Welcome back to Singles Grab Bag, a track review series that presents a cross-section of songs in various genres from the Oklahoma music scene(s). Read up on five new-to-newer singles by music artists working in synthwave, country, electronic, hip-hop, and more!
In celebration of reaching 10 installments, we also have a surprise waiting for you at the bottom, courtesy of our weird friends, Wooden Elbow.
"Home" by Rozlyn Zora
Rozlyn Zora is not a country artist, but that doesn’t mean she can’t make country music when she feels like it. Her new single, “Home”, is so chock-full of Telecaster twang, bright ivory-tickling, and reliable downbeats that it’s obvious that she knows her way around country. Only her resistance to going full drawl in the vocals keeps “Home” from falling square in the box of what is arguably the most popular genre in Oklahoma. If popularity was her top artistic priority, she could certainly make a go of it, but it would probably be too narrow a path for her creative soul.
Audiences hearing Zora for the first time through “Home” may be surprised to find just how far outside of the box she is. While love songs seem to be her comfort food, she dishes it out in an array of pop and alternative styles that provide new flavors every year. Beyond music, she also collaborates with other artists and works in other mediums. She has such a hunger to try out different ideas that she’s even become a go-to music video director for the everloving oddballery that is Magic Munchbox.
For Rozlyn Zora, playing it safe and going country carries significance. It is the musical tradition in which she was brought up from a young age, so it represents her roots and is a longstanding part of her identity. This makes it the perfect sound to capture the sentiments of “Home”, and the fact that she’s much more of an indie scene gal today plays into its message.
“Home” is about finding security and belongingness in not a place, but a person. While it may not be a new concept, it’s the heartfelt conviction of Zora’s songwriting and performance that give it a rejuvenated spirit. Her exuberant feelings with this person have the same comforting effect as music from her earliest memories. Just as you can take the girl out of the country but can’t take the country out of the girl, so too is this love. It persists even in physical absence.
From the stellar vocal performance to the thoughtfully accented arrangement — listen for the brief exit and re-entry of the kick drum toward the end of the chorus — the track is nothing short of total happiness. There really is no place like home.
"Ashtray" by ZRKA
Since restyling his moniker from “Zorka” by one letter, ZRKA has gone even more, ahem, berserk-a with genre obscurity. Somewhere beyond his creative roots in lo-fi vaporwave-influenced beat-making, he found a road to hardcore punk and metal music and decided that perhaps the two realms should not be so distant. While glitch and noise music has long been experimenting with the idea, ZRKA’s foray feels independently charted. It’s weirder, and it’s compelling.
“Ashtray” kicks off his brilliantly-titled new album, Evocation of the MIDI Death Punk Cacodemon. With an onslaught of chunky guitar hums, rapidly oscillating electronic blips, and hefty metal drums, the instrumental track charges furiously into the perverse hellscape to follow, which includes later tracks with punk rock titles like “Piss Planet” and “I Eat Children”.
Even with ingenious artistic parallels, though, like how quickfire drum work in death metal is strikingly similar to video game music compression from the 8-bit era, ZRKA remains much removed from the rock musician playbook. He approaches the material from a more secure plane behind a computer, where the fast-tempo precision is more a natural extension of machine programming than insane human skill. His music is less human, but that’s arguably by design. The intense sterility of “Ashtray” plays into ZRKA’s particular self-aware aesthetic on this record.
Consider the cover art of Evocation of the MIDI Death Punk Cacodemon, which starts at the top with a gnarly metal logo, but with a decidedly less intimidating purple gradient. Furthermore, the scene below does not offer horrorscape paintings or ragged mixed media. Instead, it expresses its dark muses with flat 90s CD-ROM textures and a skeleton ritual that might as easily be the evocation of the “doot doot” skull trumpet meme as of something out of id Software’s Doom.
That ZRKA decides to play the concept straight is what skews the music to the latter, which even then is still rather tongue-in-cheek. What makes “Ashtray” work ultimately is not that it’s serious music, but that it’s music given serious treatment. It’s made with craft and care, injected with intensity, and pushed to the outer reaches of anything ZRKA has done before. At the same time, he retains a signature wink to the listener that defines much of his work prior, only now, he’s finding a way to elevate it into a new state of evolution, and that’s pretty exciting.
"Hypocrite!" by Siyla
As standalone singles go, bells and whistles don’t often jingle like they do on “Hypocrite!”, the new track from Tulsan-turned-ACM-kid Siyla. In its three minutes, it shows off enough stylistic spins on a central theme that multiple tracks could be mined from it. Siyla isn’t content to lean on one lone hook, however, so he channels strong, personality-flaunting waves of writing all around it to make for an awfully fun listen.
Siyla dazzles on the mic. One moment, he’s rolling out breathy, highly alliterative bars, and the next, he’s animatedly flexing his upper register to play up the track’s sarcastic subtext. Sometimes he dips into different tones mid-sentence which makes for an addictive madcap energy. It suggests he could be downright villainous in a more sinister context, especially when one considers the use of soundbites and pitch-shifting here.
“Hypocrite!”, however, has bounce and sunshine, and though the lyrics are quite bitter, the juxtaposition doesn’t feel so much ironic as it does flippant. Perhaps this is because the beat, produced by Zero, Wednesday, and Mantra, is pure in its groove. Its reworked vocal samples, hand drum accents, and thicc bass sound like a dance party on the outskirts of a jungle. It’s an odd scene for pointing fingers and slinging accusations, but somehow, Siyla’s utterly enthusiastic delivery makes it work.
If the title doesn’t say it all, “Hypocrite!” calls out ignorance and blame-shifting on the part of its unnamed subject. A soundbite implies they are a past partner, but the track could apply to anyone guilty of hypocrisy, which may even include Siyla himself. As the main chorus proclaims, “Hypocrite, hypocrite, hypocrite / I’m such a, I’m such a hypocrite,” and it tonally rides a thin line between sarcastic denial and brazen ownership of the idea. Maybe it’s both.
Regardless, it boasts so many highlights that it proves to be enjoyable in spite of its, well, spite. Everyone knows a hypocrite, and sometimes it’s therapeutic to purge the negative energy this inevitably instills. If you’re going to dunk on someone, you might as well put some slam into it.
"Scintilla" by Marlik Depp
Dramatic strings, haunting notes, and a minimal chord refrain form “Scintilla”, the somber new track from Edmond-based musician and composer Marlik Depp. Compared to his other releases this year, it is perhaps one of his least complex structures to date, but it is also one of his most affecting. Like a particle of dark matter, its density is intrinsic, more felt than seen.
Its track title implies a minuscule sense of being, and like the nearly invisible tempo that carries the piece, it is reflected by the void of itself. The layered strings flow from this non-percussive source, filling the space in broad strokes of whole tones with the expressive touch one would expect from an orchestral viola player like Marlik Depp. His sensitivity to the nuance of stringed instruments elevates “Scintilla” above the chord progression copy/paste it could have been.
Earlier this year, Depp released Metanoia, an album with a piano backbone and synthesizer touches. Neither is present here, as “Scintilla” seems to be his first string-driven track, but his fondness for forlorn moods and minor key signatures does return, bringing it home into his newly burgeoning body of work.
For listeners not keen on slow, processional music without lyrics, “Scintilla” might prove boring, but for others, it has the potential to sweep one up into hypnosis. Its repeating, singular high note pleads to the heavens, unchanging over swells of deep, plodding strings until at last, in its final minute, the soft grace of a nature field recording draws it out of its stupor, if only for a moment. It’s that moment on which the piece’s minimalism hinges, and it works.
Depp was quoted in a recent Uncovering Oklahoma feature, saying that “music should make you want to feel something.” The distinct wording here is telling. To want to feel something is markedly different from simply feeling something, and it rings of a potentially depressive, maybe even hollowed emotional nature. That isn’t to presume that Depp is depressed, but as a black man living in 2020, he has a lot weighing on his mind, as he expressed in a private message. Despair and pain are a natural commonality that, when freed from words, can connect to audiences in more universal ways.
“Scintilla” is like an elusive flicker, a faint spark of something that once was — or perhaps is yet to be — but still is not quite. It pursues that light even as darkness shrouds it. In slow motion, it claws away from quicksand to rise and claim gulps of life-giving oxygen. It is, in a word, endurance.
"Lipstick" by Swim Fan
“This song goes out to all the broken hearts,” says Swim Fan about its standalone single and 2020 calling card, “Lipstick”. It’s the sort of line that a band playing a high school dance might mutter in the Napoleon Dynamite cinematic universe, followed perhaps by a squeal of microphone feedback. Anyone familiar with Swim Fan’s aesthetic will know that this is a compliment.
The synthwave trio continues to court fans with its post-deadpan take on dreamy alternative pop music. Like many in the genre, Swim Fan loves its gemstone synthesizers, moderate tempos, and warped VHS chords. Light, intentionally thin vocals steer the track with the casual touch of a yuppie in a convertible — left hand at the wheel and right arm on the passenger headrest.
“Lipstick” shimmers with soft keyboard tones and atmospheric reverb as the band plays through feelings of romantic reminiscence. Rigid drums sizzle just enough to dance along, and nimble rhythm guitars groove in step with a modulated hand drum that eventually plays the song out. The arrangement and mixing choices are smart, offering more dynamics than a subdued sound like this might seem to have on the surface. Even a mere couple of hits from the jam block perfectly sets the balance.
Currently the only song in the band’s public catalog, “Lipstick” takes what Swim Fan has learned over the past few years and boils it down to three and a half minutes. With past singles scrubbed from the Internet and a continued minimalist approach to social media, the band presents a deliberately crafted simplicity that persists beyond the pre-COVID release of “Lipstick” (it dropped on Valentine’s Day 2020). The single’s odd nostalgia could just as easily apply to more carefree days of the 2010s as to a past love affair, which makes it a blissful escape every time it comes up in the playlist.