Today on Stateside, we take an end-of-the-year listen to music from Detroit-area artists. Our guides, as always, are Paul Young, publisher of Detroit Music Magazine, and Khalid Bhatti, the magazine's executive editor.
Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.
Colin Stetson, “All This I Do for Glory” from All This I Do for Glory
Ann Arbor-born multi-instrumentalist Colin Stetson plays experimental music, but he’s also fairly well-known outside the avant-garde jazz and free improvisation worlds he came up in for a couple of reasons.
First, there’s the physicality of his technique – both in a live setting and when recording. He’s able to employ circular breathing for long periods of time, he can draw multiphonics out of a saxophone with incredible skill, the force of his fingers against the keys is like an entire percussion section, and he vocalizes through the horn as he blows.
Add to this an array of microphones positioned strategically on his body, the instrument, and the room, and it’s hard to believe that this is one man producing all this sound.
Perhaps in awe of his ability, dozens of artists have tapped him to guest on their own projects: Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, Feist, Bon Iver, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Sinéad O’Connor, The National, Animal Collective, LCD Soundsystem, and more. Chances are if you haven’t heard of Stetson, you may still have heard him performing in another context.
Stetson’s sixth full-length studio album, All This I Do for Glory, is a golden opportunity for newcomers to his work to experience the full gamut of his techniques. It’s a visceral trip across scorched earth and along craggy shores.
Even fans of innovators such as Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane might find Stetson’s approach a bit unsettling; where those pioneers’ dissonant compositions often sought to liberate music from tonality, they still retained a sense of melody.
Stetson follows in the lineage of Albert Ayler and Peter Brötzmann, and there are moments on the album that veer into the realm of pure texture or even noise. It’s Stetson’s versatility – willing collaborator, restless solo adventurer – that is the best evidence of Detroit’s unique, and hard to place, foothold in the musical landscape.
Royce da 5'9", “Let's Take Them to War” from The Bar Exam 4
Detroit underground champion Royce da 5'9" has been in the rap game since the 1990s, but continues to provide much-needed lyricism in the hip-hop era that many say lacks substance.
The Slaughterhouse member and Eminem associate had a relatively quiet 2017 after the success of his 2014 joint project, PRhyme, with legendary producer DJ Premier, and his 2016 studio album Layers; however, he did bestow upon listeners the fourth installment of his mixtape series The Bar Exam.
In the same vein as Lil Wayne's famed Dedication mixtape series, The Bar Exam -- released June 20 -- uses notable instrumentals from other artists as the vehicle for Royce's relentless flow. Sampled beats include Lupe Fiasco’s "Mural," Big Sean’s overly competitive "Control" ("Wake Up"), Future’s single "Mask Off" ("N My Zone: Mask Off"), Kendrick Lamar’s "DNA" ("Combat"), and more.
On the combo track, “Take Them to War,” Royce splits Big Sean’s “Moves” and Dave East’s “No Hook” into an acrobatic exercise of verbal technique. In contrast to his days working alongside Detroit street legends like Blade Icewood and Juan, Royce’s lyricism is fast-paced and precise. Comparisons, metaphors, and multiple-bar punchlines leave listeners paralyzed in an effort to sift through each sentiment. After years in the game, Royce proves that he is still Detroit’s (and possibly all of hip hop’s) top lyricist – an underrated distinction for a craft plagued with quality issues.
Stef Chura, “SlowMotion” from Messes
Detroit-based singer/songwriter Stef Chura has been a fixture in Michigan’s DIY scene for several years, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that she released her debut full-length. Messes was put out in January by Urinal Cake Records, a vaunted independent label that had been home to other local acts such as Protomartyr, Rebel Kind, and Ritual Howls before closing shop earlier this year.
This turn of events came at an inopportune time for Chura, whose star had been rising steadily in the underground and with the press, and Messes didn’t quite get the attention it deserved. Fortunately, Chura just signed to Saddle Creek, which is reissuing Messes early next year.
The album, which was recorded with fellow Detroiter Fred Thomas, showcases Stef Chura’s distinctive mix of ‘90s-era, rough-hewn indie atmosphere and ‘60s-style fingerpicked, folky guitar.
And on top of all that there’s Chura’s inimitable voice, whose twangy, quivering warble might bring to mind anyone from Stevie Nicks to Patti Smith to Neko Case, but in truth couldn’t be mistaken for anybody but herself.
Chura writes plaintive songs that draw directly from her own experiences, but just like life, or the title of her LP – it’s complicated. "Slow Motion” is a case in point, with its clashing time signatures and stop-and-go rhythms unable to lock down an already frenetic melody. But despite Chura’s pleas to slow down things down, it’s the thrill and rush of love that makes it worth singing about in the first place.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.