ALBUM: Naoko Sakata – ‘Dancing Spirits’

Sweden is better known to most for being home to the beating heart of quality pop music than for its long legacy of experimental and improvisational composers. But what a legacy it is! Women have been at the forefront of this extraordinary scene for decades and in recent years have become increasingly visible. It’s possible, for example, to draw a direct line from artists like 1970s drone pioneer Catherine Christer Hennix through to current critical favourites Ellen Arkbro, Maria w Horn and Anna von Hausswolff.

Since moving to Sweden in 2008, Japanese-born Naoko Sakata has established herself as a major talent. First with her eponymous jazz trio and lately as a soloist of fierce intuition. Dancing Spirits is her second album of solo piano improvs, following last year’s impressive Inner Planets, and the first to be released through von Hausswolff’s own label, Pomperipossa Records.

Recorded in a Gothenburg church over two evenings in August 2020, these seven highly expressive improvisations are the sound of an artist pulling threads of composition not out of thin air – there is no such thing in a church – but from some other unknowable source of energy and emotions. Sometimes those threads unravel wildly, yanking something portentous into focus before resolving into musical dust motes that settle on the floor. At other times, the drama is more gently prescribed and the directionless journeying feels in thrall to something distant and tidal.

Sakata believes in the hidden influence of planetary alignment and in creating sacred spaces where peace and chaos are allowed to coexist and to channel ideas and emotions. As with astrology, part of the enjoyment of Sakata’s music comes from the ability to project one’s own imaginations and stories onto each composition. Anna von Hausswolff’s striking photography suggests a strong folkloric element at play. Dancing spirits, often women, have been referenced in popular stories dating as far back as Neolithic times. These spirits go by many names, from the tragic rusalka of central Europe to the dawn goddess Ame-no-Uzume and other dancing kami of Japanese mythology, and their stories are often linked with fertility, of the earth and of the people.

Whatever their rhyme or reason, Sakata does not discriminate in opening herself up to these dynamic energies and others. Her unobstructed playing gives body to whomever or whatever is drawn into the music, at the mic’d place at the mic’d time. Dancing Spirits, then, functions as a non-canonical window into a cosmic choreography of player, piano and what lies beyond the limits of scientific detection. It’s a challenging listen in that it makes a ritual of fearlessness, but admirable, too, for the very same reason.

Follow Naoko Sakata on bandcamp, Spotify, Twitter, Instagram & Facebook

Artwork: Gianluca Grasselli

Alan Pedder
@_neverdoneing

EP: Deap Vally – ‘Digital Dream’

It’s often repeated that the enemy of art is the absence of limitations, but limitations can eventually outlive their usefulness – as Deap Vally discovered when cracks began to show in the band’s creative partnership. With two acclaimed albums of maximalist blues-rock behind them, Lindsey Troy and Julie Edwards began to feel the strain of working democratically as a duo. The ‘enemy’, it turns out, could in fact be the absence of a deciding vote.

Going through a form of couples therapy helped them to re-evaluate and open up their process and, feeling rejuvenated, they set out to make an album of collaborations. Digital Dream is not that album, but it features four songs originally planned for it – each one distinct from the other and pointing in several interesting directions for Troy and Edwards to progress in.

For a band named Deap Vally, they certainly have a few friends in high places. The guestlist for Digital Dream reads like a page from the Who’s Who of the L.A. music scene: Peaches, KT Tunstall, Soko, Jenny Lee Lindberg of Warpaint and Jamie Hince of The Kills all contribute. Behind-the-scenes videos from the recording process offer a glimpse into how these songs were pieced together, with experimentation, a little frustration and heaps of mutual respect. Those sessions took place way back in 2018, but ‘Look Away’ and, especially, ‘Digital Dream’ feel strangely relevant to our current situation. That Lindberg co-write ‘Look Away’, with its lovely three-way harmonies, is – by Deap Vally’s own standards – almost shockingly sedate. Vulnerability creeps into the framework of the song but a steely resistance remains at its core, driven by the confident, repetitive rhythm and the insistent command to not gaze too long at the past.

‘Digital Dream’ is something else altogether. Soko’s star turn here is as narrator from the year 2068 where human interaction is all but extinct and resistance to the post-apocalyptic technocracy is less than futile (think E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, without the redemptive arc). Together, the three women successfully build a Stockholm syndrome song-world, complete with atmospheric bleeps and blops, zeroing in on illusions of pleasure within the vividly dystopian context. Then, as the extended outro fades, we’re jolted back into the present with the cocksure swagger of ‘High Horse’. Tunstall, Troy and Edwards grandstand from the get-go – “I could be fucking anything I want / Yes, I’m driven, I use what I’m given” – and the chorus is close to euphoric. Things take a turn for the gloriously absurd when Peaches comes in with a typically audacious rap. Who else could rhyme ‘Devil Wears Prada’ with ‘boys on Truvada’ and ‘douche with java’ with ‘been to Bratislava’? It’s good, unpolished fun.

Finale ‘Shock Easy’ is less instantly attention-grabbing but reveals itself over several listens to be quite revelatory in its own right, with some masterful guitar work from Hince. A chilling reflection on the very American epidemic of mass shootings, it has the sort of detached, observational insight that made Sheryl Crow’s early albums so refreshing. “It was all too easy, now it’s all too heavy,” they rasp over blown-out drums and a starkly contrasting, almost-gospel backdrop that elevates and punctuates the song. It’s four for four, then, in terms of breaking all the Deap Vally ‘rules’ – and to largely great effect.

By following their instincts rather than self-imposed red lines, Troy and Edwards have discovered new doors where once they saw only walls. With more music promised later in the year, we won’t have to wait long to find out where they lead.

Listen to Deap Vally’s Digital Dream EP here.

Photo Credit: Kelsey Hart

Alan Pedder
@_neverdoneing

ALBUM: Tamar Aphek – ‘All Bets Are Off’

Israeli artist Tamar Aphek arrives on the legendary Kill Rock Stars with an indie rock pedigree to rival some of the label’s most celebrated acts. After close to a decade playing wild guitar licks and fronting some of Tel Aviv’s most prominent rock bands, Aphek got a taste for the solo life and promptly moved to Paris to focus on her song-craft.

Stepping into her new role in style, she teamed up with fellow Israeli Yonatan Gat (ex-Monotonix) to record her first Tamar Aphek EP, Collision, released in the summer of 2014. She turned down the guitars, dipped back into the classical piano training of her youth, and started to explore the full range of her voice. Until that point she had considered herself to be more of a guitarist than a singer, though it’s hard to reconcile that fact with the confidently deadpan and sophisticated voice we encounter on All Bets Are Off. People will inevitably make comparisons with Nico but Aphek’s vocal style is less scorched and droning, though still dry enough to cut through even the knottiest of her tightly wound, jazz inflected songs.

Much of the recording for All Bets Are Off was completed some years ago with her original touring band, but Aphek has been in no hurry to release it. Instead, she has taken an intuitive yet purposeful approach to producing the album herself, re-sculpting and layering the instrumentation where necessary to best suit her stories of jealousy, injustice, anger and revenge. Take a moment to compare the Bandcamp demo of ‘Russian Winter’ (aka ‘The Second I Am Gone’, from 2013) with its stonking final form on the record to see how Aphek’s vision has paid off. Powering in on scuzzy guitars and precision drums and exiting with an out-of-nowhere farfisa final eighth, ‘Russian Winter’ sets the tone for an album that’s packed with sudden diversions and unruly intermissions.

Aphek is at her most aggressive on ‘Crossbow’, last year’s pummeling first single, boosting her villainous tale with motorik propulsion and a flashy guitar line that brings it all together. Her production skills come to the fore again on the strung-out funhouse-mirror funk of ‘Too Much Information’, turning a potential clown car of a song into a woozy mid-album set-piece of beautifully controlled chaos. Elsewhere, ‘Show Me Your Pretty Side’ is a discomfiting, sax-strewn, stalkerish track that goes heavier on the twang, recalling a more cynical Holly Golightly or early Eleni Mandell.

Aphek never wavers in her commitment to the rollercoaster approach she has adopted, though her tricks can start to wear a little thin on longer songs like ‘Beautiful Confusion’ and ‘Nothing Can Surprise Me’. For the most part, though, All Bets Are Off is a thrillingly cohesive ride that’s not afraid of ambiguities or of going to extremes. There’s a lifetime of musical experience at work here, more fully revealed with each repeated listen, confirming Tamar Aphek as one to keep a close ear on.

Listen to Tamar Aphek’s new album All Bets Are Off on bandcamp or Spotify

Follow Tamar Aphek on Twitter, Instagram & Facebook for more updates.

Alan Pedder
@_neverdoneing