In March, cellist-composer Alison Chesley released her fifth album as Helen Money. “Atomic” features material she performed while on tour last winter with the doom metal band, Earth, and if you think a cellist is an unlikely choice on such a bill, consider that Chesley has invented the genre she calls “Cello Doom,” which, by her own bio’s dictate, involves “huge violent bursts, following her trademark patterns of closely-slurred, eerily beautiful double-stop harmonies.” The singularity of her sound—and her vision—has made her a go-to artist for high-profile collaborators. She performs on Bob Mould’s 2019 record, “Sunshine Rock,” recorded a horror soundtrack with producer-engineer Steve Albini and guitarist Tim Midyett for release next year, and with her writing partner Will Thomas composed music for the trailer of the movie “The Invisible Man.”
Songwriter Lili Trifilio started rocking surf popsters Beach Bunny as a bedroom pop project in 2015. Four EPs followed, and killer riffs emanated effortlessly from the group, most recently on 2018’s “Prom Queen”—her first with a proper band lineup. When news broke last fall that Beach Bunny had signed to major indie label Mom + Pop and planned to release their debut full-length this year, expectations were high. ”Honeymoon,” released on Valentine’s Day, met those expectations and then exceeded them. To say that Trifilio wears her heart on her sleeve would be an understatement. It’s more like her heart is tattooed on her arm and the personal lyrics and muscular guitar riffs of Beach Bunny repeatedly stab that tattoo. Sure, there are local surf antecedents—Swimsuit Addition readily springs to mind—but Beach Bunny are more like Bully meet Sloan with an injection of Katy Perry’s “California Girls.” Maybe our third coast could be the best coast after all.
California-born Steve Dawson spent the first years of the millennium tacking between his alt-country/Americana band, Dolly Varden, and a solo career. Toss in his duties at Old Town School of Folk Music, where he teaches songwriting and guitar, and you get a sense of serious creative energy. His current project is Funeral Bonsai Wedding, whose new album, “Last Flight Out,” is a collaboration with the string ensemble Quartet Parapluie that crystallized after the group joined Dawson onstage at the Hideout during a month-long residency in 2017. The album, recorded in a single five-hour session, has earned critical raves. Our reviewer said, “The resultant fusion of disparate genres creates a ravishing textural dissonance” While sheltering in place, Dawson started his follow-up, a double LP called “The Spaces In Between.” “This is the project,” he says, “that I submitted for the DCASE IAP grant that led to the Esteemed Artist Grant, which I am flabbergasted about.”
Singer-songwriters Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham debuted as Homme back in 2014. The subsequent massaging of their name is nothing compared to the finessing of their sound, which benefited from the addition of drummer Matt Carroll. The band’s debut album, “Parts,” dropped in 2018, and June saw its follow-up, “Fantasize Your Ghost,” which this magazine called “hard-edged, high-gloss, lyrically complex indie pop. (Ohmme’s) specialty is a paradoxically urgent languor.”
Born in 1968, Toronzo Cannon is the standard bearer of the new breed of Chicago blues performers who have taken up the mantle from the O.G. legends. And the guy walks the walk. For one thing, he drives a city bus full-time. That kind of street-level cred helped propel his highly political 2019 album, “The Preacher, The Politician Or the Pimp” to the front rank of the year’s blues releases. Our reviewer declared, “Cannon’s wordplay often threatens to upstage both his singing, which is dazzlingly full-throttle, and his playing, which manages to be both virtuosic and wild… Cannon’s in sonic competition with himself.”
Anita Wilson celebrated her tenth anniversary as a solo artist by mixing things up… literally. In April she released “DanceSoul,” which remixes seven fan favorites from her three previous albums, “Worship Soul” (2012), “Vintage Worship” (2014) and “Sunday Song” (2017), each of which was Grammy-nominated for Best Gospel Album. The new tracks, which incorporate dance, house and disco influences, debuted in the top ten of iTunes’ Dance charts. Wilson is keeping the momentum going through the shutdown with radio appearances, virtual church visits and more, as the spirit moves her.
“We don’t want that weak shit no more,” Wilson opines on his just-released collaborative EP with L.A.-based musician-producer Terrace Martin, “They Call Me Disco”—and you won’t find any of that weak material in his repertoire. His rubbery funk-disco infused take on rap features busy, but never excessive percussion, bubbling vocals and rich instrumentation with an optimistic outlook that puts a smile on your face and gets your head bobbing. After dropping the EP “BANBA” in 2018, Wilson put out the infectious single “Yellowbrick” last summer, and for many, his set at 2019’s Pitchfork Music Festival was a highlight. Although he’s still working on his debut full-length album, he’s toured with or opened for The Roots, Big Freedia, Lil Yachty, BadBadNotGood, Azealia Banks, The All-American Rejects, Noname, Alex G, Mr Twin Sister, Kweku Collins and RDGLDGRN.
Angel Bat Dawid
Just six years ago, Angel Elmore was making a good living in retail. At thirty-four, she quit, cashed out her 401K, and set to realizing her lifelong dream of a career in music. It’s not an uncommon story. What’s different about Elmore—who adopted the stage name Bat Dawid (Hebrew for “daughter of David”)—is that the gamble paid off spectacularly. Her 2019 album, “The Oracle,” on which she sings and plays keys and clarinet to her own compositions, became a critical sensation and established her as one of the city’s most original voices. It helped that Elmore had spent more than a year playing free-jazz sessions, building community and eventually co-founding Participatory Music Coalition. Her newest work, “Transition East,” features two new pieces of music she created in response to Emma Warren’s book “Make Some Space.” “My music and mission are about sonically eradicating the white supremacy system,” Elmore says, “and its continued negative and harmful effects it imposes on Black and brown people worldwide.”
The Newberry Consort
The pioneering early-music ensemble has been a thriving part of the city’s cultural life for more than thirty years, during which it has championed period-instrument performances. “Drawing on the vast resources of the Newberry Library at their Near North Side home base,” says Lawrence Johnson, “married co-directors violinist David Douglass and soprano Ellen Hargis continue to present illuminating programs of a wide array of early and Renaissance music, mixing scrupulous scholarly research with imaginative presentation and lively performances.”
Ravyn Lenae was young when we first profiled her in 2018—and she’s only just turned twenty-one. Despite which, she’s already put out three stellar EPs (her self-released 2015 debut, “Moon Shoes,” was reissued by Atlantic, her current label), and has lent her inimitable soprano to tracks by Joey Purp, Mick Jenkins and Noname (opening for her on her “Telefone” tour). She’s toured with SZA and is a member of the Zero Fatigue collective along with Monte Booker, Smino, Jay2, Bari and Nosidam. Lenae has been touring on the success of her 2018 EP “Crush,” but this spring brought us a tantalizing taste of new music to come in a single, “Rewind,” from the soundtrack of season four of “Insecure.”
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.