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Album Review | Blood Orange - Freetown Sound

Blood orange is back and juicer than ever with his third album, Freetown Sound. Also known as Devonte Hynes, this UK artist is no rookie to the music scene, as he has written music for FKA Twigs, Florence and the Machine, and Carly Rae Jepsen. This luxurious 17-track album stays true to his R&B/electronica sound, but has a sort of elevated intensity and purpose that shines through more so than in his previous albums, Cupid Deluxe and Coastal Grooves. Featuring eleven other female artists, from newcomer Lorely Rodriguez, front woman of Empress Of, to the iconic Debbie Harry of Blondie, the belting female vocalists allude  to an overarching theme of womanly power and the pursuit of intersectional feminism- just one of many themes in Hyne’s work.

Taking cues from 70’s jazz riffs, 80’s synth pop, Freetown Sound is complex, and requires multiple listens, as Hynes employs a wide array of instrumentation to produce such a big wall of sound that completely engulfs the listener. Once you’re settled into it, you can fully grasp the pure emotions expressed through the drawn out chords in his stunning ballads.

"Augustine": deeper than just a dreamy dance track—yes the smooth synth and pulsing beat makes you unknowingly bob your head, but solemn in it’s content, as Hynes sings about the attacks on the black youth, specifically referencing Trayvon Martin, “Tell me, did you lose your son? / Tell me, would you lose your love? / Cry and birth my deafness/ While Trayvon falls asleep”

"Desiree": funk, and lots of it, this track is uplifting and has a warm n’ fuzzy beat that will undoubtedly make you feel good. This track features a sample from the film, Paris Is Burning as the main character in the film, Xtravaganza, discusses how she has to resort to prostitution in order to get what she wants from her husband- a new washer and dryer. A comical, and convoluted message, but all in all a really good tune.

The album doubles as either a poignant listening experience (once one focuses on the lyrical content) or an easygoing dance album, showcasing Hyne’s astounding ability to his craft.

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The Unpredictability of Royal Headache

Royal Headache of Sydney, Australia is a band that exists in a gray area, not quite angry enough to be full blown punk but not tame enough to fall under the great wide umbrella of indie rock. They avoid cliche but feel familiar, like a repackaged version of your dad's favorite pub rock bands without any of the derivative qualities that these types of bands can possess. With their most recent album High (2015), Royal Headache established themselves as a band that sounds equal parts punk rock and blue eyed soul, simultaneously Elvis Costello and The Replacements. They blur both genre boundaries and, as I found out during their show at the Empty Bottle on July 14th, the definition of appropriate crowd reactions.

"Do whatever you want man, mosh and makeout at the same time," Shogun, frontman of Royal Headache, said. "Dance off the heartache or, if you got someone special, celebrate it. If you love someone special smash into some innocent bystanders. Smash into some mouths." Shogun was alluding to the crowd reactions at their sold-out Chicago show where nearly everyone in the audience was doing one of two things: bouncing into everyone near them or not-so-subtly displaying their affection.

With most of their songs being tales of heartache and love played at breakneck speeds, the two reactions don't come off as peculiar but totally natural, as odd as they might be looking back retrospectively. The energy that the band brings every night commands some sort of reaction, although even their energy from show to show.

"It can be good sometimes," Shogun said about playing festivals compared to smaller venues. "We try to sort of behave and get more Cheap Trick with it. Sometimes it can be like last night just thrills and spills. I think it’s better when we relax and just do what we do on a small stage." 

"It’s never not gonna be weird, let’s face it." Joe, bassist, chimed in. "You just gotta go with it.” Playing a 300 capacity club just three days before a festival is no one's definition of normal, but Royal Headache makes it work. Their set on Sunday at Pitchfork Music Festival had plenty of devoted fans and people who merely happened to wander over to the blue stage at the right time, but whoever made their way over was treated to a set that not even Royal Headache could have predicted the outcome of. 

"We’ve played a few of these in the last year and sometimes we try to be a little slicker than we are," they admitted. "Always a bit of suspense, a bit of terror. We can be wack sometimes.” The debut of several new songs on this stretch of tour and at the fest itself came as a surprise to members of the audience, but for Royal Headache it's just part of keeping things interesting.

"[High] was actually tracked in 2012 and those songs were maybe two and a half years older than that, really old stuff," Shogun said. "We have two records worth of music now, so I think when we get back home it’ll be quiet for a little while and after that it’ll be all new stuff. It is a little strange revisiting songs about things that happened a long time ago. You just sort of want to let things go."

Old songs are still going to sneak their way into their setlist, but don't expect Royal Headache to keep doing the same thing over and over. Being unpredictable can either make for a nice unexpected surprise at best or total self-destruction at worst, but one thing is clear about this band: Royal Headache will do things on their own terms and, lucky for us, it's always them showing why they are one of the must-see bands in the independent scene today. 

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Cicadas, Greenery and Love Children: A Talk with Whitney at Pitchfork

Whitney has undoubtedly made one of 2016’s best and most talked about albums. Sir Elton John has even professed his love for lead singer Julien Ehrlich. Ehrlich and band mate Max Kakacek pulled the remarkable group of Chicago guys together after the break up of their former band, Smith Westerns. 


“We were all just friends,” Ehrlich responded when asked how the guys all met. “Max and I wrote all the songs on the first album and halfway through the writing process we were like dang, we could play live soon.” Lucky for them, their friends all happened to be talented musicians as well. “They (friends) all put their little spin on the songs we wrote and when we went to record it their spin was kept in there and it sounds like a cohesive unit.” 


As to how the name Whitney came into play, Ehrlich and Kakacek had very different responses. “We decided that we wanted it to be a singular name. We looked up names on Google, and scrolled through them all and Whitney was the best one,” Kakacek said with a shrug. “It’s the name that we would name our love child!” Ehrlich retorted, smirking. 


This is the first year the two have played Pitchfork as Whitney, and it could not have been a better fit for the group. "[Blue stage was] the stage we wanted to play when we got booked…we love all the greenery around that stage.” Among the audience were friends and family of the band, who got a special shout out during the show. For the guys, having all of them there was big deal:  “It was awesome, it [felt] really good.” 


The unique sound of their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, generated an emotional response in fans. Music outlets like NPR have even written about what Whitney sound like to them. “Those are the only ones I read anymore,” Ehrlich said. However, when asked what Whitney sounds like to him, he could not respond. Kakacek was quick to answer, however, comparing the sound to “a cicada crawling out of its first skin.” 


In a lot of ways, that’s representative of what this journey has been for the band. With the massive success of their first album, we can hopefully look forward to many more “skins” come.


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The Once and Future Empress Of

Seeing Lorely Rodriguez aka Empress Of walk across the soon to be packed fields of Union Park sporting a black vest and pants over a white dress shirt, it became clear that she meant business. Over the course of our conversation it was apparent that Empress Of is not only one of most creative minds in alternative pop music, but also one of the hardest working.

Empress Of was one of many of the surprise guest appearances at Pitchfork, and certainly one of the most hyped. Joining Blood Orange for a stellar rendition of their hit “Best To You”, during his saturday set on the red stage, Rodriguez proved her musical chops while flawlessly belting out her chorus on the song. As they danced and sang together, the chemistry between Empress Of and Blood Orange was palpable. “Working with Dev Hynes felt very natural”, she explained “he’s a good friend of mine and I respect him very much as an artist. We really had no idea [Best To You] was going to be on the album, we were just writing. I would just go over to his apartment and eventually he carved his album out of so many demos.” The Blood Orange song Best To You received “Best New Music” from Pitchfork and is currently the most streamed track off of Blood Orange’s new album Freetown Sound.

Apart from collaborating with some of indie’s most original and groundbreaking artists, Empress Of recently completed a full tour of Europe. In true music star fashion she didn't forget to carve out some down time, albeit a modest amount by most people’s standards. “I played Primavera, and I had about a half a day off in Portugal, which was absolutely amazing. It was very rock and roll, checking out the whole town as much as I could in a couple hours.” This work hard play hard tendency Rodriguez lived in Europe has absolutely followed her on her trip back to this side of the pond. Not only did Empress Of perform with Blood Orange for Pitchfork on Saturday, she also played a show Saturday evening at Schubas to a sold out crowd. “It was a fantastic show, the audience was so great and energetic.” She said. On these tours and in her Pitchfork performance, Rodriguez performs solo, playing tracks from her critically acclaimed album Me. The album features a slew of creative pop songs. There’s huge, buoyant pop anthems like the track “How Do You Do It”, as well as more hectic, pummeling tracks such as “Kitty” or “Water Water”. There’s also a groovy undercurrent throughout, giving the album cohesion and purpose. Her set at pitchfork featured many of these cuts, and the crowd was very receptive to the bass heavy, dance inducing performance. “I always keep the live set in mind while writing”, Rodriguez elaborated, “I’ll often stand in front of a mirror in my room, just listening to demos, I’m often times so enraptured with a vocal melody that I just start dancing.”

These past several years have been an incredibly turbulent time for Empress Of. Coming off of the success of, “Me”, the hectic touring and press schedule has without a doubt taken a toll on the artist. To Rodriguez, though, the most important thing remains the art itself. “Right now, as an artist I’m focusing more and more on writing the song. I recently realized how important touring is, and how important it is to me to really find a way to relate to and communicate with the audience. When you’re touring so much, you really have to create songs that are important, that you can perform over and over again, so I’ve been writing songs that are important to me. And of course, I want to create something that’s, well, fun.”

Despite her increasingly refined and constantly maturing devotion to her craft and it’s personal relevance, Rodriguez continues to draw influence from artists around her, both old and new. It was charming to see an artists talk about the work of others as enthusiastically as they speak about their own craft. She expressed an equal amount of praise for the Savage’s explosive pitchfork performance Saturday afternoon as she expressed regret for missing Brian Wilson’s performance Saturday night. “I caught Savages on Saturday and I was absolutely blown away. They were absolutely fantastic. I was so bummed I missed [Brian Wilson], I had to leave early to make my other show at Schubas.” When talking about the rest of the lineup at Pitchfork, Rodriguez expressed a deep love for Brian Wilson’s 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. “I love ‘Don’t Talk Put Your Head On My Shoulders’, she said, singing the melody of the title, "I like it because it’s really creepy. All the orchestrations on that album are kind of carnival sounding, that song doesn’t sound like a pop song to me, but it is, and that’s the music I want to make too.” When asked about musicians she’s been inspired by lately, she immediately responded with countless kind words for Angel Olsen. “I love Angel Olsen so much”, she gushed. “She’s amazing. Her new album is very exciting.” Whether its from 1960's baroque pop, or singer/songwriter music from 2014, Empress Of is constantly drawing creative energy and influence from the art around her. 

In terms of her own music, Rodriguez expressed excitement about her upcoming album, but didn’t give any specific details about it’s contents. Whatever Empress Of has in store for us, you can be sure it will be a wonderfully original, daring piece of alt-pop, as much rooted in history's texture as the future’s cutting edge.

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Getting Lost with Lost Under Heaven

Coming all the way from Amsterdam, Ellery James Roberts and Ebony Hoorn (members/founders of the band LUH, or Lost Under Heaven) were “really looking forward” to playing at Pitchfork Music Festival. It was their first time in Chicago as a band and a couple, as they just came to the states to play a few shows on their US leg of their tour in support of their debut release Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing. Arriving into town on Saturday night, Ellery and Ebony went around Chicago exploring. “We went into many of these absurd places with many, many TVs and ate a lot of meat. Usually, we don’t eat a lot of meat, but we indulged ourselves. It was cool that they played nice blues music in the background. Chicago is known for its blues I hear” (Ellery).

After a fallout of Ellery’s former band, WU LYF, I was curious on how he and Ebony met and started making music together. Ebony chimed in and said “We met at the end of 2012. The music started more from collaborating with each other, not really to focus on music, but that was, of course, a big deal. [Music] started from 2013. My background is a visual artist. So we merged into together and worked in different fields”.

Since their album came out in May, LUH has had a great response from people all over the world with their powerful lyrics, and thumping indie-electronic rhythms. With the music starting in 2013 together, and their album coming out in 2016, they spent a lot of time working on it, and are extremely happy with the response from everyone. “And to finally share it with everyone. We’ve been working on [our album] for 18 months, so it’s nice to get a reaction back from it. Understanding what the whole thing is to us and how we want to go about it,” said Ebony. “It wasn’t like we were trying to start a band or something. We were working on what we wanted to do. It was great; unknown. It took a while,” chimes in Ellery. “It’s good. It’s so nice to come and play. It’s a ticket to ride and travel and go meet people. I feel like that dialog and interaction is very powerful.”

Especially after listening to Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing, it seems like Ellery and Ebony and pulling influences from various events and musicians. For Ebony, she is “very inspired by triggers and impulses” from her experiences and emotions. For Ellery, who writes the majority of LUH’s music, he said “I like people like Townes Van Zandt. People who really communicate part of the soul on records for whatever genre or style they might use. People like that really inspiring to me.”

In regards to their songwriting, they tend to highlight lyrics that could be considered protest, change, and or revolution-prompting. Ellery commented and said that change “is a necessity for the human race to continue. [We] have a responsibility to talk about the world we are living in. It is very privileged and luxurious to live in this imaginary world. We tend to focus on what we see and what we feel.” And as Ebony puts it, “We use this form to connect to so many different people. It is very important for both of us as artists to reflect on the world and the times.”

As this was their first time playing Pitchfork, and being in Chicago, I couldn’t help but notice that Ellery was carrying around a bag from Reckless Records; one of the bigger record store companies in Chicago. I was very curious as to what they picked up at the festival. “We got a selection of things. I can’t tell you exactly. We got Santana’s Greatest Hits, Bitchin Bajas, and a Marilyn Monroe record.” The duo said that they are staying in Wicker Park this weekend, and have passed a few record stores on their way to the fest that they are looking to check out before they leave for LA.

For their first time in Chicago, and touring on their debut album, I was honored to have the opportunity to meet Ellery and Ebony. I’m excited to see what is in store for LUH’s future.

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