The Year in Local Music
The thing that unites Baltimore music is Baltimore the city, a geographic place with a good number of rough street corners, cheap rent, unhealthy food, a toxic harbor, and bad public transportation that contains an immensely creative population. It is not a warehouse performance space, a record label, a particular beat pattern, an art school, skinny jeans, a skin color, an income bracket, Station North Arts and Entertainment District, bullet belts, heavy bass, whateverthefuck "neon" is supposed to mean, or a radio station. Baltimore music is not a scene; it's not even a solar system--rather a collection of them. Not everyone gets along, not everyone supports each other--no matter what various crews of happy-go-lucky imports might like to imagine. Giant parts of Baltimore--and its music--exist on different planets from each other. There is community, but for few people is that community denoted by lines on a map. And there are lines, too, all over the list below, some are arbitrary and some have been in Baltimore a long time. Celebrate the talent below--it's staggering--but imagine what it could be.
The list below was compiled from suggestions from Michael Byrne, Raymond Cummings, Bret McCabe, Al Shipley, the various out-of-town City Paper contributors that stumped for Bromst and/or More, plus a moderate dose of an editor's subjectivity.
Roxzi and Symphony of the Get 'Em Mamis have been among Baltimore's most impressive female MCs since back in the day when their group was still called Tha Plague. But it wasn't clear just how high they were raising the bar until earlier this year, when their pre-album mixtape, The Road to TerAwesome, put most of their peers' LPs to shame. And then the real album came along and topped that, with the girls stepping up their punchlines and oozing style and personality all over booming dance tracks and scrunch-faced bangers by DJ Booman, Mania Music Group, and Darkroom Productions, highlighted by the breakout 2008 single "Cold Summer." (Al Shipley)
It's two for two now for Wye Oak, Baltimore's retort to the mainstream indie-rock world and, almost three years after a little underground band then called Monarch self-released If Children, we're not quite running out of nice things to say. With The Knot, Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner have reached even closer to bronzing an aesthetic wholly their own, a gorgeous and moving place of grand, noisy crescendos, twangy incursions, uneasy sway, and the kind of melancholy that sticks to you not like sap, but the thin dew of a foggy midnight. (Michael Byrne)
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When one of Baltimore's most prolific verbal gymnasts teamed up with one of hip-hop's golden age MCs, it wasn't an effort to revisit a bygone era when the music and the message intertwined into an instantly memorable feel-good jam. Instead, Wordsmith and Chubb Rock offered a crisp reminder that such heady hip-hop isn't gone, merely less pimped than its trap/thug kin. Bridging the Gap's 13 tracks might recall the late '80s/early '90s with its jazzy vibe and casual attitude, but both MCs rhyme about the now with clear-eyed precision, never more so than on the witty "Clay Davis," which turns Isiah Whitlock Jr.'s signature sheeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiit into a vocal hook around which the two MCs offer a verbal snapshot of today's hip-hop nation: "We do it for the Browns, we do it for Simpsons/ We do it for Obama and Hillary Clinton/ We do it for the heteros safely screwing, alternative lifestyles and how you doing?" (Bret McCabe)
Listening to early Dan Deacon records now is shocking. Synth fuckery married to bare goofiness married to performance art, priming the pump for who knew what. With 2007's Spiderman of the Rings, he became the carnival barker-cum-exercise-class instructor for an entire subculture of warehouse-dwelling art-school bohemians and, eventually, everyone else that dressed like them. The expectation for a follow-up was either if-it-ain't-broke mimicry, or some kind of pits-of-hell avant-garde composition opus. Deacon delivered Bromst, a record as easily digestible, and danceable, as Spiderman, but upping every other ante, from production value to compositional chops to breadth of moods. In other words, it's a happy medium. (MB)
Listening to Husbands, one can't help but feel a little glad that WZT Hearts packed it in, leaving erstwhile member Jason Urick plenty of time to compose eardrum-kneading sound rinses like these. On his lonesome, Urick shies away from WZT's prickly textures, massaging from his laptop richly resonant, golden dins that are reminiscent of--and slightly more involving than--the similarly immersive aesthetics of peers/labelmates like Mountains and locals Human Bell. There's an empathetic bent to his manicured landslides of synths and organs, as though Urick's aware that his compositions are capable of easing listeners' days--or, in the case of rough 'n' tumble "The Eternal Return," allowing us a chance to wild out vicariously. (Raymond Cummings)
After over a dozen solo albums from its roster, the sprawling hip-hop collective For the People Entertainment has finally neatly summed up its whole offbeat sensibility in one disc featuring two of its best solo MCs. The hoarse but charismatic Bear (aka Don Cornelius) and the thoughtful Cutthroat, who titled Silent Flutes in homage to Bruce Lee, made a thumping kung fu hip-hop record that would do Wu-Tang proud, driven by the warped, crawling beats of FTP producer Nacktronics. Bear's refrain, "started in the dungeon but ended up in the gutter," on "Untouched," says it all: No matter where their music ends up, it's gonna be somewhere dark and below ground level. (AS)
Metal becomes an exercise in sensual depravation when it slows down, and modern American doom acts calmly invest in the taut anxiety that comes from putting an infinite rest between rhythmic beats. Baltimore quartet Oak, however, recognizes that sometimes a pulse, no matter how barely beating, adds a seismic dynamic to the morass. On its four-song, self-titled debut, Oak mines that tight 'n' slow territory that the Melvins (circa "Charmicarmicat") and, more recently, Khanate explored, and Oak invests its glacially paced head quakes with a serious low end. The result is an intoxicatingly fraught pulsating throb that lodges itself just behind the eyeballs and patiently screams to get out. (BM)
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Heumann has always had his country and rock down pat in his Arbouretum, but on Song of the Pearl the local veteran finally refines his inner Neil Young crazy horse. Pearl still rides Heumann's gift for a hypnotic guitar figure and twinned guitar excursions--here paired with Steve Strohmeier--but this time out the run-on odysseys of Rites of Uncovering have been reined in, resulting in tighter songs that still pack an exploratory oomph. From the heavy psych of opener "False Spring" and "Infinite Corridors" to the spectral folk of "Down by the Fall Line" and the runaway rush of "The Midnight Cry," Arbouretum shakes off its meandering preciousness in favor of focused power, and the resulting album is a genuine bourbon-in-your-morning-coffee eye opener. (BM)
Fully psychoactive, Music for Higher-Dimensional Consciousness offers a fractured anti-tour of James "Twig" Harper's back catalog: surround-sound segues, resigned groans, and queasy creaks from the artist's unorthodox output heedlessly smashed to pieces and crazy-glued back together with new 'n' deluded pollutants, bowel-quivering tremors, and timeless nursery rhymes. The result? An immersive hour of all-out cerebral bliss that won't necessitate psychedelics or pharmaceuticals. (RC)
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