Now Hear This
It is the simple thing that is so hard to do. This is the paradox that musician Lael Neale has lived within throughout her development as an artist. It is the reason she became enthralled with poetry. Poems are a distillation. Lael says, “this challenge to winnow away what is unessential is the most maddening and, ultimately, rewarding part of writing a song.” Lael’s new album Acquainted With Night is a testament to this poetic devotion. Stripped of any extraneous word or sound, the songs are lit by Lael’s crystalline voice which lays on a lush bed of Omnichord. The collection touches on themes that have been thread into her work for years: isolation, mortality, yearning, and reaching ever toward the transcendent experience. Lael grew up on a farm in rural Virginia, but for nearly 10 years called Los Angeles home. Those years were spent developing her songwriting and performing in venues across the city, but the right way to record the songs proved more elusive. She says, “Every time I reached the end of recording, I felt the songs had been stripped of their vitality in the process of layering drums, bass, guitar, violin, and organ over them. They felt weighed down.” In a moment of illumination the solution presented itself: do the simple thing. In early 2019, in the midst of major transition, she acquired a new instrument, the omnichord, and began recording a deluge of songs. Guy Blakeslee, who had been an advocate for years, set up a cassette recorder in her bedroom and provided empathic guidance, subtle yet affecting accompaniment and engineering prowess. Limited to only 4-tracks and first takes, Lael had to surrender some of her perfectionism to deliver the songs in their essence. The first song she recorded was “For No One For Now,” which calls to mind the agitated beat of driving fast on the freeway against the backdrop of the San Fernando Valley’s bent palms. The song contrasts romantic idealizations with the banality of folding sheets and toasting bread. It highlights her oft-thwarted attempts to enjoy the day to day while her mind wanders off toward the dream, the ideal. While Lael returned to her family farm in April 2020, Los Angeles is a player on this album, and “Every Star Shivers in the Dark” is an ode to the sprawling city, the outskirts of Eden. One can envision her walking from Dodgers Stadium to downtown, observing strangers and her own strangeness but determined to find communion with others. “Blue Vein” is her personal anthem, a Paul Revere piece that gallops through the town as a strident declamation. It is an amalgam of thoughts, concerns, and lessons as she nearly speaks the words, unmasked by flourishes, ensuring the meaning cuts through. Normally a morning person, Lael recorded most of these songs in the darkening of the early evening, and so became Acquainted With Night.
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Menahan Street Band, a veritable supergroup of some of today's most prolific songwriters, arrangers, and producers return with this beat-forward, cinematic masterpiece. If you have spent any time hanging out in bars, cafes, or casually tuning into NPR in the last 10 years you should be well versed in MSB's catalog. Their unique brand of instrumental soul has not only been the foundation for some of modern hip-hop's most successful beats, it has also become the perennial soundtrack and veritable vibe-generator for countless parties, art shows, and restaurants throughout NYC and abroad. While this album carries the aesthetic torch that MSB has skillfully woven into the tapestry of their DNA, it also delves deeper into the experimental, exotic sounds that fill many of the coveted Sound Library and Soundtrack LPs of the late sixties and early seventies - an amalgamation of moog synths, electric pianos, drum machines, and a bevy of analog instrumentation, that ebb and flow in lush swells of Morriconian grandeur.