Listen Up

Surreal art-pop, mellow R&B, exquisite indie-folk and a farewell to two funk icons

Caroline Polachek: Billions

Caroline Polachek’s ethereal psych-pop track “Billions” enthralls listeners from the first eerie pulses and clanks. Featuring vocals from London’s Trinity Boys & Girls Choir, the song shape-shifts over its almost-five minutes, from stark to spectral to a rich, resplendent treasure. The mesmerizing video—by Polachek and her frequent collaborator Matt Copson—takes viewers on a surreal ride.

Bree Runway: Pressure

Bree Runway’s first release of 2022, “Pressure” is drenched in attitude, with a video—directed by Nadira Amrani—that blends corporate attire with S&M looks and electric choreography (some of which is ballroom-inspired). Driven by self-confidence, the Afrobeat-inflected track comes with this statement from the London-based artist: “I love how this song embodies everything I am. It oozes Africa with the rhythm of the drums, the attitude, the assurance and the fashion. I made this song with nights out in mind. You know when you look so good before you head out, and you hope that you bump into an ex or a hater? Yeah, that’s the mood.”

Orion Sun: dirty dancer

For her upcoming EP Getaway (out 11 March), Orion Sun turns feelings of insecurity into the rhythmic and relaxing song “dirty dancer.” Dreamy vocals and a languid beat comprise this tender new R&B-tinged track, which is also accompanied by a music video. Directed by Courtney Loo, the video—replete with lone tears, fluid choreography and warm tones—beautifully encapsulates this single’s mellow melancholia.

Kokoroko: Something’s Going On

New from London-based eight-piece Kokoroko, “Something’s Going On” (led by Sheila Maurice-Grey) blends Afrobeat, jazz, soul and ’70s psych-leaning funk to create a luminescent and sprawling song. Opening with twinkling synths, guitar and gentle percussion, it becomes a horn-heavy track, punctuated by the calm but powerful chant: “Something’s goin’ on, something’s happening now.” The dreamy, layered song was inspired by “the enforced stillness and unsettling existential crises collectively experienced through this ongoing global pandemic” but provides hope and encourages solidarity for the future. Bassist Duane Atherley says, “Something was going on, and still is, at different levels of life—society, family, close friends and personally.”

Andy Shauf: Satan

Part of Toronto-based singer-songwriter Andy Shauf’s new double-track release (available as a limited edition, signed, seven-inch, translucent vinyl), the single “Satan” pairs exquisite indie-folk energy with lyrics pertaining to the recoding artist’s childhood in a church that referred to Halloween as ‘The Devil’s Day.'” Shauf says in a statement, “After a few years of this, my parents realized it was a bit silly to deny us our free candy and let us resume. The Christianity that I was brought up in said that believers went to heaven and non-believers went to hell. A sort of cartoon-like simplification of ancient texts.” The track is accompanied by a home video-style recording with experimental attributes, directed by Canadian independent filmmaker Ryan Steel, shot across the prairies of Winnipeg.

Syl Johnson: Different Strokes

An icon of blues, soul, funk and R&B, Syl Johnson has passed away at 85. Born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago, Johnson was a singer, songwriter, musician and producer whose lyrics often delved into complex social and political issues. His 1969 song “Is It Because I’m Black,” inspired by the murder of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, was a piercing statement on race relations and politics in the US. But it’s “Different Strokes” (1967) that made the biggest impact. The song (opening with Johnson’s grunts and Minnie Ripperton’s laughs) wasn’t just popular upon release, it’s also one of the most sampled tracks in hip-hop—with Public Enemy, De La Soul, Wu Tang, Kanye West and Jay-Z, EPMD and others all using it in their music. This often led to copyright disputes, about which Johnson stated, “I’m not Bill Gates, but I’ll never have to worry about money again because of the rappers.” Johnson retired in the ’80s after releasing 10 albums, but returned to work with his daughter Syleena Johnson. A family statement released about Johnson’s death refers to him as a “fiery, fierce, fighter, always standing for the pursuit of justice as it related to his music and sound… He will truly be missed by all who crossed his path. His catalog and legacy will be remembered as impeccable and a historical blueprint to all who experience it. To his fans around the world, he loved you all. A lover of music and a Chicago icon, Syl Johnson lived his life unapologetically.”

Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different

Singer, songwriter, musician, producer and oft-overlooked funk pioneer Betty Davis has passed away at 77. Davis has been widely credited with inspiring then-husband Miles Davis to embark on his landmark jazz fusion era by introducing him to psychedelic rock and funk, but she was an icon in her own right—and one of the first Black women acknowledged for writing, arranging and producing her albums. She released three LPs—a self-titled debut (1973), They Say I’m Different (1974) and Nasty Gal (1975)—and recorded a fourth, but it was shelved for 33 years after Davis was banned from the radio (and even boycotted by the NAACP) due to her raunchy lyrics, provocative performances and sexy style. While she wasn’t a huge commercial success, her raw, soulful and erotic brand of funk-rock thrilled the audience she did have, and she was wildly influential within the industry, with the likes of Prince, Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu and others crediting her as an idol. Her future-forward style, unapologetic self-assurance and fearless “Bettyness” (as Badu puts it) will continue to inspire.

Ruby Tingle: Flood

From multidisciplinary artist and performer Ruby Tingle, the experimental track “Flood” enchants with unexpected and atmospheric vocal dimension. The single will appear on Tingle’s debut solo EP, Lagoons, out 25 February on No Such Thing Records. Though Tingle describes her compositions on this release as “music from the swamp” (as the tracks have been inspired by her love of the Warrington Museum and Art Gallery’s collection of amphibians and reptiles), the soaring, layered soundscape can easily be defined as seraphic. To accompany the release, Tingle will also have a show at the Warrington opening on 8 April.

Listen Up is published every Sunday and rounds up the new music we found throughout the week. Hear the year so far on our Spotify channel. Hero image courtesy of Caroline Polachek