Singer-songwriter Wafia recently released "Pick Me," a new single. (Wafia / Atlantic Recording Corporation)

Arts and Entertainment

Press Play: Music in the time of AP exam stress

Press Play is an eclectic column by Austin Nguyen that compiles music across boundaries of time, genre, and language in the hopes that you will find a song that speaks to you. A companion to procrastination and post-AP exam memes, hopefully some of this music will make you sing in the shower or help you…
<a href="" target="_self">Austin Nguyen</a>

Austin Nguyen

May 14, 2020

Press Play is an eclectic column by Austin Nguyen that compiles music across boundaries of time, genre, and language in the hopes that you will find a song that speaks to you.

A companion to procrastination and post-AP exam memes, hopefully some of this music will make you sing in the shower or help you “chillax” (do people even use that word anymore?).

Recently released singles and EPs:

“おちつけ” by Toko Miura

That opening whistle symbolizes everything “おちつけ” stands for in the first few seconds of the song. It sounds like a summer of true warmth (not the scorching variety that climate change one-ups each year), a breeze which cools without stinging or sticking and feels even better with your eyes closed, and an ease so genuine that the notes need no thought. With the foot-tapping tempo and unimposing background horn melody, a translation almost seems superfluous to grasp the meaning of the transliteration “Ochitsuke”: “Chilling” (or “stay calm”).

Listen to “おちつけ” on Spotify

“Audrey” by SHENZI

Multi-genre group SHENZI recently released “Audrey,” a new single. (Image courtesy of SHENZI)

With a 20-second introduction of hums, SHENZI could easily be dismissed as some over-glorified a cappella group who breaks their own rules by playing negligible two-note piano phrases in the background, but once their vocals start to stutter and the drum thumps in, you start to realize: You won’t find “Glee” spin-offs or “Pitch Perfect” bootleg/sequels here.

I’ve never been to a jazz cafe before, but I imagine it to sound like this. The piano chords seem to flutter in their weightlessness. The atmosphere feels so casual that singers can throw in a random “yeah” between lines and lean into words by instinct (“ev-vuh-ry night”). And the back-up vocals are sparse and natural to the point where you want more of their honey-smooth tone instead of rolling your eyes at the excessive garnish.

A minute too long, maybe, with that sprawling jam session of a bridge, but that wall of silence — a gasp of suspension before the catharsis of “Audrey” comes — more than makes up for it, and love is like that sometimes: Lingering in the air even when the person is gone.

Listen to “Audrey” on Spotify

“bummy” by boylife

The fact that boylife is based in the smorgasbord of Los Angeles should come as no surprise. In the same way that the city amalgamates culture to make each person feel like they have a piece of home with them, from boba shops in the San Gabriel Valley to Cinco de Mayo celebrations and Spanish street names, “bummy!” is situated everywhere and nowhere.

It begins with vinyl crackle piano like Alessia Cara’s “Outlaws” and swells with orchestral drama. He distorts his vocals like Miley Cyrus did in “We Can’t Stop” before rapping words like yaeji in “raingurl.” Specifically that “Young gelato hit the bookie/ Twist that ankle, make it shookie.”

His flexing could’ve been mistaken for Tommy Cash in Charli XCX’s “Click” (“Ima spangled, f—-n’ banner”), and his insecurities feel cut out from Jessie Ware’s debut (“Tell me that you love me”).

Precarity pervades the entire song; there’s no stability, no sonic grounding, but a constant cycle towards the verge of chaos, mere millimeters away from whirling dissonance, and back.

The entire spectrum is covered, a hectic paradox of real life — simple and complex, trippy and comfortable, a cappella deliveries and maximalist production — and in the search for optimism in quarantine, sometimes we need someone else to say the truth: “I been feelin’ bummy.”

Listen to “bummy!” on Spotify

“Moments” by alextbh (not to be confused as a Tove Lo cover)

Those blurred synths might seem cliché, placing you in the dim haze of a bar the way 2014’s “Don’t” did by Bryson Tiller, but alextbh commits to the atmosphere instead of using it as trend-chasing mood lighting.

“Let me give you somethin’hhh,” he opens, on the verge of affectation, some R&B equivalent of Elizabeth Gillies’ “seal singing.” The rest of the lines follow in its breathiness and aspiration — ”let me treat you right-hhh,” the spider-web-thin falsetto of the chorus — but the effect isn’t pop-star drawls and near-incomprehensible words.

It’s sensuality made even more delicate by its rarity (“I don’t usually get moments like this”), by giving your all to another person: each whisper, each word, each breath.

Is this what it feels like to feel love in a touch?

Listen to “Moments” on Spotify

“Pick Me” by Wafia

“Pick Me” isn’t so much a tweet-ready form of feminist “slacktivism” or a toxic-masculinity call-out as it is a song about self-care, self-prioritization, and self-actualization.

“I pick me” is simple, but concise in its sharp defiance and unassuaged confidence. Love is no longer about giving yourself to someone, completing one another, but caring for one another on each other’s respective terms — one that doesn’t need “ultimatums” or an “owner.”

The hums throw away the end of the chorus, but the sprawling piano seems to leap and chirp at the clarity of what a relationship is supposed to look like: respectful coexistence, not restricting codependence.

Listen to “Pick Me” here on Spotify

Peer into the past:

“Whirlpool” EP by Gitai

Over the span of his half-decade music career, Gitai has only released two EPs and one single with less than a thousand monthly listeners on Spotify. He doesn’t exactly have the longevity or prominence to be issuing remasters, but his lack of fame hasn’t stopped him from re-releasing his debut EP “Whirlpool,” the first work in a short line of self-proclaimed “LA-based arty rock” (as per his Facebook).

The easiest comparison would be “XO”-era Elliott Smith — an indie-rock archetype of slanted vocals, off-center chords, and weathered imperfection that seems casual instead of calculated — but that would be an oversimplification at best.

Five years later, the swirling, mixed-meter tempo of “idon’tgottathingforyou” (one-word stylization of song titles existed before Billie Eilish did it) still seems to jolt forward and brake in its resistance against love. “I know how much nothing does wonders for me,” he rambles, trying to stop the dizzying circles inside of his head before giving in.

His anxiety before the next date is tangible and relatable on “Whirlpool” — specifically that “Damn, I called too many times” and “Existential crises benefit you when you’re six feet underground” line — but Gitai is at his best on “Storybook.”

The EP standout begins sparsely, Gitai’s vocals intimate and clear against the twangy reverb of his guitar, until the drums come in, kicking the tempo up. Acoustic guitars become electric before unraveling into shredding dissonance, a chaos that subdues itself, dares to come out again, and finally does once Gitai sings his final lines: “Brain’s gonna explode/ It’s storybook colorblind mind/ And you gotta know the imitation.”

Listen to “Whirlpool” on Spotify