtain of the story; no matter how much time goes by, the past always follows. The universe the band creates on Once Twice Melody expands from the corner of a small room to the dark night’s starry sky, magnifying microscopic private emotions to a macroscopic stream of thoughts that let the past rest and embrace all feelings and sensations.

The ambient, cosmic lyric videos—one for every song—feature collaborations with visual artists such as Annapurna Kumar, Scott Kiernan, Nicholas Law, and San Charoenchai, among others. Beach House presents the songs on this album like portraits in abstract, psychedelic, baroque, and kaleidoscopic imagery, all meticulously crafted with impeccable detail. Legrand’s hypnotic vocals turn the songs’ stories into somewhat theatrical monologues, revealing emotion through minimal and thoughtful lyrics. Each Beach House album seems to have several songs that become classics, that fans never tire of. As of this writing, they have released three out of this album’s four chapters online, and of those, I personally feel that “Superstar,” “Runaway,” and “Sunset” could be those new classics that let listeners immerse and soak into the music. These songs tell of unbearable loneliness, parted relationships, and ambiguous situations. Then those sweet words become empty and void, and it is only love that lasts to connect everything. Beach House’s tender lyrics slowly ferment in our minds, forming echoes of the past that linger.


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