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WYSO's Spring 2020 Favorites: Evan Miller

Evan Miller

During the spring sequestration this year, we had a lot of time to listen, and reflect. WYSO asked our music hosts about the sounds they spent time with this past season, and we’re collecting their thoughts and picks for you! From new releases to old classics, here’s WYSO’s Spring 2020 Favorites, from Evan Miller of The Outside.

One positive side of the stay-at-home order of this past spring was that I was suddenly afforded – in a roundabout way – time to do one thing I always strive to do more as a music lover: listen. In the hustle of the pre-COVID everyday life, a lot of my listening time was relegated to drive times or whenever I could catch a spare minute, but with social time and nightlife altered significantly, the valuable minutes and hours sat down in front of the stereo to just let go and listen were now stretched out in front of me. I got to dig in and expand my collection with some fantastic new releases and discover old classics I had yet to hear over the course of this spring, here are the ones I loved the most:

Horse Lords - The Common Task (2020)

This album was technically released a day before the official start of spring, but because it’s consumed much of my springtime listening, I’ll give it a well-deserved pass. Horse Lords are a fiery quartet out of Baltimore, MD, comprising drums, saxophone & percussion, guitar, and bass & electronics. Throwing all of this together, along with the expanded harmonic possibilities of just intonation (an alternative instrument tuning system), creates an amazing rhythmical racket. The band has been building on their explorations of polyrhythms, krautrock-style deep jams, and political undercurrent since 2010, and 10 years of work has coalesced into their finest album yet. With everything from a string quartet, computer synth and bagpipe drones, saxophone lung workouts, and rhythmic inspirations from around the world, there’s always something unexpected around the corner to shift your perception of what “rock” is capable of. This one is a heavy front-runner for my album of the year by leaps and bounds.

Big Star - #1 Record/Radio City (1972/1974)

Spring of 2020 was the time I finally dove deep into the beloved, yet maligned 70’s Memphis band Big Star. I’ll never know what took me so long to fall under their spell after floating around their orbit for some time, but I’m thrilled to be here now. Their first two albums are power-pop masterpieces. In particular, #1 Record – the only album featuring their entire original lineup – is exceptionally full of quality songcraft from one-time writing cohorts Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. How a band hit such a goldmine at first strike, and then was so spectacularly let down by the music industry immediately after, is the sadly perfect stuff of rock legend. I would highly recommend the documentary on the band, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, if you’re interested in the story of an incredible band that slowly fell apart as the industry constantly ignored them.

Joni Mitchell - Court and Spark (1973)

Another artist I’ve strangely taken the long way to getting into – it was a Facebook debate among friends over the ranking of Joni Mitchell’s first 10 albums that made me realize my Joni collection and knowledge was in need of expanding. I grabbed Court and Spark after a cursory skim through the most popular top picks in the thread, and I certainly found a winner. Mitchell’s first album to score her a Top 10 single (“Help Me”), Court and Spark represents the height of her pop-leaning artistic powers and commercial potential, before turning to her interests in jazz as the 70s came to a close. This is as brilliant of a reflection on love and Los Angeles in the 70’s as there ever was.

Charli XCX - how i’m feeling now (2020)

how i’m feeling now is UK-expat pop experimentalist Charli XCX’s quarantine album, recorded this album over the span of 6 weeks starting in early April (it’s also the only album made exclusively during quarantine times on this list). Holed up in her L.A. home studio, she opened her songwriting process up to her fans, regularly hosting Zoom calls to accept lyric ideas, share demos, and hear in-the-moment feedback from some of her most loyal followers. As I expected from another album crafted alongside her “creative director” A.G. Cook, label head of future pop imprint PC Music, it’s bangers from start to finish, chock full of the hyper-real production highlights that shine through this era of Charli. Under the shiny, club-ready sounds, the album centers on topics like isolation from friends and close-quarters with lovers during quarantine. Just maybe, it’s the most accurately-titled album released during the pandemic about the pandemic so far.

Sandy Ewen - You Win (2020)

One of my favorite improvisers working today, guitarist Sandy Ewen made her solo debut on wax this spring with her latest full-length album. I saw a video of her recently where she’s discussing her relationship with legendary improviser Keith Rowe (a noted influence and mentor), where she says that while lots of guitarists play “the history of the guitar” when they play, she (with Keith and other experimentalists) is playing the guitar for “the object that it is, and seeing what it does.” With her arsenal of EL wires, bolts, train spikes, and other objects, Ewen explores the guitar for what it’s made of: a hollow wood box with electromagnets and taut metal strings, to mesmerizing results. If you’re curious about the textural possibilities of the guitar once you put the pick down and start fresh, I highly recommend You Win.

Powers/Rolin Duo - s/t (2020)

Coming off of a string of self-released cassettes and steady touring, Columbus, OH’s Powers/Rolin Duo finally delivered their anticipated self-titled studio debut on Feeding Tube Records. Rendered beautifully by fellow Ohioan Lisa Bella Donna, the album’s shimmering folk-drone stylings wash and tumble over you. Rolin’s twelve-string guitar constantly propels forward through the clouds of Powers’ effect-heavy hammered dulcimer. The two musicians, Rolin in particular, have had a prolific musical output over the past two years, including four releases across formats this year alone (a particular highlight being a tape as a trio with percussionist Jayson Gerycz on the Garden Portal label). There’s no better time than now to start keeping an eye on this compelling duo. Bonus points awarded for being substantial lifeblood in the Columbus-area DIY scene – these two have turned Dirty Dungarees Laundromat and Bar into my favorite music venue around.

Funkadelic - Maggot Brain (1971)

This season’s final entry in the “why didn’t I listen to this sooner?” category belongs to the seminal album from Detroit psych-funk icons Funkadelic. I had heard tracks from this album before – the chorus of “Can You Get To That” and the guitar heroics of the album’s title track both familiar in my head – but I had never sat down for the full experience until this spring. Once again, the chorus of popular opinion on acclaimed albums was correct. With the album’s hazy, echoey production, the group crystallized the perfect mixture of psychedelic rock’s fire, funk music’s bounce and locomotion, and lyrics that reflect an America weary from class struggle and war. It’s hard to believe now that this album is nearly 50 years old, and still sounds just as hot to this day.

Neil Young - Homegrown (2020/1974-5)

The latest addition to the ongoing Neil Young Archives project, this long-lost album from his mid-70’s dark period has finally surfaced after more than 40 years in the vault. Shelved for being too much of a downer and instead replaced by Tonight’s the Night, which was recorded the previous year – humorous in hindsight considering the material of that album being similarly dark – Young’s collection of heartbreak songs written in the wake of his disintegrating romance with actress Carrie Snodgress is a more-than-welcome latecomer to his catalog. Some songs from this album popped up in their original or re-recorded forms on various albums since its initial sessions, but having them all together builds a more complete portrait of an artist in a well-documented turbulent time. There’s some truth in the thinking that artists make their best work in difficult times, and with my condolences to Young, I firmly believe that’s the case here, as Homegrown securely situates itself as an excellent addendum to its “Ditch Trilogy” peers in On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night.

Listen to Evan every Sunday night from 11 PM-1 AM on The Outside.

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Evan Miller is a percussionist, lover of sound, and is probably buying too many cassette tapes online right now. Evan got his start in radio in 2012 at WWSU at Wright State University, where he was studying percussion performance. He followed through with both endeavors and eventually landed a lucrative dual career playing experimental music at home and abroad and volunteering at WYSO. Maintaining a connection to normal music, Evan also plays drums in bands, and fills in for Niki Dakota on Excursions. When not doing something music-related, Evan is most likely listening to podcasts or watching food videos at home with his cat.