Blue Collar Botany

March 2021

Howdy y’all

In this months’ issue I’m talking about a new tape released by Tasting Menu, the vlog series Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t, a citrus tree in my backyard, and the music of Ichiko Aoba, Pauline Anna Strom, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, and Giant Claw.

Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t is a wellspring of botanical and railway expertise, searing misanthropy, and cynical wit all delivered by amateur botanist Joey Santore with an impressively thick Chicago accent. Santore works as a locomotive engineer for freight trains and takes outings all across the American mid/west discussing and identifying plant and wildlife.

The first time I listened to Ichiko Aoba’s music I remembered feeling incredibly mesmerized by such rich, colorful, and hypnagogic songwriting. I listened through her 2020 release Windswept Adan while cooking dinner on an evening after work. Between the acts of cooking and listening to this music I was in a complete flow state zoning into the dark and rich orchestration, soft and bright vocals, and florid arrangements pulling inspiration from folk, jazz, and experimental classical music.

Last month I began to pay more attention to a citrus tree in our backyard that looked pretty frumpy and neglected. I began to clear out the ground surrounding the tree, pruned some branches, and laid down a fragrant bed of cocoa shell mulch over a bit of bone meal fertilizer (that sentence felt so erotic to write. ~what a rush!) From observing the tree and talking with a housemate we’re guessing the tree may be a Rough Lemon/Schaub/ or Citrus jambhiri but I’m wondering if it could be a Mexican Citron? Could you help me with this citrus ID?

Japanese drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto leads you through a dim, surreal, and lonely cityscape weaving otherworldly vignettes of sound and imagery on his 2020 release Ashiato. Yamamoto expands upon his usual acoustic percussion voice with kaleidoscopic textures of field recordings, keyboards, and electronics, folding in the offerings of Eiko Ishibashi on introverted and beautiful piano, flute, and electronics along with the minimal but essential pepperings of bass from Toshiaki Sudoh.

I imagine reactions to Giant Claw’s music are deeply polarized. The Columbus, OH based artist (Keith Rankin, also a gifted visual artist and co-founder of the colorful and boundary pushing label Orange Milk Records) has fully transformed since his early releases in 2011 going from decent but tepid analogue synth treats to total anarchic sound collaging made from an explosion of playfully but meticulously edited sound bits. In 2017 Rankin released Soft Channel, a liquid architecture of absurd sonic kaleidoscopes, unhinged rhythmic fuckery, and intimate colorful swaths of harmony stitched together into beguiling melodies and patterns.

Synthesist and composer Pauline Anna Strom died just two months before the release of her long anticipated album Angel Tears in Sunlight. The album arrives after 30 years since her last release and documents decades of sonic meditations, experiments, and soundscapes that compile a 9-track storybook of synthesized bliss. Subtle clicky-clacky drum machines chug along under playful and aloof ostinatos of keyboards all ornamented with whimsical and abstract bell chimes, chirps, and whirrs. These mischievous electro jams sit beside spacious and ethereal ambient numbers, patient and introspective produced by swaths of synthesizer chorus and drone.

Aoba’s songs stand on their own as much as they fit into larger dramatic narratives and ideas explored on each release. Windswept Adan is a concept album surrounding a girl who escapes an isolated island tribe to a better life on a nearby island, Adan. Her 2018 release qp sounds exactly like the conditions in which it was recorded– in near total darkness. These concepts highlight the intimacy, quietude, and introversion so evident in Aoba’s music. Her ability to balance grace, brutality, and intimacy shines through her soft-spoken lyrical delivery, virtuosic guitar performance, and adventurous arrangements that are as ethereal as a doily and grimy as Los Angeles streets in the rain. The prolific musician works tightly within a community of likeminded sonic explorers in Japan’s underground including Eiko Ishibashi, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, and Jun Miyake. Aoba’s workings with likeminded improvisers and interpreters reminds me of developing music in the Erika Bell Band where we dive into improvised depths to excavate ornaments and noise floors to support and embellish pensive, hypnagogic, and bewitching songs led by guitar and voice.

Tasting Menu’s first recording was in a garage studio on a Spring 2019 day featuring a rare Los Angeles thunderstorm. We sat on these recordings for nearly two years and this Friday (April 2nd) they will be released on Slovakian tape label, MAPPA. Stand closer when you have something to say kind of set the tone of how we would play moving forward- we gather a bunch of objects, tapes, and maybe instruments and explore wherever we performed. I feel nostalgic for pre-covid times listening to these recordings and immensely thankful for this group and our continued work through quarantine (we are recording a music video for Music for your Inbox tomorrow!) My friend and musical comrade Leah Levinson wrote some beautiful words for this release which you’ll find in the liner notes. Art and a gorgeous limited edition risograph was designed by Sofia Serebriakova

Rankin’s use of silence is particularly impactful amidst the barrage of samples, in fact there is a notable amount of silence peppered throughout the album heightening the drama, emotional impact, and off-kilter cadence of the music. Unlike many electronic albums, silence feels like a versatile instrument rather than a singular troupe used for bass drops and hype. The silences linger on just longer than you might expect, allowing the samples express themselves as full musical notes and gestures.

Today I bought a membership to WWOOF (Worldwide opportunities on organic farms) in hopes of working on a farm for a stint in the nearby future. I’m not sure where this is headed but this interest falls right in line next to my wine sleuthing, food obsession, and newfound nerdom in gardening. It’s only natural that the YouTube algorithm steered me towards Crime Pays But Botany doesn’t when my media consumption is made up of absurdist comedy, wine vlogs, gardening videos, and cooking shows. Unsurprisingly, Santore seems like a solitary figure. He’s deeply independent, prickly, unfiltered, curious, and cynical. The title of his series is very fitting for a gruff Chicagoan hauling freight across the country taking day trips to identify and educate the internet about the surprising and diverse natural world that surrounds us.

Ashiato is less of an album as it is a complete work featuring two longform tracks equalling a kind of musical storytelling or radio drama. It is a partner and follow up album to Ashioto (released only a month prior), a slightly more groove and melody focused work of two long tracks made with similar means. In Ashiato the dense landscapes of sound unravel slowly, adding new instrumental structural elements to enhance the recordings of urban hustle, piano lessons, laundromats, machineworks, and more. Ashioto leads us deep into Yamamoto’s sonic terrain, leaving us there alone and introspective amongst these obtuse textures and intriguing forms. For a sophomore solo release it’s a beautifully dense experience and one I’ll keep returning to explore.

Strom quietly and dedicatedly produced a brand of ambient electronic music made at home in San Francisco while championing better accessibility for synthesizers as a blind person. Her music is filled with vast imaginative prowess, having committed a trans-dimensional mythology and philosophy to her music in the likes of Drexciya or Jon Hassell. These synthesized atmospheric mazes envelop you and cradle you spurring intense daydreaming and wonder. These hallucinatory melodies and moods will be echoing out for a long time to come.


Moving forward I may rename and relocate this newsletter. Substack has been easy but uninspiring and I’d like to move away from the platform in solidarity with my transgender friends considering Substack’s ongoing blunder funding transphobic writers.

Lately many creative endeavors have felt very overwhelming. Being creative is so much fun and exhilarating but the moment any ounce of pressure to make something good, or make something impressive, or successful, or admired by your friends walks into the equation I feel totally deflated and unable to create for myself. Quarantine has exacerbated this because there was no perceived pressure to make successful things and I finally found myself doing a lot of work that I just wanted to do for me. It’s really scary to throw down the creative baggage/work you measure yourself with and ask yourself what now? I feel like I’m somewhat at square one again. I have a bazillion interests and writing continues to be a perfectly engrossing way to express myself, explore experiences, and share with others. I do it cause it’s intoxicatingly introverted, I like getting better at it, and it’s fun.

Thank y’all for reading~~

until next time,

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