Singles Grab Bag #9

Welcome to Singles Grab Bag, a track review series originally started on Cellar Door Music Group. Each single analyzed here comes from a different genre. Together, they offer a unique cross-section of the Oklahoma music scene. Check out this latest selection of six singles below featuring hip-hop, alternative rock, country, and more!

To dig further into the Singles Grab Bag series, visit the collection here.

"How's Dallas" by Blake Allen Lillard

Country music fans like to bemoan what passes for the genre these days, but as long as new artists like Blake Allen Lillard come along, they’ll never have a reason to declare it dead. Seemingly raised on a healthy diet of honky-tonk classics, 90s country hits, and a dash of southern rock, the young Tulsa singer-songwriter more than passes muster. Whether or not he chooses to be a torchbearer for the style is yet to be seen, but it’s well within his ability.

“How’s Dallas”, one of five cuts from Lillard’s new self-titled EP, is a steady, swing-time number that hits all the right notes. The wistfully written tune is about the gradual acceptance of a long-distance relationship slipping away, so it makes sense that it would feel a bit downtrodden. It’s far from stuck in a rut, however. Lillard’s delivery of the song’s signature line straddles the fence between curiosity and resignation as he asks, “How you doin’ in Dallas, babe?” Each time he starts on a new verse, the question grows more and more rhetorical, subliminally revealing the genesis and formation of his eventual decision to move on. If that isn’t songwriting gold, what is?

Lillard is joined in the studio by a modest band of acoustic and electric guitar players, a humble bassist, and a dependable drummer. Presumably, Lillard is behind the sunny harmonica. All of these elements come together around the song but never crowd it from the spotlight, as solid folk and country recordings tend to do. The cultivated drawl of the vocals unfolds the story front and center with a hearty, smooth tone that is sure to help country fans feel at home. It’s also worth noting that there are no vocal harmonies here, nor is there much to be found on the rest of the EP. Lillard carries these songs on his own, and he’s so in his element that his confident stride is completely natural.

Blake Allen Lillard has been busy of late, playing noteworthy venues in towns big and small with a clear goal of going full-time. It’s no fluke, then, that he has been catching eyes and ears from tastemakers like Little Okie Land, which put out a fabulous write-up last month on the Tulsa up-and-comer. Meanwhile, thoughtfully directed music videos like the one for “How’s Dallas” (below) are bound to do plenty for Lillard’s appeal as a modern-day classic. If he continues on this trajectory, it honestly won’t be a surprise if Nashville snatches him away soon.

 

"Patience" by Stephen Salewon

Stephen Salewon has long been one to blend genres in subtle, unique ways. It’s part of the reason the soft-spoken Oklahoma City singer-songwriter is both a festival favorite and a two-time Big 50 honoree. His knack for relaxing, soulful music fusion proves that seemingly stale genres like adult contemporary and easy listening still have plenty of room for rejuvenation and growth. Meanwhile, Salewon’s distinct, charismatic vocals make it all go down easily.

If his music was hard to define before, it is even moreso now. On his new single, “Patience”, Stephen Salewon gracefully pushes the envelope further with a surprising new twist. He works in ideas from modern pop. It’s not in an effort to pursue trends, though, as there are thankfully no blatant inclusions like the “Millennial whoop” here. Rather, he picks and chooses production and performance techniques that suit his style.

Electronic beatwork, downcast synths, and slightly more staccato vocal phrasing all meld nicely with his signature falsetto and misty electric guitar. Meanwhile, he tries a few tricks of his own. For instance, he makes the bold decision to place the song’s sole solo early in the runtime rather than later. Performed by guitar, saxophone, and voice in complete unison, it is surprising not just for its sudden appearance, but also for its unusual texture.

The song itself is gentle and romantic. Though not physical or forward enough to be a slow jam, it does share similarities, especially in the way it woos the listener into its comforting realm. The only source of tension in the lyrics stems from the title, as the song opens with the lines, “Patience, patience / Is all I need from you.” Salewon tends to draw out many of his lines on “Patience,” too, as if to display the virtue. Indeed, he seems to be well versed in it even as he croons that “You’re on my mind / I can’t deny / I’m hypnotized / All the time.” If only the patience could be mutual.

“Patience” is a soft lead-in to what will eventually become a standalone recording project for Salewon, trying on such new sounds as a narrative characteristic. Though that project is still a long way off, music like this may just make fans impatient for what is to come.

"Royal" by Toyil

Toyil is a Tulsan instrumental rock duo with a taste for the dark and cerebral. Though the project mostly keeps to the studio, its music oozes the kinetic energy of live performance. The band sticks to electric guitar, bass, and drums and is tasteful in its overdubbing. By relying on its tight musicianship and creative ideas, it makes the most of its minimal lineup to achieve its heavy, focused sound.

On Toyil’s latest single, “Royal”, the duo delivers a hefty bar of musical dark chocolate. It’s rich, sharp, and slightly bitter in its sonic deliciousness. It won’t appeal to every taste palette, but for fans of the more technical side of experimental rock, it should be a fine treat.

The drums are agile yet hard-hitting, and the guitars explore degrees of distortion as they segue from riff to shadowy riff. Perhaps most notable is what the band describes as a Middle Eastern influence in its music. Whether it’s the guitar pedals reaching for a sitar-inspired timbre, backmasking that brings tanpura to mind, or the mathematical textures in the rhythms, the flavors appear all over “Royal.”

Anyone who has been following Toyil since last year’s debut EP shouldn’t be surprised by the band’s knack for experimentation. Another single, called “Evolove”, is a bonafide palindromic song. It repeats passages in reverse composition and/or backmasking to achieve the effect of a full track that sounds the same played forwards or backwards.

Though it might not be a name on too many radars as of yet, Toyil has a unique angle on art that makes the duo one to watch.

"Georgia" by Elizabeth Speegle

A true veteran of Oklahoma music, Elizabeth Speegle has been offering her brand of vocal jazz for years. With a contemporary twist on the classic style, she works in standards and originals alike with the help of a dazzling cast of supporting players. With the jazz scene in Oklahoma City getting more recognition and support these days thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of OkSessions, it’s a great time to dive in.

Speegle’s latest release is a lovely rejuvenation of a song she released a few years back. Originally a closer to her EP, Condo on the Moon, 2019’s “Georgia” is an energetic, swanky full band effort that brings in big splashes of horns and electric guitar to give the song more punch than its first incarnation. The arrangement is fuller and more measured, relying less on jazz showmanship in order to serve the song more directly. That the new version is longer but feels shorter is a testament to its vibrant and varied turns of sound that keep “Georgia” fresh from start to finish.

Both versions have their own vibe and are solid in their own right, but for a song about the eagerness in romance, the latest one is perhaps more fitting. “Georgia” is about that special someone who is on the road and often in the vicinity of temptation when they aren’t otherwise busy at work. Referencing a dwindling fireplace and a bottle of wine, the verses imply that the song’s longing sentiment is coming from a lonely point of view, one that would rather the whole Georgia rendevous be skipped. There’s even an upended nod to the state song popularized by Ray Charles that frequents the chorus.

With tight musicianship, catchy instrumental motifs, and, of course, the occasional solo, Elizabeth Speegle’s band expertly elevates “Georgia”. Speegle’s performance, too, is solid, as it’s clear she’s been playing it for so long that it comes as second nature to sing, fitting like a glove. With a few repeated plays, it’s not hard to think listeners might become similarly familiarized.

"In the Dark" by Lunar Division

Like many bands in their early stages, OKC’s Lunar Division is awash in plentiful influences but still narrowing down which ones are worn best. The band pitches a broad umbrella by describing its music as “alternative rock.” Perhaps the somewhat less generic garage rock label would be better suited, if the quartet’s new self-titled debut album is to be a proper guide. Many of its distorted, rough-and-tumble lo-fi sounds recall the early 2000s rock revival. Even so, some tracks slip away into different places.

“In the Dark” is one of these. At a slower, sludgier tempo, this lead single hangs back from the pack with a song about post-dusk park loitering with friends. The chorus, which laments, “I don’t want you to go / Lord knows I know I’d be miserable,” injects a bit of feeling into the song, though the music interprets this more with angst than with sorrow. Mostly, “In the Dark” feels pretty detached, a mood at least partially conveyed by the vocalist’s vagrant, breathy delivery.

The single drags in a way that suggests a number of genres. With a different tonality and performance style, it could be a blues rock number. With trippier effects, it’s a stone’s throw from psychedelia. As it stands, however, “In the Dark” is a bit toothless, though that’s not necessarily a bad attribute. It’s just that the fat, heavy bass line seems to want to convey otherwise. Part of this is due to the self-produced studio work, which is fine for most of the band’s high energy numbers. On this cut, though, the thin production shows through, leaving the single without the heft it needs to elevate its relatively simple parts.

The lead vocals and a mid-song guitar solo offer some flashes of personality, though at this tempo, there is plenty of room for more of it. In particular, the drums seem satisfied with the bare bones of a beat, offering little in the way of fills or internal rhythms to spruce up the flow, though the cymbals on the chorus are much appreciated.

“In the Dark” isn’t bad, but it isn’t the band at its best. It’s an odd choice, then, for Lunar Division to have chosen it as the new album’s sole lead single. For a fuller idea of the band’s strengths and range, check out the jangly indie opener “Good Evening”, instrumental rock jam “M.R.”, or proto-punk tinged “Caged” from the debut LP, Lunar Division, available now on Bandcamp and all streaming platforms.

For another take on Lunar Division’s latest, check out what our friends at Starcatcher Magazine had to say.

"Is It You?" by Jacobi Ryan

It’s a big year for Jacobi Ryan, the Lawton emcee formerly known as “Fresh” that has become a major figure in Oklahoma hip-hop since landing on the Oklahoma City scene. Immediately on the heels of a moniker change, Ryan has made a point to release an avalanche of material in  2019, much of which has been accumulating over the past few years.  While the constant output is so much that even committed fans might struggle to keep up, singles like “Is It You?” prove that it’s not a quantity over quality scenario.

Released back in February, “Is It You?” is one of 52 weekly singles that Ryan will have released by the end of the year as part of his #52in365 campaign. Any one of the dozens released so far is worthy of a feature, as has been proven by The Greener Side of Hip-Hop, which has done an excellent job following the project. There’s something special about this one, though.

Where much of Ryan’s repertoire is preoccupied with high-effort muses like entrepreneurial hustle and cognitive enlightenment, “Is It You?” is more rooted in gut feeling. It wrestles with nothing short of destiny, Freudian theory, and God, all cerebral and lofty subjects. Despite the large-scale ideas at work, though, the track is exceptionally personal, full of self-doubt and vulnerability.

The title has multiple meanings, as its question can be posed towards any number of subjects and still fit the context of the lyrics. When one feels drawn to a person or place, it might be a fleeting feeling, or it might be the next step in a divine path. The “You” in “Is It You?”, then, could refer to that person or place, to a greater power, or even to oneself.

Jacobi Ryan’s verbal flow is especially well-suited to introspection, so it goes without saying that “Is It You?” sounds great. The production hits the proper mood, too, though unfortunately the producer behind it is a mystery as of now, according to Ryan’s accompanying #TMIKTMID podcast. This recording apparently dates back a number of years, and its credits have been lost to time.

As if releasing weekly music tracks and podcast episodes aren’t enough–and that isn’t even to mention the multitude of public appearances he makes, whether to perform, host, or mentor–there is also a music video for each of these releases. Catch the one for “Is It You?” below, and be sure to subscribe to Jacobi Ryan’s YouTube channel to stay up on these weekly releases.

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