New Music | Friday Roll Out: Kenneth Whalum, Welcome Center, No Surrender, Runnner, Wild Squash, A Place To Bury Strangers

It’s strange how life takes us all on a journey of sorts, everyday life swirling in different vibes leaving us all changed in some way or another, but hopefully for the better. New York’s Hip-Hop outfit No Surrender has maneuvered and changed throughout the years, and while it may shift, the base always remains the same. What’s dropped today is “Majestic Con,” which features fellow NY underground emcee Creature and the iron clad Mike Ladd and the song title alone is a nod to the collective led by Ladd. On the new track, the vibes aren’t stressed, to the contrary, they’re tranquil and careen leisurely within its soundscape. Here, it’s as if the emcees have always remained next to one another throughout the years, as they volley lyrics from one emcee to another emcee with ease. Listeners wouldn’t think time and distance have kept them all apart. The music has a mellow beauty and emceeing is hot, what else could we need? 

Straight out of Nashville we find the one-man-band Wild Squash, who has just released the noisily infectious single “Sheryl Crow.” This one is a bit unexpected and with only a handful of singles since 2019, Wild Squash sounds lies in its strength to lay out Buffalo Tom-like guitar play, setting amplifiers to 11, allowing the cooing background harmonies to take a front seat. It’s interesting and left wondering what Wild Squash’s next move will be.

There are some groups & projects that never disappoint from one release to the next, but can that be said of Los Angeles’ own Runnner? Quite possibly. Now, Runnner isn’t a band but the brainchild of songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Noah Weinman who over the last several years has honed his skills through trial and error. While his last EP, 2020’s One Of One gave a clearer view of where Runnner was heading, it probably doesn’t prepare us all for Always Repeating (Run For Cover). The album is rife with beauty, the fingerpicking of “Monochrome,” along with the doubled vocals, gives a haunting yet childlike innocence to the song that sets the tone to the rest of the album. I’m not sure if it’s a mandolin or a banjo that’s thrown within the mix, but it’s there often, although coupled with the horns and harmonies on “Urgent Care,” this is perfection. But it’s “Heliotrope” that gets my attention, with a mélange of instrumentation and odd notes here that’s quite captivating. This leads right into the sparse “New Sublet,” with strummed acoustic, horns floating around, and brushes on drums. I have seen the coming of the next great artist and it’s possibly Runnner! With just its second long-player, Always Repeating is certain to grab everyone’s attention.

If something is worth doing, it should be done unapologetically and with both feet firmly in. There’s no room for hesitation since all it does is cast doubt on your ability to get whatever you want to accomplish, done. Welcome Center, the duo of Jesse Smith & Aaron Sternick has been working together with Welcome Center in one form or another, since 2017 and has steadily built a small but sturdy catalog of music that’s, well, honest, direct, and pop-centered to its gooey center. Now, these distanced musicians – out of Dallas and Philadelphia – this week sees the self-release of Talk Talk Talk, a 3-song EP to add to their collection, and possibly yours.

With just three songs, the music on Talk Talk Talk is completely captivating and can’t be denied. With lilting vocals and upbeat percussion that opens “Parasite City,” Welcome Center’s movements are obvious but nonetheless cheery with the utmost buoyancy. Keyboards & pianos are conjoined at the hip as guitars & drums join in the fun. It opens the floodgates for “Burn,” which draws listeners in with an airy keyboard atmosphere right before acoustic guitars chime in. As the melody shifts, so does its brilliance with otherworldly notes playfully setting the pace for lazy and wispy vocals. There aren’t a limited number of times we’re able to use “brilliant” which is the only way to describe this. “Loser” closes things out and offers nostalgia through the delicately played guitars, fitted with electronic percussion as well as steady and organic drums. The guitar gives way to the bassline that travels alongside melodic vocals & harmonies, drifting along coastal roads. Have I already used “brilliant?”

It’s insane how with Talk Talk Talk, the band is able to fully convey a sound Welcome Center can be identified with. Be that as it may, Welcome Center isn’t a fly-by-night flash in the pan. Nope, the band is set to do great things. Don’t believe me? We can argue and fight but in the end, that’s the band’s future.

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There are those moments when all you have to do is listen. Whether it’s just leaves rustling in the wind, the sound of kids playing, or the nothingness that is the cascade of silence. All you have to do is listen. At other times, you have to be open to things you wouldn’t necessarily find within your comfort zone. This is what I ask of some often and while I’m usually left with shrugged shoulders and discerning looks, I’ll continually ask of those what I do myself. And this is where I find myself now.

Back in 2017, Kenneth Whalum released an independent album, Broken Land, an astounding recording I only discovered a couple of years after its release, only in passing. While Whalum grew up with the church in his life, his music far outreached the expanse of his Memphis community, searching for vast and higher ground. Fast forward a few years and the singer, songwriter, and saxophonist just released his follow-up album Broken Land 2. While the first release touched on the soulful side of R&B, well, the past few years have seen a remarkable growth within Whalum’s voice and his music.

Broken Land 2 opens with “Prayer,” an obvious nod to his upbringing, with piano, guitar & drums playing the backdrop to the pastor offering preaching right before Whalum breaks in with a sweet falsetto and words that are reminiscent of the late Marvin Gaye. When he sings “Father, father, father/protect me today/mother, mother, mother, there’s got to be a better way,” his words are haunting as he challenges listeners with his vocal range. But we also feel the pain and sorrow in Whalum’s voice accented by the music bed he sings over. The melodies are hit perfectly, and he captures it beautifully. I have no doubt that listeners will refer back to the song over and over again. That’s not to say Whalum is a one-trick pony because the album is full of moments that erupt with soulful energy.

Whalum’s songwriting and vocal interplay take a predominant role throughout Broken Land 2, and “Party,” the first and only single released on the album, is a clear-cut example of that. Here he challenges listeners a number of ways. His falsetto range is uncanny and while he can stand toe to toe alongside artists like D’Angelo, Maxwell, and the like, Whalum maneuvers fluidly across genres. There’s no doubt he wades happily in soulful R&B waters but his appeal surpasses genres. The impeccable songwriting within the song, laying harmonies, intermingling guitar and piano notes throughout over a steady percussive beat fascinates as much as it intrigues. The melancholic nature doesn’t go unnoticed considering it’s what drives the song from beginning to end. Throughout the album, there are other factors to take note of, much like the bassline of “Burn” which embeds itself into psyches without listeners even noticing. Couple that with the horns that surround the atmosphere here and what we get is perfection.

One thing is for certain here though, Kenneth Whalum doesn’t follow a direct R&B blueprint, creating his own path along crusty dirt roads. Where there are more ways to get that point across, when Whalum decides to move with directness, he’ll offer up nostalgic efforts like on “Bombs.” The swaying instrumentation and his vocal delivery can align him alongside some of the great masters like Hayes and Mayfield. Cascading keyboards slide across a silky & thick bassline as his voice drifts in and out instruments. But it’s on the closing “Constellation” where we get a glimpse of what Whalum is capable of; that same falsetto slowly caresses, as guitar notes weep over it and drums slowly set the pace. I’ll save any further comparisons but just leave you with this: with Broken Land 2, Whalum looks to assert himself amongst the masters of soul and R&B, surpassing many of his own contemporaries. That’s just a fact.

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If life has you down, don’t worry, there are others just as miserable as you’re feeling right now. The good news though is you never have to remain firmly seated in negative emotions. Well, you can but why would you want that? It only leads into a dark downward spiral. As much as you feel you may deserve that, don’t. Trust the voice of reason in me. Instead, grab life by the horns, or in this case Hologram (DedStrange), the new EP by New York’s A Place To Bury Strangers. For the past 14 years, the band has been releasing material that takes listeners on a journey of noise & sound, eschewing popular music, opting for something that’s equitable to wrapping songs within musical razorblades. On the 5-song release that is Hologram, it seems this is what the band has been able to accomplish. And then some.

The band’s one constant member Oliver Ackermann has solidified his new lineup with Ceremony East Coast’s bassist John Fedowitz and drummer Sandra Fedowitz. The trio creates a racket here that seems to outmatch anything that’s come out of New York in the past decade. Yes, you read that correctly and I’ll stand by it. The trio opens with “End of the Night,” a gritty reverbed number with echoed vocals and brothers Reid-like guitar fuckery that hasn’t been heard in some time. Even the brothers Reid couldn’t match this shit. There are lulls throughout it that allow the swampy guttural feel of the song as dynamics shift to be utterly enjoyed. By “I Might Have,” only the second track, you’re hooked, line and sinker. Feedback, walls of guitar, and an addictive melody that repeats itself throughout is just catchy AF! Sandra’s snare almost bursts through speakers while over-the-top guitars explode. At this point listeners, both young and old might need a breather…but fuck it, drink some water, and continue. “Playing the Part” allows you to get that breather though as APTBS temporarily holds of on utilizing all its distortion for something more instinctual & direct, allowing the song’s infectious melody and structure to take a predominant role. “In My Hive” splits the difference and offers up a little of both but let’s be clear, APTBS defies classification although utilizing a wide array of psychedelia and conceptualized wall of guitars to get its point across. That’s what they do here, never content to stay in one place, mobilizing instruments constantly, laying waste to everything in its path. This is glorious!

A Place To Bury Strangers has always remained an enigma of sorts but whenever the band surfaces, I’d wager there’s something interesting that will always follow. With Hologram, no, we’re not getting a false visual of the band, this is the real thing. Everyone should thank APTBS for created a glorious mess.

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