Issue #93: Empty Streets by Late Night Alumni

December 4, 2017

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Empty Streets by Late Night Alumni
Released On August 29, 2005
Released By Hed Kandi Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Erin Calvert

Welcome to the incredibly underrated debut album from house music’s unofficial masters of immersive imagery: Late Night Alumni. For those of you who have yet to listen to the album in full, you can expect a romantic journey to a world where your daily routine is long behind you and 55 minutes of non-stop tranquility and sensory indulgence is right ahead.

A true masterpiece that stands out from the genre, this album is practically flawless, something that might make you wonder how it passed you by for so long. Well, Empty Streets is one of those albums that never got the support it deserved — a wrong place, wrong time kind of deal. When their label Hed Kandi was bought out by Ministry Of Sound in 2005, Empty Streets was callously shelved to make room for… something. Who even knows? This moronic oversight left 12-year-old me without this transformative and immersive album for almost five years, but lucky for me (and us!), this tricky start did not stop the group in its tracks as Late Night Alumni is still cranking out stunning songs, most recently The Ghost EP released this past November.

By this point, you might be thinking “Wow, this girl loves her house music!” But trust me, that’s not the case here. My personal music library is almost entirely post-hardcore, emo, heavy metal, and indie jams, with room of course for the complete discography of The Cure and some random experimental record I really dug at the time. Dance music is so sparsely scattered within my library that you’d honestly never notice it unless you seriously buckled down and searched for it. Even then, I’d guess you’d get so exhausted wading through all the emotional gloom that you’d just give up and walk away. But if you gave it some time, maybe daring to attempt a shuffle, you might come across a Late Night Alumni gem like “Sunrise Comes Too Soon,” though I guarantee you it’d be sandwiched between something like “Sound Effects And Overdramatics” by The Used and “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. So yeah, dance music is out of my wheelhouse, something bolstered by the fact that I can’t nor do I ever even attempt to dance. The only “dancing” that I’ve ever done has been at awkward family parties or cringe Sweet 16 parties where someone’s Uncle Tony was the DJ, though I’m still not convinced jumping up and down to “Sweet Caroline” is considered “dancing.”

With all that said, let me tell you how this ended up on the radar of an unbeliever if you will. When I first encountered Late Night Alumni, I was dating a relentless hipster who spent endless hours on LiveJournal looking for things she could use to start sentences like “How you could you not have heard of insert pretentious piece of crap here?!?” You can easily see why I stopped listening to her altogether, but lucky for me, she introduced me to Empty Streets first giving me at least some reason not to discount her entirely. The album was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was so emotive without the edgy, overdriven guitars and vampire imagery I was used to. It was beautifully orchestrated without the over the top themes like war and death to justify the magnitude of each song. It was surprisingly relatable, gorgeously layered, and carefully crafted, giving it to power to effortlessly hijack your emotions for close to an hour of much needed therapy. Like a great film or the best audio book, Late Night Alumni’s Empty Streets is a one-way ticket out of your mind, which is something we all need from time to time.

I owe a lot to this album. It has kept me calm through six long years of university by making me feel less stagnant. It has been my go-to album for not scaring off the dates I bring home with my terrible personality. It has made close friends and family less concerned of my growing edge lord status. It’s really been there through it all. This album is an escapist’s must-have with proven countless real world applications. So whether you’re a fan of house music looking to add more to your collection or some wannabe vampire kid looking to chill out and make your mom less worried, dive into Late Night Alumni’s Empty Streets and rest easy.

Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making

Breathing new life into the boundless world of house & trance.

What misfire in the system of external synapses that delivers new music unto me led to my never hearing the sweet chill of Late Night Alumni? Everything was operational in the ’90s when a friend handed me a promo copy of Moon Safari by Air, and when another friend pointed me in the direction of Saint Etienne. Later, I found Dubstar on my own, taking a chance after reading a review in Q Magazine. But when the millennium ended, I was suddenly bereft of new sounds incorporating the vocals of an ingénue, undemanding dance beats, layers of synths and propulsive bass lines, all elements that Late Night Alumni wield with undeniable aplomb on their debut. Perhaps it’s due to the use of the word “house” in their genre description. Then I read on Wikipedia that the lead track, “Empty Streets,” was a huge hit on a Tiesto compilation and used in a Toyota commercial, which leads me to question everything. I fast-forward through commercials. I don’t like Tiesto. I also dislike Kaskade, and he’s in the bloody band! Who am I? And how can this be an American group, from Utah even, delivering such sleek sounds as I thought only Europeans were able to deliver? No matter, I’ll just drift along on clouds of sound like “The Rest Of You” my favorite track, letting its acoustic guitar noodling, vaguely Samba-esque groove, and haunting melodies transport me toward a place where genre doesn’t matter and I always find the music I need…eventually.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Last night, I stood alone on a communal balcony, glass of wine in hand. The bottle perched on the railing along with a cigarette lighter, I stood in the darkness of that second-floor balcony, gazing out at a main street in Richmond. After a disagreement, my husband sleeps off his annoyance, but I took mine outside, like I have on so many nights, to think. What you forget when you are inside is that the quiet isn’t absolute out there. Couples stumbling by laughing at bar jokes, delivery drivers zoom by while drunk drivers hesitantly crawl. Late sleepless nights are always reimagined as quiet, but in reality, and in the tracks of Empty Streets, that idea is left behind to incorporate the clutter of thoughts, the clatter of the party dragging out of the bar in peals of laughter. Late Night Alumni consistently pair deep house beats with the breathy-sweet voice of lead Becky Jean Williams, creating a flow between the calm and the upbeat, the moment the beat drops and the dance floor pulses together with the last late texts from friends that let you fall asleep laughing. Pacing out the driving sound are slower tracks, times to breathe and rest your feet before jumping back out into the crowd. Walking empty streets late at night can be contemplative, meditative, restorative, and with Empty Streets, echoes of the night throbbing in phantom smiles of earlier.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

I fully admit that I have a lot of biases when it comes to dealing with music genres. I’m aware that these days using genres to describe an artist’s sound is more of a general guideline of what to expect rather than a definitive, black-and-white thing, but once I read certain keywords, I can’t help but let my preconceived notions bleed through. This relates to this week’s album because when I did a quick Google search for Late Night Alumni, the first result was their Wikipedia page, with the sentence “American House group,” which got me into the mindset that this was not going to be the kind of album that I’d want to listen to using headphones. As it turns out, I really don’t know a whole lot about House music. Much to my surprise, Empty Streets is as much of a chill, relax-after-work album as it is danceable — I assume anyway. I didn’t try throwing a dance party to test that. “Seemingly Sleepy” was enough to catch my interest, introducing me to the band’s brand of melding the dance and indie worlds, but the title track really stuck out. Beyond its repetitive drum beat is a tale of a budding romance gone southward, which resonated with me. The delivery is new, but the underlying sadness is something that called out to me just as much as anything I’d hear out of the Saddle Creek catalogue while I was in high school. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good pop song about heartbreak. And, House music or not, Late Night Alumni is good at that.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

When I heard about Late Night Alumni, I was really excited because their main descriptor was “house” and house music is probably my favorite dance music subgenre. Imagine my surprise when it turns out Empty Nights isn’t just house, but also trance and downtempo, all laced with a sort of lounge-y, Norah Jones-ish acoustic flair (think lots of guitars and strings). This kind of affair could turn bland pretty quickly, as is the danger with all chill/downtempo music, but there’s a warmth and verve to Empty Nights that keeps you in the moment, your attention focused only on the hypnotic mixes Late Night Alumni have created. Personal highlights include “The Rest Of You,” an intoxicating trance track with a heady mix of breathy melodies and an irresistible lead Spanish guitar line that comes together flawlessly; “Keep Up With Me,” a sugary, acid-lite house track that’s the best kind of mid-2000s candy dance-pop; and probably my personal favorite, “Heaven,” a dreamy house number with a driving bass synth hook, perfectly placed vocal samples and just a taste of a vocal melody. Honestly, I could list almost the whole back half of this record — every song is that good. And don’t doubt that there’s something here for everyone with how deftly Late Night Alumni alter their core sound just enough throughout the album for a wonderfully cohesive yet varied experience. In the age of superstar DJs, unbearably hedonistic EDM festivals, and a general dilution of the heart and soul of electronic music, Late Night Alumni’s Empty Nights is a delectable antidote for even the most cynical doubters.

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer

From left to right: Ryan Raddon (aka Kaskade), John Hancock, Becky Jean Williams, and Finn Bjarnson.

Late Night Alumni might surprise you before you ever start its 2005 record, Empty Streets. This isn’t because of their genre or their lyrics. It’s because the band doesn’t hail from somewhere deep in the U.K. or European underground. That’s not to say that the U.S. has no praiseworthy presence in the house and downtempo scenes. Rather, at least for myself, I suppose the folks across the pond just feel like the default source of most — at least most that manages to make itself widely known. All that said, Becky Jean Williams, John Hancock, Finn Bjarnson, and Ryan Raddon (more commonly known as Kaskade) have created a very nice sonic pairing in their choice of electronic beats with sleek strings and silky vocals. There’s enough rhythmic structure, changing dynamics, and varying percussive tones (e.g. rim hits, bells, synthesized snare hits) to keep the floating, mildly reverberating vocals from drifting too closely toward an ambient style space, but the gentle aesthetic created through slower speeds and a cavernous soundstage draped over non-electronic parts, brings the lyrical imagery of songs like “Rainy Days” to an even more realistic place. In fact, I would say that track, with its soft and flowing trumpet solo, even boasts a decidedly late night jazz flavor, (which easily made it my favorite on the record, despite sounding somewhat dreary). Add to that the thematically somber and laid back direction taken by some of the tracks on the album (e.g. “Sunrise Comes Too Soon,” “The Rest Of You“) and this doesn’t feel like a typical record in either the downtempo or house sectors. Empty Streets is a defined blend and ought to appeal well to fans of both individuals’ styles, as well as a yet-to-be-met third group that might just like the band for who they are — comparison to anyone or anything else, notwithstanding.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

I tend to listen to the albums for OYR fairly late at night, something that made it very intriguing to be listening to a band called Late Night Alumni this week. I was pleased to find out that their music was perfect for these late night listening sessions. In fact, I would say that Empty Streets is a perfect album to listen to when no one else is awake in your house. I’m not sure what genre to place it into, actually, other than “late night driving music”, though I’m sure it technically falls into some sort of more universally accepted classification like house. I love the atmosphere that “Seemingly Sleepy” and “Rainy Days” set and how different that atmosphere is from, for instance, “Heaven” or “Keep Up With Me,” while still feeling at home on the same album. I would think that sameness would be a concern when presenting such a consistent sound, but Late Night Alumni never really run into that problem. It’s also worth repeated listens, which you can tell by the fact that the great horns all throughout “Rainy Days” didn’t even stand out to me until my third or fourth listen. This is an excellent album that fulfills a need that I didn’t even know I had.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

Late Night Alumni’s Empty Streets came out in 2005, which would have been the perfect time for me to love it. I was young and really into Stars and Jens Lekman, and Empty Streets would have been the best soundtrack to my commute from my parents’ suburban home leading to Friday nights full of dance parties and walking around Richmond after having one too many beers at a friend’s house afterwards. I would have loved singing along to lyrics like, “Something in your eyes /Tells me I have found / Love that never dies” (“Beautiful“). It was hard to stop reminiscing about what could have been while listening to this record and start thinking about what it could mean to me as someone who is almost forty (shudder). Becky Jean Williams has this clear, sweet voice that you can feel swirling around you, in the midst of trumpets and strings and synths. While the music is probably best characterized as “house,” I love the gentle pop elements the most. The vocal melody of “Meant To Be” sometimes reminds me of “Hello,” which is a very good thing, and “Eros” sounds like a slower version of contemporary pop hits (I really want Selena to cover it). Each song on Empty Streets sounds completely different too — chilled out pop to beats-driven dance tracks — which is just what this 38-year-old needs to soundtrack her current, low-key Friday nights.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Forceful yet whimsical, the quartet freely operates in multiple planes giving this record an ethereal slant that somehow still feels natural.

When you’re in a band that plays lots of different types of gigs — in my case, everything from quick opening sets at venues to 3-hour marathon bar shows — you become acutely aware of active vs. passive listening. Sometimes you’re the focus of the crowd’s attention, sometimes you’re not. And when you’re not it’s a different job. You’re not the experience; you’re there to help others build an experience of their own — one in which you’re tangential. Maybe I’m romanticizing, but there’s something beautiful about that, I think, and there’s a straight line between that beauty and the way house music functions. It sets the mood via driving, repetitive beats — the kind you find on Empty Streets — inviting you to choose your own adventure with that mood as a starting point, whether you’re navigating a crowded club with friends, browsing a posh boutique, or hosting Sunday brunch. (I heard Empty Streets in one of those three situations this weekend — I’ll let you guess which. Here’s a hint: I hate clubs and clothes shopping and there’s currently leftover egg strata in the fridge.) It’s tempting to pivot here and talk about how Late Night Alumni reward closer listening and isn’t just background music. While both of those things are true — and while I’m looking forward to seeing my Off Your Radar colleagues slice and dice the album with finer analytical implements — my main takeaway from this week is that there’s a spirit of generosity in house music that I never saw before, and Late Night Alumni is the reason I see it now.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

I’ve been getting into more electronic/dance-y music over the past few years, something that made me very happy once I started to play this album. It has a great vibe, and also a great nostalgic feeling that transports you back into that late ’90s/early 2000s music scene. Each song has a different distinct beat, something that blends in with how soft the lead vocals are. The songs also boast some relatable lyrics, specifically in the third track “Empty Streets” with the lines “The city feels clean this time of night / just empty streets / and me walking home to clear my head.” I mean, I can’t remember a time when a night time walk through the city wasn’t therapeutic, and this would be exactly the type of music I would be listening to on that walk to make it an enjoyable and memorable experience.

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

(To be read in the best way possible) Boy, after listening to Empty Streets, I am sleepy! After the opening track, I was expecting an electronic romp through a smokey night club, but then “Rainy Days” completely changed my perception of what was to come. The soulful, dark, soothing “Rainy Days,” complete with a stirring trumpet solo, gave me a clear picture of what would happen if Sade and Portishead had a baby. And now I’m locked in. My favorite record is definitely “Sunrise Comes Too Soon,” not only because of the use of The Honeydrippers classic “Impeach The President” break beat, but the sensational violin arrangements finally let me know what it sounds like when The Most Interesting Man In The World walks into a room. Everything I just mentioned seems very energizing and engaging, and it is! But let’s talk about the three song stretch at the heart of the album that is absolutely sublime. “Heaven” is nothing if not relaxing; “Beautiful” is just as relaxing, but with the vibe of a late night lullaby. Then finally, “Meant To Be” is pure heroin. I’ve never done heroin (nor do I ever intend to), but I imagine that every heroin trip comes with a dreamy trumpet solo about halfway through like on “Meant To Be.” This project just makes sense. The name of the group, Late Night Alumni, makes sense — the entire record sounds like a late night. The title, Empty Streets, also makes sense — you can see the morning dew forming on the empty streets in the moonlight. Goodnight.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Long before The_Donald subreddit became something we actually had to hear about in credible news reports, the denizens of online life knew exactly where to go for the dumbest people around: the comment sections of YouTube videos. Sadly, I’ll admit that I occasionally peruse this boorish caboodle from time to time, akin to the way my wife used to watch Bridezillas and the way people still watch shows about housewives. You just can’t keep your eyes off a big car wreck. Granted, YouTube comments aren’t all bad, but even those you might classify as “good” can still make your eyes roll so hard you’ll need a Tylenol. So color me surprised when I came across a very poignant thought in the comments section of this wonderful homemade music video to Late Night Alumni’s “Empty Streets” that was posted three years ago by Sameer Lalloo. “Music was the only thing we as humans did right.” Simple yes, but profound enough that it really stopped me in my tracks. I kept thinking about that thought while listening to the rest of this mesmerizing album and I couldn’t help but find parallels between the two experiences. For me, house or downbeat or trance or whatever you want to call it — it’s generally not where I’m going to find the most satisfying music for my ears, but here I was, soaking up their gentle and creative compositions that firmly land between Sneaker Pimps and Zero 7 in a way that could make forget both of those great acts if I really invested time into Late Night Alumni’s catalogue. It’s not going to make me suddenly flip the switch on house music, just like Sameer Lalloo won’t change how I view YouTube comments on a whole. But it will definitely make me think more about finding beauty in unlikely situations, whether it’s a inexplicably great trumpet part in a house song or an astonishing observation in a comment section that also includes “I’m so high on weed right now.”

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Technophelia by Geneva Jacuzzi
Chosen By David Munro

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Melissa Koch, Chelsea Kostrey, David Munro, Drew Necci, & Jeremy Shatan

Logo By Matt Klimas


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