“You hear a lot about the faux weirdness of Alberta’s Last Thursday—but it pales in comparison to the real deal, the annual St. Johns Bizarre, in the heart of the realest neighborhood in Portland. Tons of vendors, kid crafts and activities, a beer garden, and insanely good music from actually awesome local bands. It does not get any realer.” — True Parent
The Thermals are a post-pop-punk trio from Portland, Oregon. In fifteen years, the band has released seven records and toured seventeen countries.
Y LA BAMBA
It’s easy to talk about an artist’s growth as a series of musical decisions: an expanding sonic palette, a change in mood ortempo, an escape from the trappings of genre. It’s harder to talk about an artist’s personal—or even spiritual—growth, because that kind of progress is hard to track. Until, that is, an album like Y La Bamba’s Ojos Del Sol comes along and screams of radical transformation on every level. The Portland act’s fourth offering is a sweeping, playful and vulnerable collection that’s ripe with both musical and personal discovery. From the intimate, contemplative verses of the Spanish-language title track to the revelations delivered over the loping beats of “Ostrich,” this is an album that’s painstakingly produced while remaining emotionally raw.
Throughout the collection, Y La Bamba frontwoman Luz Elena Mendoza returns to themes of searching and metamorphosis. On one level, this is born from the Y La Bamba frontwoman’s continuing exploration of her identity as Mexican woman. Both of Mendoza’s parents grew up in Mexico—Luz was born in San Francisco, then brought up in a strict Catholic household in Southern Oregon. She spent her childhood summers playing in the orchards of California’s San Joaquin Valley with her cousins, and it was there that she soaked up the melodies and stories that were being told through traditional folk songs with three-part harmonies. These are sounds that remain a vital building block of the songs on Ojos Del Sol, an album which she says represents “a celebration of family and community.”
But on another level, Ojos Del Sol is about Luz’s search for shared humanity outside of her own community, and for a faith that is greater than just religion. These are themes that run throughout Y La Bamba’s body of work work—with roots in a 2003 journey to India, which found Mendoza falling ill and trading her Christianity for something broader—but there’s a maturity to Ojos Del Sol that speaks to true, lasting transformation. You can hear this on the lush “Kali,” where she sings—with wonderment rather than fear—that “to know yourself is to lose everything.” And you can hear it on the album’s epic closer, “Ulysses,” where Mendoza sings that her life is “written in sand and ash and stone.”
These are songs built to soundtrack coming to grips not just with one’s own mortality, but with the fragility of the world. This is heady, emotional fare, and “this record is about being a mother to these emotions,” Mendoza says.
Her clarity of voice is intimately tied to a renewed musical approach, which Luz attributes to a greater self-awareness that developed through recent collaborations with singer-songwriters Edna Vazquez and Lila Downs, as well as an exploration of mariachi, cumbia, and Latin pop with Calexico’s Sergio Mendoza—no relation—on a collaborative 2015 album released under the name Los Hijos De La Montaña.
Those collaborations helped Mendoza find her own voice as a more confident producer and songwriter on an album that is often a stripped-down affair. Mendoza plays guitar throughout Ojos Del Sol, and worked actively with composer Richie Greene to create a new sonic voice. Percussion from another regular Mendoza collaborator, Nick Delffs (Shaky Hands, Death Songs), is a welcome near-constant that adds depth and soul to the album. To that same end, Mendoza hand-cut stencil art pieces, which appear in Ojos Del Sol’s liner notes, to pair with each new song. All of this is presented as a cohesive offering, an entry in Y La Bamba’s ongoing musical conversation about community, about the self, and about survival.
“I am thankful for all of my hardships,” Mendoza says in the album’s liner notes. “They have guided me to find rest in my soul, time after time. Over and over again.”
Dude York’s Sincerely opens with a blast—the massive opening chords of “Black Jack,” a squealing track that blends the swagger of glam with the heavy riffing and ringing hooks of arena rock. The Seattle-based trio—Peter Richards on guitar and vocals, Claire England on bass and vocals, and Andrew Hall on drums—is announcing itself with an album that couches its themes of anxiety and eroding mental health in rock tracks that amp up the sweetly melodic crunch of powerpop with massive distortion and bashed-to-heck drums. Sincerely is a loud, sweaty rebuke to those moments in life when it seems like nothing’s working, a testament to the power of friendship, staring problems directly in the face, and finding solace in art.
Richards, England, and Hall have been through a lot during their four years of playing together, and tracks like the speedy, dark “Paralyzed,” the Creedence-echoing “Twin Moons,” and the frustrated yet ebullient “Something in The Way” combines lyrics that play on the trio’s travails with jumpy, riff-heavy distorto-pop. England handles lead vocal duties on the zinging kiss-off “Tonight” and the slowly grinding “Love Is,” the first time she’s done so on a Dude York record. “Times Not on My Side,” an intimate farewell note sung atop jangling acoustic, caps the album.
A first pass at a home-recorded version of Sincerely led to the band being told that there was “drywall in every piece of [the record],” says Hall, and they had to go back to the drawing board. Longtime Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill producer John Goodmanson and JR Slayer (aka The Blood Brothers’ Cody Votolato) helped Dude York craft a record that captured the energy of their live show while finding new ways to expand upon its ideas.
The band’s thoughtful approach to putting together Sincerely’s songs echoes the album’s overarching themes of almost-punishing inward focus.
“I feel like it’s about losing perspective—a spiraling-inward perspective despite what may be ready support networks around you,” adds Richards. “It’s like, ‘I don’t need anybody’s help. I should be able to do this myself, because it’s just, like, living.'”
Bringing England’s straightforward drawl into the mix underscores that idea, and its contrast to Richards’ excited yelp heightens the tension on Sincerely, a chaotic, yet ultimately triumphant album that’s a vital tonic for these increasingly confused times.
“Your back’s against the wall,” says Richards, “so all you can do is fight.”
St. Johns own, returns to the Bizarre stage for a set that promises to be straight 🔥.
As a generation of young artists comes of age in the Spotify era, we’re going to be hearing a lot more bands like Little Star. The new self-titled sophomore album from this Portland group evinces a very modern musical restlessness spawned from the absorption of a few dozen variations on the indie and post-punk milieu and an unwillingness to let one particular strain be the presiding influence over their own work. Dan Byers (vocals/guitar), Julian Morris (vocals/bass), and Sonia Weber (drums) see no compunction in fusing a dreamy Faith-era Cure mood to the spoken word mumblings and agitated yelping of Slint, as they do on “Improv,” or introducing math rock time signatures into the pop jangle of “I Just Wanna Lie.”
With its many musical juxtapositions, Little Star can be a nervy record. And that’s before taking into consideration the added layer of Byers’ distressed lyrics. After using the group’s previous albums to wrestle with romantic entanglements, the young songwriter spends much of this record looking for some kind of internal serenity. “Calming Ritual #1” and “Calming Ritual #2” are expressions of an anxious mind that can turn a simple moment like a car merging in front of him on the highway into self-loathing of being left behind by these strangers who are obviously on to, as he sings in his pinched, quavering alto, “New things and new streets/Better things without me.”
What peace Byers finds is in simple pleasures, like inviting a friend over to watch The Shining (“Sonia”) or reminiscing about a pleasant drive with a friend, with the dog asleep on the backseat (“Blue Horses”). But even those can be undercut by agitation. The lustrous guitar and opaque memories of “Horses” becomes a flustered shuffle over which Byers stresses about never telling his companion his true feelings for her. “I don’t know why/I never told you so,” he repeats as the music gains volume and incident. Like the lifelong labor of anyone with anxiety knows, those tranquil moments are welcome, but always temporary. The next storm waits on the horizon. – Robert Ham, Portland Mercury
RED YARN AND FRIENDS
Red Yarn (aka Andy Furgeson) is a Texas-born, Oregon-based family performer who weaves folksongs and puppetry into high-energy shows for all ages. With his engaging performances, lush folk-rock recordings, and playful music videos, this red-bearded bard is reinvigorating American folklore for younger generations.
Red Yarn released his fourth album, Born in the Deep Woods, on March 10, 2017. It completes his Deep Woods trilogy, exploring musical genres that grew out of American folk music. From bluegrass to trance blues to heartland rock’n’roll, Born in the Deep Woods pushes Red Yarn’s creative folklore project into bold new territory.