The sampler: Maxine Funke, Kenny Beats, Bill Callahan
Tony Stamp reviews a compilation of lo-fi tunes by Dunedin songwriter Maxine Funke, Kenny Beats’ debut LP, and is joined by Elliott Childs to discuss the latest from Bill Callahan.
Driftwood Pieces by Maxine Funke
A compilation was released earlier this month, bringing together rarities and unreleased tracks from a Dunedin-based artist, who is the rarest thing: someone who is largely offline and apparently allergic to alcohol. self-promotion. She has released four albums since 2008, released on US and Australian labels, and although she comes from a lo-fi experimental background, she mainly writes intimate acoustic ballads. Despite her pedigree and the length of her career, she is still largely unknown, but for those familiar with her work, Maxine Funke is one of our finest songwriters.
Besides the quality of songs like “Make That Dream” – the odd trill or blue note in his voice during otherwise simple melodies – they are also tonally pleasing, incorporating the sound of his fingers on the strings, wood of the guitar, a layer of the sound of the room and the hiss of the band, and its calm.
“Make That Dream” is from 2018, while “South Dunedin” is one of many unreleased tracks on this album, the performance is so serious that a line like “I lived here when I was a girl” is painfully moving.
Alongside the more traditional songs are pieces built around drum machine or synth experiments, as well as field recordings. “Forest Photographer” features birdsong over fluctuating acoustic synth sounds, and it’s as personal as anything involving vocals.
At the other end of the spectrum is something like ‘First in Spring’, whose mud only enhances its vintage feel. It’s about prioritizing your sense of self, I think, taking refuge in a book and shielding your eyes from what Funke calls “the beauty and the horror.”
These songs look like tiny gifts from an attic, covered in a layer of dust that has become part of the object itself. Her work has been distributed overseas and reviewed in international publications like Pitchfork, but she seems to have no ambitions beyond creating perfectly formed audio tracks, whether they involve her guitar and vocals, or ‘they aim for something more abstract and exploratory. His career is sufficiently advanced to justify this compilation, and Pieces of driftwood – a charming and perfectly descriptive name by the way – serves as a good entry point to his by turns fragile and robust songcraft.
Louie by Kenny Beats
Over the years, the name Kenny Beats has appeared in the credits of many notable hip hop releases, from rappers like Rico Nasty, Denzel Curry and Vince Staples. His career dates back about 10 years and his journey follows a familiar modern pattern – he learned a bunch of instruments as a teenager and started making beats.
There’s always a weight of expectation when artists like this make a solo record – stepping into the limelight requires creative justification beyond featuring singers. And while Kenny Beats has drawn some favors from his famous friends, the impetus to make his debut LP Louis comes from a pure place – it’s an album for his father.
His real name is Kenneth Blume III. His father, Kenneth II, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2021, and later that year Beats realized he had a reason to make an album. He turns his dark sentiments from the era into rhythmic summer collages, with Kenneth II featured throughout.
The subtext won’t be apparent to the casual listener, but once you know, songs like ‘Eternal’, which samples Shira Small singing about Eternal Life (from 1974’s ‘Eternal Life’), then things begin to feel a bit more bittersweet.
Stylistically, Beats is clearly indebted to pioneers like J Dilla and Madlib, placing carefully chosen bars over chunky bass drum patterns. It also employs a host of guest musicians playing live instruments and providing backing vocals, thickening each track into a richer brew.
On “So They Say,” an excerpt from 1979’s “Children of Today” by Andre & Josi is sliced to a dynamic beat, ending the kind of party starter that RJD2 peddled in the early 2000s.
Blume’s father was a radio DJ, and this provides a conceptual framework for the album, running through snippets of his vocals from shows from decades past, as well as new recordings. In a heartwarming full-loop moment, father and son recently co-hosted a show on Apple Music Radio.
Louis was originally intended for Kenny Beats’ father alone, but after playing it to his friends, they encouraged him to release it. Even the name is personal – it’s a nickname given to him by his parents – and although the album features a series of well-known names like JPEGMafia, Slowthai, Mac DeMarco and Vince Staples, their appearances never sound like spots. guests – they’re just fleeting moments in a larger sprawl.
An exception is Remi Wolf, who provides a hook for another song with a loaded title – ‘Last Words’. Kenny’s dad is still with us, and tracks like this are a lovely bittersweet gift.
REALITY by Bill Callahan
TONY: In 1990, American musician Bill Callahan released his first album under the name Smog, a chaotic assemblage of lo-fi noise with little regard for structure or even songcraft. In the more than 30 years since then, he has released 13 more albums under the Smog name and then nine under his own name, which have seen him move further into more traditional territory like the Americana and the ballad, as the playing grew softer and his voice deepened into a rich baritone. The elements remained throughout, such as the acoustic guitars, and his focus on the repetitive and the hypnotic.
ELLIOTT CHILDS: This is Callahan’s second release for 2022, the first being a collaboration with Bonnie Prince Billy which was released in January.
As the title suggests, there’s a lot of reality on this album, including snapshots of his home life, as well as a heavy focus on dreams and uncertainty. Callahan makes a point of blending the two approaches in nearly every song, starting with the album’s very first track, “First Bird.”
It’s a beautiful song about waking up from a dream into another kind of dream – in this case, the dream of a happy, happy family life with one’s children. There’s the image of her son walking down the hall holding his sister’s hand, and the idea that her daughter rarely walks anywhere because everyone wants to carry her.
The music starts off hazy and slow (as if she had just woken up) and becomes noticeably more upbeat when he mentions his children. It also points to the album’s other constant subject, death, as Callahan sings that he’s waiting for the first bird to sing, but if he doesn’t hear it, it might be the last.
TONY: There’s a technique that Callahan uses on this track that underlies much of his songwriting: he’ll linger for bars on a basic chord and only occasionally dip into a second. Like ‘First Bird’, the one with which he begins on ‘Coyotes’ is particularly evocative.
This song touches on two things that you brought up Elliott: dreams and family. There’s the recurring “I’m your lover” (which is a slightly tongue-in-cheek classic Callahan), and mentions of his daughter daydreaming about her previous life as coyotes (plural).
I still appreciate how his songwriting has retained the simplicity of his early work, but now has room for things like that beautiful shimmering piano.
ELLIOTT: That piano is beautiful, and it appears throughout this album, including on my next pick, “Naked Souls.”
This one starts with a soft, almost jazzy melody, with a pleasant piano tinkle in the background, like a fancy cocktail bar somewhere. Something about Callahan’s delivery reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” – perhaps the singing interspersed with lyrics, which then turns into singing again at the end of the stanza.
It seems to deal with a person who is emotionally locked up to the point of being potentially violent – there’s the line “maybe he’ll buy another gun or become a cop or kill one”.
The title “Naked Souls” seems to refer to people who are too emotionally available.
TONY: The lyrics about guns and the police jumped out at me too, as well as the one about “the stress of eating in a restaurant” and wearing “glasses that say ‘F-U'”
The album’s most immediate song might be “Natural Information,” which is a lap major chord, topped off with a playful trumpet.
There are more lyrics about his daughter and the writing of the song he sings, and another recurring theme right there in the title: our relationship with the natural world.
ELLIOTT: I love the arrangement of this song. The upbeat horns and backing vocals give this track a kind of sunny 1970s feel.
Callahan opened up a bit more to both new instruments and lighter subjects. There’s still some darkness here, that’s for sure (“Lily,” talking about her mother’s death, being an obvious example), but overall he just seems like he’s having a great time being a dad and to make ironic observations.
TONY: Fatherhood definitely looms large and seems to have had a positive influence on him – there are as you say a few abrasive points and hints at his edgy early days – but mostly it’s Bill Callahan as a dad cool, 32 years after his career and still listening.