Big Search // Role Reversal
California as America, in microcosm: golden dreams, undercut by bitter realities. The “dark side of paradise” angle is such a rich artistic environment to mine because it reflects all our hopes right back at us. Is endless sunshine and beauty enough, or are we all just straddling a fault line?
On his second album as Big Search, Matt Popieluch heads for this territory and comes back with a heavy harvest. Popieluch is best known for L.A.’s Foreign Born, and he’s also one of Cass McComb’s running buddies. McComb’s fingerprints are all over Role Reversal, from the hushed folk textures to Popieluch’s weary, wide-eyed voice. Popieluch gets a bunch of assists from various L.A. musicians, and they’ve all done their homework. Role Reversal is less a studio rat record than a precise mood piece. Instruments and voices slot perfectly into Popieluch’s complex arrangements, yet that classic California breeziness floats through.
But fog also hangs heavy, from the reverb-soaked production to the wistful Fred Neil cover sitting as the album’s centerpiece. The Beach Boys, Neil Young, and Harry Nilsson all serve as the shaggy spirits for the music. Soul-pop balladry gets a slo-mo treatment in album opener “Game of Images” as piano chords and drum beats hit like waves on the shore. Popieluch straddles a smart line between homespun and sophisticated pop on the gorgeous “Where Do You Roam?”. “Where do you roam / are you going alone?” goes the refrain, but he doesn’t sound like he’s in a hurry to find an answer.
Popieluch’s open-ended writing hits a high early on with the album’s title track. “Luck won’t change / time won’t come” he sings over a steady folk-rock pulse, but midway through, the track completely drops out. Clarinets and acoustic guitar slowly lead a dreamy bridge back into the coda; the effect is something more psychedelic than any modern day ’60s pastiche. Band names rarely have a bearing on the music they make, but Popieluch’s decision to call his project Big Search is an inspired one. Role Reversal is a surprising, intimate, and open-hearted record, as curious as the kind of trip the words “big search” imply. It moves at its own speed, content to take in the surroundings while digging deeper just the same.
"I’m the first person who’ll put it to you and the last person who will explain it to you." // Bob Dylan
Sturgill Simpson // Turtles All The Way Down
The first thing you notice about Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtles All The Way Down”–besides the title, of course–is Simpson’s voice. He’s got a classic country rasp, the kind that would have beamed out of car radios in 1970s Austin. The crystal-clear production is pure Nashville, as is Simpson’s religious subject matter. But halfway through, things get weird.
Like a lot of country songs, “Turtles” is about finding answers, be it through religion, drugs, or love, yet Simpson has a subversive way of expressing himself. “There’s a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane,” begins the second verse, “where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.” As he rattles through a list of drugs he’s experimented with, the production gets progressively more psychedelic. “They all changed the way I see / But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life,” Simpson sighs as the pedal steel bursts like a supernova around him.
“I was kind of bored of drinking songs, you know?” Simpson explained to Grantland. His second album, the cheekily-named Metamodern Sounds In Country Music–a tip-of-the hat to Ray Charles’s own subversive tendencies–seeks to unite Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking with Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. It’s the truest expression of the kind of “cosmic Americana” Gram Parsons developed in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but perhaps this kind of culture clash is more modern than we think.
Lee // Shine
Lee is Ryuhei Asano, a 27-year-old Japanese musician currently based in Bangkok. He crafts cut-and-paste electronic collages, drawing threads between old soul and reggae samples and random YouTube snippets. The effect is disorienting but oddly meditative, informed as much by J Dilla as the avant-garde. His Bandcamp is a treasure trove of sound and sight—Asana pairs each of his songs with an original drawing. Check out Shine, one of three albums he’s released this year (so far). Post-modern beauty—fans of the Books, take note.
Reading List // Spinning Steel Into Gold
Required reading: Ginger Dellenbaugh traces the roots of the pedal steel guitar in the Oxford American and gives insight on what its future might be when most players these days tend to be older men. A snapshot of an American classic, heard on the dial from L.A. to N.Y. day and night. Webb Pierce’s 1954 hit “Slowly” is your soundtrack—Bud Isaacs’s heavenly playing was reportedly the first time the pedal steel was heard on record.
"It is possible to hear a pedal steel for years, whether in film, on the radio, or live in concert, without ever noticing a player…. The instrument doesn’t really lend itself to grandstanding; for the most part, sitting at the pedal steel is about as sexy as sitting at a sewing machine."