May 13, 2019
Released On May 1, 2015
When we — as musicians, music critics, music lovers, and the like — look back and analyze this past decade’s sonic mark on history, I hope that we can all take a moment to talk about the year 2015. Rockists and born-again hipsters can say what they will about contemporary music; they might say that pop songs are not what they used to be — that computers do all of the work nowadays, and that most artists can’t even play their own instruments — but we should let them talk at their own risk of overlooking a year that should certainly be remembered as one where popular music, and more specifically, black music forms, stood at their most artistically innovative, accessible, and exceptional.
In 2015, while the lines between art-music and pop music blurred, as they always have and always will (because these “lines” of which we so often speak, don’t actually exist, aka are fictional), the lines between black music and white music cracked and splintered. These racial lines are very much real, and, as far as the eye can see, will always exist so long as human nature “exists,” but in 2015, the lines became more like circles and knots, where the beginning of one genre couldn’t be traced back to the end of another without everything ending up in a tangle.
2015 was something of a beautiful and terrible mess, musically, politically, and socially. While D’Angelo, the creator of some of black music’s blackest music — and the most name-recognizable progenitor of neo-soul — entered the year with an experimental funk-rock record to tour and promote, four white hippies from Australia performing under the guise of Hiatus Kaiyote put out an album called Choose Your Weapon, that revolutionized neo-soul, made the genre more accessible to white audiences while hardly diminishing or appropriating, and, in more than a few ways, surpassed the work done by D’Angelo’s own Voodoo fifteen years prior in paving the way for the genre of experimental soul music, as well as for music that is, at once, innovative and accessible. On March 15th, 2015 — the ides of March, as well as my 19th birthday — Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp A Butterfly, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive explorations of the African-American experience in all of black artistic history, while, college students, black and white, took to the streets together, singing about how ‘we gon’ be alright’ with no hint of irony or disconnect. A black man still held the title of President of the United States, while a bigoted billionaire entered the running to take over as his successor. If the question were ever whether Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly or D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, two highly relevant and socially conscious creative works, stand as celebrations of change, or forewarnings of troubles to come, the best answer would certainly be, both.
Alabama Shakes, fronted by a musical powerhouse named Brittany Howard, released their second record called Sound & Color on April 21st, 2015, a record that combined shoegaze, Rhythm & Blues, hard rock, and soul into a schizophrenic masterwork which would go on to win Best Rock Album at the Grammys. Erykah Badu returned with a weirdly awesome mixtape. Tedeschi Trucks Band kept doing what Tedeschi Trucks Band does best. Bands like Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, and Leon Bridges emerged as soul revival acts, with significant audiences of white hipsters. A bunch of weird music nerds put together one of the tightest rhythm sections in the country, called it Vulfpeck, and released Thrill Of The Arts — reviving Motown, satisfying people with something they didn’t even know they wanted, in one fell swoop.
I could go on and on talking about all of the great releases from 2015 that should put anyone’s mind at ease who believes that music is headed in the wrong direction, but what I’m really here to talk about is a record released in the same calendar year, that deserves just as much attention as any other that I’ve mentioned in these past paragraphs, but that hasn’t gotten it, and that’s Space To Move: Part I by Kyle Thornton & The Company.
I saw Kyle Thornton perform for the first time on Virginia This Morning, in the summer of 2013. Since we attended the same high school, I’d already heard Kyle’s name tossed around, but seeing that he’d recently graduated, and I had just moved into town, I’d only heard people talk about his talent, without having experienced it firsthand. The performance I watched on my laptop screen that morning blew me away. Kyle performed with just a drummer, Joshua Schaffer, as accompaniment, while he held down the rhythm guitar, lead, and vocals. They did an original blues tune called “I Don’t Need,” and his playing inspired me so much that I decided that I wanted to play guitar. A month later, I bought a cheap Epiphone Les Paul starter guitar, and that’s how it all started for me.
To be completely honest, the first time I listened to Space To Move: Part. 1 I was, at once, amazed that someone barely older than I was at the time could make such a self-assured, well-produced work, as well as anxious about the fact that I was nowhere near that level. Space To Move was a perfect record to me — it was socially conscious with the song “Someday,” culturally in touch with “Read Receipts,” and consistently funky on every track. Kyle Thornton & The Company was also the first group I’d ever heard to combine hip-hop and soul music in a way that almost resisted both genre classifications in favor of something new, different, and hard to pin down.
The summer that Kyle Thornton & The Company’s debut record came out was also the summer that I wrote the majority of the songs on my debut album, Evenings, We Contemplate. I can’t stress enough how big of an influence Kyle’s music had on my own. It was through studying Space To Move’s influences that I ended up listening to D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm. The list of artists and songs I discovered that summer could fill a small notebook, and a lot of that discovery started with Space To Move. I was re-connecting with the sounds that I heard growing up in a black church in the south—diminished chord changes, stuttered drumbeats, and beautiful major and minor extensions. Sometimes, it takes connecting with someone else’s art to connect with your own, and Kyle Thornton’s music definitely served that purpose for me.
My point in bringing up the year 2015, when Kyle’s record, as well as a bunch of other fantastic soul, blues, rock, and jazz records came out, is to make the point that, if a record as amazing as Kyle Thornton & The Company’s Space To Move dropped that year, yet never made it into the mainstream, that must’ve been one helluva year for soul music. While the group has since disbanded, and Kyle now performs at Floyd Fuji, making music that we should all definitely check out, Space To Move will always be one of my favorite R&B records ever made, in the midst of one of my favorite years for music in the history of my living. I’m glad that I can do this small part in sharing this album with more ears.
Sanguine stewards of sun-kissed & clever neo-soul.
The burgundy velvet covering the bucket seats and back bench emitted a dusty smell in the swimmy oven heat of mid-summer. Lying across the floorboards, flipping well-worn pages between covers or playing silent war with GI Joes, the summer I was 11 saw a lot of driving as my family moved states away. That was also the year I actually got a Walkman. I’d borrowed my mom’s before, listening to her James Taylor and Carly Simon tapes, but as sure as boys were starting to become a little more interesting and Barbie dolls a little less, I was yearning more for control of that radio knob. My yellow Walkman was home to a few choice tapes, hard won with allowance and chore money, but I had that inexplicable need to play it louder, over those big speakers, feel it shake down into those floorboards and fill up my head for two and half minutes. Though I was pretty happy then with the classic rock and indie over the waves, years later have me wishing more songs like those on Space To Move: Part I would show up on mainstream channels. The smooth listening, easy waves lapping at the boat sides soul-pop of Kyle Thornton & The Company is so widely appealing to so many audiences. Funk and blues flavor the band’s brand of sugar-sweet pop, tempering a bit the lyrics of the emotional male poet whose love hurts will have you singing, eyes closed and jaw forward, one moment and tapping feet along with a KC And The Sunshine Band inspired horn solo on “Someday.” If the track “Lemonade” doesn’t have you dancing with a sweetheart under fairy lights strung up in the trees, lightning bugs like little jewels floating on the heat waves, then not much else will. If the sound is a bit borrowed and familiar, it is at least an easy drink to swallow.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I once tried to write a happy story. It started out with sunshine streaming through windows onto a newborn in his crib. By the end of the first page, there was a smothered baby and a family irrevocably broken. My classmates in the graduate-level writing seminar I was taking hailed it as a breakthrough in my work, reaching a new level of command in both technique and connection. I only mention this to say that I know what Kyle Thornton is doing may seem easy, but it’s not! Every song on this short album is so upbeat and positive — he even makes relationship drama sound cute on “Love Tryangle” — that you almost forget darkness exists. So, while his funky, soulful take on the blues, with sharp guitar solos and busy horn arrangements (and just a touch of hip-hop), might not seem especially innovative, it will brighten up your day with Thornton’s confidence and gentle swagger. Put a track on your playlist the next time you have people over for brunch and watch them smile and ask “Who’s this?”
I know there’s a general rule of never reading the comments in order to maintain some semblance of mental stability, but I can never help myself. Like, ever. If there are comments, I will read them and make faces at my screen and sometimes rant about them to friends, but it’s mostly just the making faces thing. The worst comments for me are those on YouTube videos for songs from the ’70s and ’80s. Not just the people who feel the need to let everyone know they lived through whatever era the song is from, but the young tweens and teens who have to put it out there that they’re only 13, and they don’t listen to anything released in the last 25 years because “all modern music sucks.” I like to have a handful of recommendations at the ready for these kids, to introduce them to something newer that’s still in the same wheelhouse, without outright telling them their opinions are wrong and dumb. I’m totally adding Space to Move: Part I to my arsenal, because I love how it proudly wears its classic soul and R&B influences on its sleeve, while still sounding thoroughly fresh. Cross your fingers for some conversions, y’all.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
A musical chameleon of sorts, utilizing blues, funk, & root sensibilities to blend into the plain sight of soul music.
The opening slide notes of Kyle Thornton & Company’s Space To Move: Part I suggest a smoldering, light blues direction. There’s a ’60s familiarity to it, some classic ballad we’ve heard before evolved from dance floor romance to modern summer night patios. That smoldering on the patio was the perfect background to my BBQ season kick-off this week. As I fired up this album for the first time, I was also firing up a perfect rib-eye and engaging in the ritual of cracking a cold beer, and staring off into the clear blue sky. The band calls this “soul hop” and certainly there are modern hip hop influences in Kyle Thompson’s approach. He raps entirely on “The Thought Of You,” but I think this is more of an appeal to modernity. There is no doubt he’s a versatile artist but his strength lies in the light-hearted, soulful delivery of “Lemonade,” “I Wanna Be (Your Man),” and the highschool-waltz-paced “Love Tryangle.” As the melody played on the latter, I could almost feel my hands awkwardly shaking/caressing the back of a girl I barely knew whose parents were waiting for her in the parking lot. Even on the rap tracks, the hooks do what hooks should do — they lull you into a feeling you can engage with. As Thornton called out into the air of my back yard from my Bluetooth speaker, I found my mind wondering to the comfort of nostalgia. This is nice. This record is a pleasure that sadly only lasts 7 tracks. It ought to be recognized as a soul and blues crossover record with more in common with Lenny Kravitz’ lighter fare than anything in the hip hop canon.
Flipping my steaks and nodding to my neighbour as he engaged in the sort of futile backyard work that people who don’t BBQ or listen to music busy themselves with, it occurred to me that in 2019, optimism is making a comeback. We need to dig up more records like this. It’s a responsibility. Trumpets usually sound brash to me, almost more attack and sudden pitch change than I can handle but great production and mixing on “Read Receipts” means it simply sounds bright and balanced. “Girl, I’m just looking for somebody I can vibe with,” sings Thornton. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was the outro, “The Itis.” A two minute and thirty second chillhop track without vocals at all which had me grooving and bopping while admiring the birds hopping between the branches of a birch tree. But how did the steak turn out? By the time the record finished and my mind returned to the matters at hand, I realized my steak was on fire and had probably been burning for some time. It wasn’t the good kind of fire that leaves a nice crispy sear. It was the bad kind, that eats the protein and leaves you with a hollow, flaking pumice stone where a steak once sat. That sometimes happens when you use too much olive oil, but let’s be honest — it also happens when you spend 7 great tracks on 5-minute steak.
Above its impressive talent & reach, the lasting impact of this short record is its unbridled & uncompromised musical bliss.
While listening to Space To Move: Part I, there were two artists and and a song that my brain drew lines to: The Roots, Phish, and “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. The first one requires little explanation: It’s a band with ‘70s groove and a(n occasional) rapper. The second one comes from the free-form and jammy atmosphere of the songs. I guess you could associate several jam bands in place of Phish here, but I chose the Vermont quartet because of the lead guitar playing of Sam Seg. It reminds me of Trey Anastasio more than any other from that scene. It’s soulful and it’s playful. It’s a little showy and a bit shit-hot, but it’s also understated. Finally, I was reminded of “Summertime” simply because Space To Move feels like a record for that season. It’s warm, humid, and sunny. STM feels like a memory from long ago whose details are hazy and look like the wavy pavement on an August afternoon when called upon. It may not even exist at all, but instead something you’ve convinced yourself is real. I think more than any other season, summer has the ability to warp your sense of the past, either for good or bad. The memories associated with it tend towards extremity, perhaps because many look forward to it in extreme anticipation. I think that’s what makes Kyle Thornton’s lyrics fit the music. They’re inviting like a backyard barbeque even when they’re discussing pain or frustration. So, much like summer, there’s enormous potential in either direction.
Is it just me, or does this album feel like spring? I’m dying to know if that’s why Joel picked this one when he did. There’s so much about Space To Move: Part I that calls to mind growth and fresh starts. You can’t get past the title without imagining that this is the beginning of something big — both because of the presence of “Part I” and the way the rest suggests an organism stretching out and getting ready to show what it’s capable of. And in terms of sound, what isn’t this group capable of? In just seven tracks, they manage to touch down in several of my favorite corners of the soul, rhythm and blues, and hip hop galaxies. Most impressive of all is how neatly they inhabit each setting — how each song puts the “fresh” in fresh start with tight horn arrangements and precise playing all around. But it’s the lyrics that really make Space To Move feel seasonally appropriate. “Lemonade” sounds just like how new love should feel, and “Someday” looks ahead to the future with bright-eyed optimism (“Someday I’ll learn to fly”), despite the darkness of the present. “I Wanna Be (Your Man)” speaks most directly to romantic firsts: “Girl you kiss me / And it feels just like my first / This crazy feeling / Oh it feels so good it hurts.” The passage doesn’t just feel true to that formative time in a passionate person’s life; it sounds convincingly like when soul music itself was new, just as “The Itis” sounds convincingly like when soul music was made new again in the 1990s by the Soulquarians. Spring has sprung, y’all.
I love shuffle. Hands-down, it’s one of the most impactful musical “inventions” of the modern era. The ability to take an album or playlist and twist it on its head — well, you just don’t have that in most other art forms. (With that said, Netflix can’t come out with their shuffle feature fast enough…) We all know the practical reasons behind it, putting your vast music library on shuffle, and sure, sometimes it leads to some disastrous, indecisive moments (see Issue #159), but for the most part, it just makes a listening experience much more unpredictable. Like everyone, I also love taking a record I know like the back of my hand and just throwing on shuffle — breaking up the 1-2 punch of some songs, and letting some late-album tracks shine as the opening statement for the record. Sequence will always be an important part of a record for sure, but sometimes, it’s nice to just throw it out and enjoy something in a completely unintended way. I bring all this up because this record, this seven-minute sashay entitled Space To Move, this iridescent ray of musical joy… well, it just thrives on shuffle. Completely thrives. Being only seven tracks and a little over a half-hour, I’d wager the other contributors here listened to this album a bit more than our normal assignments. (Obviously, the musical Knope energy probably helped too.) For my part, I’d wager I probably listened to it five times after lunch on a Friday, prepping for the week ahead and trying to wind the day strong so I didn’t have too much to do over the weekend. On my way home, I decided, “I’ve listened to it enough — let me put it on shuffle.” And that’s where the album totally exploded for me. It was here that I realized just how different these songs are too one another. Sure, they’re connected by the musical voice of Kyle Thornton, and do fit on a record well together, but I can only imagine the type of listening experience you could have if the opening track was “The Itis” instead of “Lemonade.” That’s not to say one is better than the other. “Lemonade” opens the record with a twang that feels familiar to anyone within a short drive of a lake or beach — just breezy tones stirring a warm musical melody that is buoyant as it is stirring. “The Itis,” on the other hand, is an opposite of sorts, with a hard rhythmic punch that gives its instrumental space to move (nailed it) freely through what I can only imagine is an intimate hang-out spot for talented musicians, just casually talking over mean licks and compelling rhythms. Both feel carefree in the end, as do much of the songs on this record, but the scenario in which they place you is totally different from the other. On “Read Receipts,” it’s like you’ve stumbled onto the best block party of the summer, while “Love Tryangle” drops you in a small, intimate venue with the music glistening over the cheap lights while layered vocals almost necessitate a singalong, one that would linger in your memory for days and weeks to come. It’s all soul music at the end of the day, but with all the little flickers of blues, funk, hip hop, and more, it just adds to an experience that can be totally different every time you listen to it. Not many records can offer that, but then again, not many records can pack in this much musical energy into only seven tracks… and still leave plenty space to move. (Nailed it again.)
Brass Against by Brass Against
Chosen By Steve Lampiris