Music

St. Lenox: Ten Hymns From My American Gothic

Albums of such shear artistry, originality and thematic immediacy are few and far between. This is the album of perspective and hope we need in this time of political and social unrest.


St. Lenox

Ten Hymns from My American Gothic

Label: Anyway
US Release Date: 2016-10-21
UK Release Date: 2016-10-21
Amazon
iTunes

Not surprisingly, given the current social and political climate, immigration and the immigrant experience are a hot topic. From television (Fresh Off the Boat, et. al.) to film (Brooklyn, et. al.) to the racially-charged tension and xenophobia that this election cycle has shown to be thriving within a country that prides itself on freedoms both personal and religious. There’s no hard and fast answer to the myriad problems facing both those looking for a better life in the United States and those who have been here yet still face prejudice and racial profiling.

But putting a name and a face to the vague generalization of the “immigrant experience” helps add depth and relatability; we all have our stories, origin and otherwise, and if we look close enough we will see there’s not much separation between those just arriving and those who have been in the country for several generations. We are, without question, a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of cultural experiences, beliefs and practices. Without each we would not be the nation we have become.

Andrew Choi is the son of Korean immigrants. His familial heritage and experiences as a first-generation child of immigrant parents form the lyrical basis for his second album under the St. Lenox moniker, Ten Hymns from My American Gothic. Dividing the album roughly in half thematically, Choi works backwards, beginning with his own American dream and his efforts to achieve it. From his time spent in rural Iowa to his moving to New York to study at Julliard, his own personal rise is documented through opening track “Fuel America". Here he sets off from Iowa with the hope of realizing the “American super dream", only to find it’s not nearly as magical an experience as it has long been made out to be. By song’s end, he’s back in Iowa, “the heart of America". The regret is palpable in his slippery, soulful, utterly singular voice as he sings, “Yeah I didn’t make it this year mom, and I’m sorry.”

This theme of generations runs through the whole of the album -- the project originally conceived in honor of his father’s 70th birthday -- reaching its apex on the album’s second half where the focus is placed on Choi’s relationship with his parents, each of whom had a vastly different experience growing up. Much in the same way Aziz Ansari approached the subject of first generation immigrant children in Master of None, Choi here can’t help but feel guilty with his own perceived setbacks and personal shortcomings when compared with the hardships suffered by his parents.

On “People From Other Cultures", he directly addresses the issue with a back-and-forth comparison that, like “Parents", the thematically similar episode of Master of None, moves back and forth between the life Choi’s mother knew and left behind in Korea and that which Choi himself is now trying to navigate. “She doesn’t understand / Why I’m always fearful of the dangers in the world / I said it’s different cultures / She’s from a different world / I said it’s a different generation.” Using a slow-burn groove, Choi builds to an explosive conclusion, asserting the differences between himself and his parents are to be found in the generation gap. It’s an emotionally charged explanation rooted in guilt as he realizes he’s no room to complain when cast alongside the life his parents lead in order to afford him a greater chance of personal freedom and success.

What’s most striking about Ten Hymns From My American Gothic is not so much the autobiographical honesty with which Choi sings -- think of this as a sort of Korea-American version of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji -- but rather the manner in which he sings. A bold, emotionally wrought instrument, his is a voice struck through with a frenetic desperation, the words tumbling out in a sort of stream-of-conscious. This rapid-fire lyrical recitation finds Choi breathtakingly racing through each line, intent on fitting an overwhelming number of syllables within the strict parameters of the music itself.

With “Nixon", a track examining the post-presidency years of the titular political figure, Choi barks out the lyrics, the melody rising in falling over a classical chord progression in a manner akin to Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yA-rDs. Musically and aesthetically, Garbus is a fair point of reference in that they both defy immediate stylistic classification, instead favoring a sort of musical line of best fit in terms of their unique compositional approach. Yet unlike tUnE-yArDs, St. Lenox feels less the result of artistic creativity and more creativity artistry borne of necessity. A classically-trained, Julliard-educated violinist, Choi initially abandoned a life in music to pursue a legal career.

As a practicing lawyer in New York City, “Thurgood Marshall” serves as his own personal mission statement, declaiming his admiration for Marshall and love of the American legal system despite the confusing nature of our times. Musically, he follows a sing-song vocal cadence that flirts with the song's standard four-on-the-floor beat. There's such a ferocious intensity in his delivery that each line, each word, feels a matter of life and death. This same basic feel is used in the paranoid character sketches of “Conspiracy Theories", featuring a melody that rises and falls with astonishing quickness. It’s one of many instances of musical virtuosity masked by the rough-hewn timbre of Choi’s impressive vocal range.

Despite these brief tangents, the heart of the album lies in both the Korean and Korean-American experience. “Korea” deals with the perception versus reality of the country, its various knick-knacks and curios contrasting sharply with the reality of the nation and its people. “An origin story is a very nice thing/when you never knew where you come from,” he sings. “’Cause a picture viewed from a point afar / Is a very bad way to remember.” Discussing his relationship with his father, “What I Think About When You Say South Korea” finds stories of the past coming through in fits and starts, fragments that gradually come together to form a picture of what life was like, yet with significant details and corresponding emotions largely absent from the narrative.

A singer-songwriter in the classical sense, Choi employs a wholly unique vocal and musical approach, each standing in contrast to the other to create a gloriously incongruous fusion. Throughout, the emotion catches in his voice, a surprisingly malleable instrument that slips and slides across pitch, creating uniquely fluid vocal lines and melodies. There are only so many places pop music can go, being restricted to 12 tones, each paired in various ways, nearly all of which have been used before. It takes a distinctly singular voice to create something that stands apart from the ever increasing white noise overwhelming the internet in the wake of the great democratization of recording. St. Lenox represents that singular voice, at once very much of its time and utterly timeless in its thematic universality. Ten Hymns from My American Gothic is nothing short of a 21st century pop masterpiece.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image