Every note on Brighton based musician, James Li’s work feels considered. And you can, quite literally, hear the time, thought, patience and love that goes into his work. Used to the Signs is no different. Vocally, like The Decameron that came before it, the songwriter recalls Sufjan Stevens, and like the Detroit native, there is a childlike quality to Li’s instrumentation too. But it is the second half of the song where Li truly shows his deft hand – as it opens up into a beautifully spacious Talk Talk-alike suite in its own right that recalls his earlier work as Ministry of Interior Spaces.
These are Liance’s Sound & Vision picks:
Three Favourite Albums:
Florist – The Birds Outside Sang
Disarming in its seeming simplicity, The Birds Outside Sang points to the magic and ordinary beauty of an often frightening world. There’s a vulnerability and warm quality to Emily Sprague’s songwriting that brings out memory and hope for healing. There’re imperfect takes, tape hiss, and artefacts throughout, yet these pop songs are categorically perfect. I believe that music has the power to heal and often use this very record as proof of that. If it wasn’t for this album, I think I would have wrapped up Liance a long time ago, as Florist reminded me that quiet simple music can be radical and resonant as well.
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
After classes in my sophomore year of college, I’d race back to my dorm room to put on this record, lay on my back with my eyes closed, and drink every moment in. When it was over, I’d start the album all over again – doing nothing else but letting myself feel it completely. TWFM has this concentrated melancholic blissfulness to it that can colour your waking life; a feeling I try to replicate on my second album.
During sophomore year – the height of my personal National fervour – they played my college. I spent the day helping with load-in, unloading the merch truck, and watching their soundcheck alone in an empty arena. Then, after their concert at 1am, my friends and I, exhausted from load-out, ate the decadent remains of their massive rider with our hands. It’s still one of my favourite memories.
Haley Heynderickx – I Need to Start a Garden
There are some artists who make me wish I could sing with a different voice, and there are others who make me wish I could just play guitar that well. Haley Heynderickx does both. Her voice is tough, colourful, yet unconstrained – it could cut through anything. Her incredible fingerpicking and tender arrangements make a world for her introspective Emily Dickinson-esque lyrics. This album actually encouraged me to fingerpick in different open tunings, and also reconsider what I really want in a vocal take. I met Heynderickx briefly after a set in Brighton where she shared that her parents, like mine, had their first date in Hong Kong.
A Favourite Book: Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
I was assigned Robinson’s essays in college, but had never considered reading her novels until Michelle Zauner shared that this was her favourite book. Robinson’s prose is utterly unique and even a little strange. You’re often unsure what’s real or dream – even when the words and events are plainly stated.
Housekeeping feels supernatural, yet nothing truly supernatural happens in it. It feels like a lot of drama occurs, yet on the face of it hardly anything does. There’s a sense of complete prairie isolation or even fantasy, yet the sisters live in a real town and attend a school. Then there’s the ending – an ending that rewrites the story entirely. It’s one that begs for rereading and a new understanding.
Housekeeping has an ethereal quality to it, a sort of specific timelessness – wholly mysterious with its borders uncertain. Like the music of Mount Eerie or driving through thick fog late at night. I was reading this book while writing The Decameron and incorporated some of these special feelings and ideas into it. The name ‘Edith,’ for example, comes from a brief tale about a homeless woman who dies in a boxcar. The novel also inspired another song on the upcoming album. That song is called Inheritors of Light and is about Holland, a college town in West Michigan, being swallowed up by Lake Michigan.
One of my favourite films: Armando Iannucci – Death of Stalin
Death of Stalin is one of the funniest films I’ve ever watched. There’s something inherently hilarious about Georgy Zhukov dominating a room in a Yorkshire accent. Or the bitter absurdity of trying to survive in a completely nonsensical and total system. While mostly fiction and a black comedy, there is universal truth to this ridiculous tale; a warning of what could happen when power is vested in the egos of a few men.
An important song: Songs: Ohia – Farewell Transmission
There’s something immediately powerful and mythical about Farewell Transmission from the Magnolia Electric Co. LP. Its lyrics read like a storybook, yet there’s this impassioned biting undercurrent that runs through its seven minutes, and something even deeper coursing underneath that. The musicianship on this track is stellar – recorded live in one take at Electrical Audio, you can hear Molina shout ‘listen’ to his bandmates to signify when to end. I honestly still don’t know what Farewell Transmission really means – whether it’s about alcoholism or actually a fable about an energy apocalypse – but this is one of those rare transcendent rock songs that I’d happily spend the rest of my life trying to figure out.
To read more from Liane, check out his Five Right Now piece here.
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