Way Out West with Anthony Ruptak & The Midnight Friends

Arizona, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, you’re welcome. Denver is lending you one of its best and most beloved bands. You are not entitled to keep Anthony Ruptak & The Midnight Friends, but you may enjoy their brilliant tunes as they embark on their first tour of western states this summer with Jacob Russo.

Don’t know Ruptak? From the bio: Anthony Ruptak is a proto-folk-rock band featuring the sounds of bowed upright bass, ambient electric guitar, unconventional standing cocktail drum kit, and acoustic finger-picking driven melodies. Eclectic and passionate vocals convey Ruptak’s mature and stark storytelling.

There is a live track here, recorded at The Walnut Room in Denver, that’s an excellent introduction to the band.

As others have noted, there’s the slightest Ben Gibbard quality to Ruptak’s voice and singing cadence, but unlike Death Cab’s frontman, he bellows like a Fleet Fox with a tail of fire.

When the Midnight Friends lock into their groove, it creates a really inclusive space for audience and band, which is part of the reason audiences are so quick to sing along. Ruptak’s melodies beg for a chorus of voices. Straightforward songs with nuanced playing that straddles the line between folk and ambience.

The band has shared the stage with the likes of A. Tom Collins, Paper Bird, The Yawpers, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, The Tinder Box, Nathaniel Rateliff, and dozens more. They even went to pre-political-thaw Cuba to entertain U.S. troops.

Now, western brethren, they’re heading your way. We know you’ll love ’em, so tell your friends the Midnight Riders are coming.

The tour kicks off at home at Lion’s Lair on June 26th with Poet’s Row and Tree Machines.

7/2 – Boise, ID ~ The Crux
7/3 – Portland, OR ~ The Velo Cult Bike Shop & Tavern
7/4 – Tacoma, WA ~ Independence Day BBQ show w/ Sporty Lee
7/5 – Seattle, WA ~ The Blue Moon w/ Sporty Lee and Medicine Bows
7/6 – Portland, OR ~ The White Eagle
7/7 – Chico, CA ~ 1078 Gallery w/ Jeb Draper
7/8 – Sacramento, CA ~ The Torch Club
7/9 – Sacramento, CA ~ The Shady Lady
7/10 – San Francisco, CA ~ Optical Underground
7/11 – Los Angeles, CA ~ Genghis Cohen
7/12 – San Diego, CA ~ The Tin Roof
7/13 – Phoenix, AZ ~ The Trunk Space
7/15 – Tempe, AZ ~ Yucca Tap Room
7/16 – Tucson, AZ – The Fly Catcher
7/17 – Santa Fe, NM – GHOST (diy space) w/ Cole Bee Wilson
7/18 – Grand Junction, CO – The Local w/ Mount Orchid
7/19 – Montrose, CO – Town Hall Tavern
7/24 – Denver, CO – Denver Post Underground Music Showcase
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Helicopter Copter: Denver Collaboration Uplifts, Refreshes, Challenges

Musicians and music writers alike do get tired of the same. old. thing. Our fingers, usually so merrily picking and typing, grind to a halt. Our songs stop coming. Words don’t flow. Finding new ways to interact with art is, I’d say, essential to creating art.

On a day when my inbox was flooded with coverage requests from bands flitting through Denver on their way to bigger and better, something homegrown caught my eye: an art project I would come to realize is remarkable.

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I became acquainted with Michael John McKee when writing a previous review of Glowing House, a band among several for which he is drummer. Michael is now the mind and heart behind “Helicopter Copter”  – a mixed media art project incorporating “adventurous processes, materials, and collaborations.”

McKee, under his aircraft-ish art moniker, started an experimental song-to-video collaboration among four Denver artists called “Whisper Down the Lane.” The players are McKee (drums), Ian Argys (guitar), Neil McCormick (bass) and Merne Judson III (videos). Here’s what happened, in his words:

Each of three musicians recorded two primary tracks (thematic musical ideas) and passed one to each other musician. Having received two primary tracks, each musician recorded secondary tracks onto the primary tracks. Secondary tracks were passed again, and tertiary tracks were recorded. All recorded layers were then passed to a videographer for visual content, recorded in Colorado. One video was released each week, between March 26 and April 30, 2015.

Helicopter Copter describes itself as a “sound experience,” exploring the ways in which music and sound is created and perceived. Challenging musical paradigms. Asking where music lives and dies, how it consumes and is consumed. The evolution of the songs and attached videos unfolds right here.

I love to imagine the second musician listening to what the first had recorded. The sparks igniting in his musical heart as he considers what comes next. There is a certain solitude that comes through loudly for me when I watch the videos. The way the images roll along, the absence of voice … there’s a melancholy thread to each film. I like to believe it just happens to feel that way as a glorious, unrehearsed consequence of the method used to create the songs.

There are standouts in each film: Ian Argys’ innovative, clutterless riffs in #1, Neil McCormick’s driving bass line in #2,  Michael McKee’s jazz session drums in #3, Judson’s shimmering nightscape in #4 … aaahhh. Throughout, there is plenty of Colorado snow that, to me, stands in for the vocal – a mute witness to each scene. I think the best way to take them in is all at once, headphones in, lights down, somewhere that you won’t be disturbed.

What do you take from the series? What might you and the band do different the next time the muse taps your shoulder? Perhaps Helicopter Copter can illuminate the possibilities. A beacon, if you like, that points to unknown musical shores.

Read another good review of the project on Westword.

The Still Tide: Stirring new e.p. just released, tour underway

Man oh man, Denver is blessed with a glut of great bands, many of which consist of artists who came here from somewhere else. (The native Coloradan is an endangered species.) Such is true of The Still Tide – a local trio by way of the Big Apple. You’ll know Anna Morsett, singer and songwriter, from Ark Life, Kaki King, and These United States; Jacob Miller, lead guitar, via Anthony Ruptak and The Kissing Club; and Aaron Latos, drums and keyboards, for James Fearnley, These United States, and Karl Berger. Guest member Natalie Tate also appears on recordings and at various Colorado gigs.

image by Ty Hyten / www.tyhyten.com

image by Ty Hyten / http://www.tyhyten.com

The gang of three previously toured and recorded as Yet Cut Breath, and The Still Tide was a solo outlet for Morsett in the wake of helping to create Ark Life and while nurturing other projects, too. Fate saw that the three should reunite over the past year and craft the sound that led to the March release of the “Half Empty Rooms” 4-song e.p. and subsequent tour.

I am emotionally caught up in this recording. “Field of Bells” is a tightly-wound, melancholy tune that dips into deliciously minor keys. I might be hearing a glockenspiel or chimes, and I really love Anna’s vocal delivery. It’s given softly, not forcefully, which causes me to pay closer attention to the lyrics. Some singers play tricks, having written something completely lighthearted that sounds utterly sad. But this is no trick.

In “Empire,” the initial guitar swell makes me think of Bedhead, which is always a good thing. The melody flows like a lazy river, nodding to jazz chords while ascending into a blur of fuzz about three minutes in and then reducing itself again to a quiet beat. The feeling of this song is like waking up to a sweet-smelling rain.

image by Ty Hyten

image by Ty Hyten

The rest, you can discover on your own. Sadly, you’ve missed the e.p. launch, and you’ll have to be in Europe to catch a live show from now until June (unless you’re in Brooklyn on Friday night – The Living Room, 9 pm). But The Still Tide’s dreamy tunes will be echoing again in Denver soon enough. Patience, friends.

new music now: run spirit horse

When L.A. songwriter Aaron Ferenc rather nonchalantly stated a couple of weeks ago that he had just posted music as Run Spirit Horse, I was absolutely brimming with curiosity. The last I’d heard was his lyrically rich acoustic music, a long time ago. I made haste.

Result? The best decision I made this month. I’ve been listening for weeks – we’re talking heavy rotation – and I could not be more deeply touched by what he’s made.

Run Spirit Horse is both a musical moniker and label name. Aaron is interested in artistic community, and his website features not just his music but a hope to seek a deeper connection with musicians of like interests. “What I intended to create with Run Spirit Horse is a place to showcase recordings that I have had a major hand in creating,” he says. “I don’t think I would feel right representing an artist if I had not actually recorded them myself. I would want to be a collaborator …  to feel that a given artist was saying something musically that I wanted to help them represent in the world.”  

The War e.p.

The War e.p.

The Run Spirit Horse e.p. is called The War. You can stream it and better yet buy it with an exclusive extra track here.

I’m not sure I ought to describe it in detail, but it will connect with EDM fans who are lyric listeners. It’s electronic, linear, deeply melodic, striking, poignant, soaring, atmospheric, melancholy. If you can imagine a silent rave cohosted by U2’s largely unknown Passengers album and The Flaming Lips (hungover), you might get a sense of the slow trip ahead of you.

Aaron’s take? “Non-corporate confessional drag queen rock? I love wine? Wine and songs. Yes, that’s it. Wine and sounds.”

Oh how I love that.

we have all fallen back into the sea / we have all felt dreams we cannot believe / movement is true

I read lyrics. I listen to how they’re delivered. They’re as important to me as the music. When I can connect the two, my experience as a listener is complete. I’m the guy who reads every word in the liner notes. Aaron was nice enough to post the words of The War online. Treat yourself by listening and reading. Cancel your appointments.

As I’m famously tech-challenged, I was fascinated by the process of how Aaron created The War, and you bet I quizzed him on it. I’m including his comments here at length; I believe it will encourage others who seek a way to “let out” the music in their heads.

“About two years ago, I thought, ‘I want to make my own album.’ Then I finally got Ableton Live. Of course, there is quite a learning curve with software like that, so with every song I learned something more about how to organize and create within that framework. Then, about a year ago, I said to myself, ‘I am making an album,’ which meant that every time I began working on music, I wondered, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Over the years I’ve learned that you have to remind yourself that you are doing something specific, or you will just endlessly create and nothing will materialize into a form that you want to show anyone. 

Then I got very frustrated. And in my frustration I decided to take off a month off work, do my taxes, live on what I had, and finish making this ‘thing’ I was calling an album. I had two very real song ideas at that point, and then I found something of a flow, and these other songs just came out that seemed to go along with the first two. There are four or five other ideas that I didn’t have time to complete, and I decided to pick the best of the batch and call it an album. It was just me alone doing all of this, and I am notoriously indecisive so this was quite a feat for me. I recorded all the songs into Ableton Live 8 using a Duet for an audio input. I used whatever I liked from the instruments that amazing program provides. I love tweaking sounds and creating atmospheric sounding stuff, so that part was always really fun. I also used a Yamaha SO3 on a few tracks because I really like the more analog sound it has. And I played a live bass on a few of the tracks because I mainly wrote those songs by creating a bass line first.

I almost never write lyrics first. I start messing with sounds and ideas for beats and so forth, and then somewhere out of the blue these words just come to me  (when they do), and I literally couldn’t force them to if I tried. I have always said, ‘I want to make music so that I can SING,’ and maybe that’s just why it works that way. I hope it never stops because it’s one of my favorite things to do in this world. When you begin to write a song and you find a melody or even a snippet of a melody, your subconscious mind automatically attaches certain feelings to that sound, which you are not completely aware of. I think that people find this experience to be something akin to a pregnancy because they were having these feelings for a while before they could take any real form, and then all of the sudden there’s this song coming out. I find making music to be very therapeutic in this sense.  That’s why I keep doing it!” 

It’s rare than I’m blessed with such an eloquent response to questions about creative content. I hope my readers are enlightened. I don’t always press like that, but The War is too beautiful not to hear the voice of the artist. And speaking of voices, here’s Aaron on who might connect with the music of Run Spirit Horse.

“I have a sense that anyone who has struggled with feeling they have a voice (or want to have a voice in a way that they don’t) might feel this music. Also anyone who wants to get a good night’s sleep? And anyone who makes music and is maybe intimidated to show anyone what they make. I hope they might feel like this inspires them a little.”

So, bedroom songwriters, ya been served. I’m such a fan of this music. Please take time out of your day or night, grab a glass of wine, and listen.

p.s. Aaron’s got Boards of Canada, Telephon Tel Aviv, Hot Chip, Gold Panda and lots of jazz in his headphones.

Plume Varia: Prize/Enable (review)

Good golly, I love the noise emanating from metro Denver these days. I tell you now: I have not been disappointed lately in the rich tunes this town is writing. And just when I think I’ve turned over most of the rocks, a husband-wife duo comes along and hypnotizes my face. As someone who also makes “spouse music,” it is particularly exciting for me to give the Stubborn Sounds thumbs up to Plume Varia.

Denver's Plume Varia

Denver’s Plume Varia

Unlike some of my other reviews, I deliberately did not contact Plume Varia to discuss anything or ask questions about their background or music. Something held me back, as if the more I knew about the band, the less objectively I’d be able to reckon with their sound.

This is what I know. Shon and Cherie Cobbs are Plume Varia. Denver-based. They self describe as a “dreampop/ambient/trip-hop duo.” Their single is a three-song e.p. called “Prize/Enable.”

I have to recommend lights out, no distractions, when encountering this music for the first time. Seriously, lie down, shut those peepers, and turn off that gosh darned phone. While only three songs, they sequence so well and probably make the most sense as a trio. If you don’t have any context for ambient, dreampop, or triphop, put those big scary descriptions aside in favor of a musical comparison. Shades of Portishead, smidges of Mazzy Star, snippets of Craig Armstrong. Sorta.

Cherie’s voice sounds the way a menthol cigarette lit up outside at zero degrees tastes: delicious. She takes melodies down paths that you don’t hear coming. There’s such a thing as singing it straight – sans mystery – but her voice is too complex for that. Whether it’s a dizzying background aaahhhh or a long lead note, there’s a depth there that your everyday pop singer lacks.

The Herb to these vocal Peaches is Shon’s skill as a percussionist and effects man, all generated by laptop and assorted gizmos. While Cherie is laying down lyrics and making a piano gently weep, he’s ensuring that the music bed is a very interesting place. Ambient is absolutely the right word. The beat is sparing, leaving room for synth, Moogishness, guitar and other splashes.

Lyrical content: not even gonna go there. They may write about being human and in love or they might not. What I take from their lyrics is a sense of urgency.

There’s no doubt about their individual talents, but the core strength of this duo is that hard-to-describe magic that flickers into flame when partners in life also share music. That’s not to say that one wouldn’t enjoy Cherie singing cabaret and Shon in the DJ booth. But what they pour into these songs together as Plume Varia is a drink that can’t be sipped alone.