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Red Steppes: A Mouth May Grow
by George Graham
(Independent releasae As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/23/2018)
As a counter-trend to the electronic-dance oriented pop, or more commercial big rock sound, there has been a kind of growing undercurrent of more ethereal music from emerging, usually independent bands, some of them female-fronted. Perhaps inspired by artists like Kate Bush or Tori Amos, such contemporary groups are turning up with some regularity. One of the latest is Red Steppes, who have just released a debut album called A Mouth May Grow.
Like a significant number of emerging indie projects, Red Steppes is basically a one-person group, that being Nika Aila States from Oakland, California. Ms. States is also, or perhaps primarily, a photographer, who has created beautiful vistas of the American West. She uses these photos as the basis for, or the geographical backdrop to, the songs, which are performed in a spare, often acoustic but frequently atmospheric sound. The lyrics are impressionistic and open for interpretation. A Red Steppes’ web page says of the songs that “The regional parks east of Oakland provide grounding for an inquiry into sex and morbidity, and … the site of a ghost town high in the eastern Sierras, asks questions about religion, dislocation, gender, and decay.”
Ms. States’ airy vocals are a perfect match for the contemplative sound. She is joined primarily on the album by her co-producer James Riotto, who plays bass and synthesizers, plus percussionist Andrew Maguire, and a couple of additional guitarists on certain tunes. Ms. States is heard on acoustic and electric guitar, picking the electric like a folkie, which adds to the introspective sound. The eleven songs run from the atmospheric to the more energetic with percussion, though you could hardly call it a rock band record.
Opening is a piece called Ashton which is likely about a place, which is personified in the lyrics. The track epitomizes the album’s appealing blend of atmospherics with subtle creative arrangement ideas. <<>>
Solemn Bird is one of the more musically distinctive tracks on the album with an almost progressive rock approach with tricky rhythms and a creative multifaceted arrangement. <<>>
The track called Bixby is a kind complicated love song, in which Bixby is the name of a location that plays a part in the lyrics as a kind of rendezvous point. <<>>
I Did Not Speak It is a somewhat melancholy piece about a breakup, that nevertheless spotlights the appealing sound of Red Steppes. <<>>
Dominated by the Ms. States’ folky acoustic guitar is I Do in the Dark which is also less than direct in its lyrical direction, but nicely done and in keeping with the album’s impressionistic sound. <<>>
Another rather elaborate arrangement comes on the song Bodie, named after a ghost town in the Sierras which serves as setting and inspiration. <<>>
Big Desire is an interesting song again weaving locations into its lyrics, about an urge to travel perhaps in the context of a relationship. <<>>
The album closes with Sibley/Joaquin which features a mellow electric guitar as its main sonic texture. <<>>
A Mouth May Grow the new debut release by Red Steppes, the musical project name of singer-songwriter and photographer Nika Aila States is an impressive recording that blends a mellow, atmospheric but tasteful sound with impressionistic lyrics related to locations in some of Ms. States’ photographs of Western vistas. The music can evoke that kind of spaciousness and maybe solitude. Ms. States and her producer and musical collaborator James Riotto have created the kind of record that can be haunting, and yet warm with Ms. States’ inviting vocals. The sound is atmospheric and seemingly sparse but the arrangements are subtly multifaceted, and Ms. States’ songs are the kind that will keep you coming back to them not only for their sound, but for the poetic lyrics can inspire you to devise your own interpretations, which is the mark of good folkie poetry.
Our grade for sound quality is a B. The mix is first-rate with the sonic ambiance nicely handled. But as is so often the case, that is undermined by squashing out the dynamics, the ebb and flow of the music, by volume compression in an effort to make this generally soft music loud all the time.
Mellow music minus both computer dance rhythms and guitar grunge is finding a place on the independent alternative music scene, and Red Steppes’ new album personifies it in the best way.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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