Gotta love the internet. You start walking somewhere, without knowing where will you arrive and how.
From this perspective, chaos theory – the one with the butterfly in China – is fully materialized on the net.
Two years ago I wandered around the net – a daily activity for all of us –looking for a musical kinder surprise eggs. I was wandering for a few hours, listening to gloomy singer-songwriters. I was looking for something different, with a cool cover, sheer quality inside, something that can keep you interested for more than 5 minutes,and if possible, that the artist will be nice enough to make you like him and want to eat him.
This is how I’ve found Micah Blue Smaldone. Micah, our friend, is a guitar player who played in the past in punk rock bands. He has an amazing finger-picking style.
We’re not talking about an instrumental brain digger, but about the male version of Josephine Foster; pre-war songs, with a unique style that takes time to get used to. He plays a dobro and a twelve-string guitar, and it all sounds like Ballroom Ragtime that throws you back in time.
This is how I came to know his amazing album, Hither & Thither. It took some time to get used to it, because his song delivery style is not something that my ear is accustomed to. I’ve approached Micah on myspace and we’ve started corresponding somehow. He sent me his albums, I’ve sent him my album and everyone was happy. Another thing I want to say about Micah is that he is a member of a band called Fire On Fire. They have released an album this year with Young God.
It’s a folk album with somewhat middle-eastern influences and with unique and witty lyrics. This band is actually a collective of Micah and a band called Big Blood (folks, write this down, you really want to look them up later), all living in the same house in Portland, Maine. Fire On Fire is a reincarnation of an older band – the post-rock/experimental brilliant Cerberus Shoal. Their unique blend of post-rock with mostly folk influences and irritating soundscapes is just brilliant, (personal recommendation – Homb, listen to this album).
Why am I telling you this long story? Because I want to tell how I came to write this post. Micah has told me that he is about to release a new album in a new label called Immune, based in Chicago. I’ve never heard of this label and decided to check it out on the weekend. A day later I was on the website of the wonderful e-store Bookmat, where I stumbled across a beautiful piece by Rafael Anton Irrisari. I was amazed, it was a wonderful underwater diving, lasting for about 5 minutes. I’ve checked which label has released this release and found out it was Immune Recordings. It was way too much for me, and I’ve realized I must check this label.
So I went along and ordered two vinyls.
The first was The Red River, nothing less than a masterpiece, the new one by Micah Blue Smaldone. The second was seven-inches, Anton Irrisari’s Hopes and Past Desires. After about 15 days, both albums had arrived from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Both on heavy weight vinyl, quality printing – real pleasure + both of them included voucher for a digital download of the record.
A few months later, I’ve learnt that my guitar hero, Steven R Smith is about to publish a record with Immune Recordings as well. Then I’ve realized that something has to be done: a few words must be written about this label, because it seems that it’s about to be one of the most interesting labels in the next few years, judging by its artistic line so far.
This is why you’re about to read a short album review about all the albums that were already released + an interview with Erik, label’s founder and manager . Mark my words : three years from now, this label will be compared with Drag City or Jagjaguwar before they became big?
So let’s start from the beginning:
1. Stay Close – Death Vessel
Immune’s first release was actually a re-issue of Death Vessel’s first album. Death Vessel is a Rhode Island band, lead by the amazing soprano voice of Joel Thibodeau, the writer and a multi-instrumental player.
In their album, Death Vessel features friends from the Espers and Micah Blue Smaldone. This is a new-folk album, corresponding with the old American folk history, quite similarly to what the Espers did, only with Death Vessel everything gets more extreme. It starts with a total ear shock: finding out that this super-feminine voice actually belongs to a man, whose monumental passion leads these songs.
The electric guitar that pops up in Blowing Cave gives this dark sensation, the sensation that brings this band closer to Woven Hand, than to folk-rock pioneers Pentangle or Fairport Convention.
The weakness of this album lies in its lack of colours. It sounds like it’s stuck in one mode only. I didn’t listen to their second album, that was released by Sub-Pop (That’s pretty impressive, being a relatively anonymous band, in a genre that’s not the most popular, and then sign to Sub-Pop), but I hope and believe that it’s more interesting. You can say that this is a band of the newera: releasing an album where every individual song’s a blast, but listening to the entire album can take you only so far.
Still, I recommend checking out his album because it’s special and fresh. Especially if you like Devendra.
Later In Life Lift
2. Micah Blue Smaldone – The Red River
As I’ve already written, it’s good news to hear about a new album by Micah Blue Smaldone, a musician that stands out among thousands of singer/songwriters that I’ve listened to.
Micah has sent me this album himself on CD, but since I simply can’t stop myself from listening to this album with a needle and dust crackings, I’ve ordered it also in vinyl. The first thing that hits you is the cover, a woman with horns. I don’t know what this cover means, as visual was never my strongest side. I’m one of these who stares in a paiting on exhibitions (someone drags me to an exhibition about once a year) and simply don’t get it. I confess, I love quick and stupid American movies, clear non-abstract pictures and I don’t understand ballet. Only in music I came out somehow deeper and I can understand abstract music. Or maybe I’m just saying that so I could talk about the new album of some anonymous krautrock band on cocktail parties.
Micah’s new album deviates from his usual path of pre-war ragtime and blues, based a little better in the singer/songwriter frame. That’s a good decision when you have such strong seven songs.
His voice is unique in the singer-songwriters scene, mostly because his singing has a strong sense of urgency, some kind of unleashed, self-aware passion.
He is much more comfortable with his singing, and it looks like in his third album Micah has arrived where he wanted: He has a perfect blues-folk album
This is not a blues album; it is an album of a young, modern musician, but for those of you who aren’t afraid of Mississippi John Hurt, awaits great pleasure. By the way, the trumpet that ends Pale Light, the one that reminds old Woody Allen movies, is worth every penny you’ll invest in this album.
3. Rafael Anton Irisarri – Hopes And Past Desires
This is where the folk-blues line stops. In an amazing 7″ of the amazing composer Rafael Anton Irrisari. This man sat in Seattle and wrote two pieces that when you come to describe them the word ‘breathtaking’ is not only an understatement but almost an insult.
Hopes and Past Desires, the song itself is a beautiful combination of strings orchestration, together with Field Recordings with a touching and melodic piano. The second piece, Watching As She Reels, is an observation: romantic, nostalgic, but not melancholic somehow, with this cello going in and out on the song’s inner tempo, and that small pathos building slowly.
Water diving into the depths of the soul, in two pieces on a limited edition, 500 copies pressed, 7”. Try get one if you can. It’s worth following his other projects, under the moniker The Sight below. A floating dream. This is how his music sounds.
Watching As She Reels
Hopes and Past Desires
4. Tape – Luminarium
As is continuing Rafael Anton’s line, Immune’s fourth release is a complete diving album by the Swedish band Tape
This is their fourth album. Tape’s music is more focused than Rafael Anton’s, played by acoustic instruments and less synthesizers.
This does not take anything of their ability to take the listener to a flow of sounds which – please excuse my cliché – sound like a river.
If Tape would have existed 30 years ago, they would have probably turn into Popul Vuh and make soundtracks to long German nature movies.
You can hear that they are experienced players, that they are oriented composers, that they do not let the mass of acoustic instruments mess up their music. Everything is in its right place. Personally, and I guess no one will agree with me here, they remind me of Efterklang; Something in the combination of all of these instruments creates some kind of weird Nordic (well, they are from Sweden) sound pattern. If I would have to compare their sound and composition to something other than that, you can only compare them to themselves, maybe to Finnish bands such as Paavoharju or the genius modern-classic composer Es.
Tape is a band that’s worth noticing. I’m curious to see where their acoustic-minimalist electronic music will take them. This is the career course of the next Popul Vuh
5. Steven R Smith – Cities
Immune’s last release was Steven R. Smith’s last album.
In my Hebrew blog, I’ve written many times about him. I wrote about two of his projects, under the moniker Ulaan Khol and Hala Strana. Steven R. smith is an American guitar player from the West coast, recording sound-dense compositions, dim drones and mystic and mysterious tunes.
He’s an idol in the experimental scene. Hey, he was even a direct influence on one of the pieces in my album, where there’s a heavy guitar waterfall on the back. He records everything at home with analog equipment, and if you have to condense him to one word, it would probably be “Searching”.
He moved from psychedelic- bands such as Mirza and Thuja, walked towards Eastern-European folk from the beginning of the 20th century with Hala Strana, and progressed to wonderful nosie screenings with Ulaan Khol, every now and then publishing an album under his own name.
Usually, the Steven R Smith titled albums do not have a single concept such as the above mentioned projects. They are more varied and give a clearer view on Smith’s world, composed of darkness and a long-lasting search.
Cities, his last album so far, is not different, and it’s his best album.
Guitars rule here, but sometimes a suddenpiano sneaks in, filtered of course, feeling like some ballroom recording with some stale Honky tonk piano. Sometimes a classic or an acoustic guitar comes in, but in general, it’s a bedding of electric guitars and noises, giving a rich and mysterious sound.
This is his most diverse album so far, not walking only in the path of electric guitar. It’s getting closer to Tape’s pieces than to what he does usually, without neglecting his characteristic gloom, his experimental-pop.
Unlike Tape, he is not blond, and the music is full of crooked teeth.
Cities In Decline
6. The future : Ilya Ahmed and C Joynes – two wonderful guitar players. I’m really curious to know what kind of album they will make for Immune.
On the occasion of this post, I’ve contacted Erik Keldsen, the man behind this great label. I was delighted to find a super-nice person who was happy to co-operate.
Small Town Romance: What’s your background, tell us a bit more about yourself. why starting a label?
Erik Keldsen: I’ve been working with music for many years. I have done photography for a while – shooting pictures of bands. I interned at the incredible Drag City label in Chicago for a year or so, and currently work full-time at Thrill Jockey Records. I have done a large variety of tasks there from radio promotions to production and now am the head of sales. All of these experiences have taught me hands on the ins and outs of the music industry. I have always had a huge passion for music, and for a long time thought to release things on my own – so I simply went for it and tried it out with Immune.
STR: Is there anyone helping you running the label?
EK: I have a designer I use for most all my releases and also a few ‘interns’ (just friends who are kind enough to give a hand with assembling records and the like)
STR: What’s your artistic goal?
EK: My artistic goal is to release things that I feel strongly about. I want the records to look and sound incredible, so there is no cutting corners when it comes to the quality of vinyl pressings and the quality of the packaging.
STR: What’s your financial goal?
EK: I take things one step at a time and my goal is always to make the artist happy and set reasonable expectations for any given release. I put a lot of time into each record and try to get the most money to the artist that I can. I generally operate on a 50/50 profit share model like the great indie labels (Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, Drag City)
STR: How do you handle the economical crises and the fact less and less people are buying music? Do digital sales compensate?
EK: Well considering the state of the economy and the decline in record sales, it really isn’t the greatest time to be getting into this label business! But it’s something I really enjoy and feel strongly about so I just move ahead with it. Digital sales are a help, but they certainly don’t fill the gap of where physical sales were many years ago. I handle this by keeping releases limited, setting modest goals and knowing what we are going to need to sell in order to break into a profit arena. Then I just go for it.
STR: Tell us a bit about the two releases you had so far and some about the upcoming releases
EK: The first record I did was a vinyl version of Death Vessel’s first album. I was blown away by the CD when I heard it so I approached him about doing a vinyl version and that was the birth of Immune. From there I have released an amazing record from Portland, Maine’s Micah Blue Smaldone and also a 7″ of material from Rafael Anton Irisarri. A few weeks ago was the release of “Luminarium” from the Swedish trio Tape. This was the first time the album has been on vinyl. In August I am releasing a brand new album of material from Steven R. Smith (Hala Strana, Ulaan Khol, Thuja). I have been a huge fan of his for many years, so I’m incredibly excited for this one. Then in the Fall I will have a 2xLP release from Ilyas Ahmed called “Between Two Skies/Towards The Night”. These are his first two albums originally issued as CDrs and then put out on CD by Digitalis last year. The vinyl will be a deluxe package gatefold. Also in the fall is an album from British guitarist C Joynes. After that – many more things cooking up.
STR: Do you do A&R or does people contact you directly?
EK: I contact all the artists I am interested in working with, and then naturally connections are made and people do contact me as well. Being a small label I don’t yet have the capacity for a huge amount of releases, so I’m pretty packed well into 2010 with releases in the works.
STR: How do you do PR and who’s your distributor?
EK: I do a lot of PR on my own and will on occasion hire a publicist in Europe depending on the release. All my records are distributed worldwide by Thrill Jockey, so they have incredible distribution and find their way out there.
STR: How do you see the future of the music biz and where would you want to be in three years?
EK: I think the music business has gone through some pretty incredible changes in the past few years. Just the introduction of downloads has of course entirely changed things. I think the good that has come out of this has been the incredible increase in vinyl sales. As people get burnt out to experiencing everything on a little MP3 player, they thirst for the artwork and experience of playing a record. Vinyl sales have skyrocketed in the past few years. Buying an LP with a download coupon is really pretty ideal. I am not sure how things will continue to progress, but I certainly don’t see music going away! I would want Immune to be at a place in three years where the label is still functioning strongly, putting out more releases every year and continuing to form strong relationships with artists.
STR: Find a question to yourself – and answer it please
EK: Q – CD, Digital, or Vinyl?
A – Vinyl of course! How can you beat the experience?!
With the last question and last answer I must agree. All the label’s release rest on my vinyl shelf, in their spoiling 180gr editions, making my heart sing. I really recommend: buy Immune’s vinyl records. In conclusion, remember where did you hear and read about Immune Recordings for the first time. Assuming he will hold on financially (I hold my fingers crossed for him), he will inherit Drug City and Thrill Jockey as the place for interesting indie music. Thank you Erik for your cooperation. Folks, go and buy vinyl.