"How do I keep from starting this off about the pandemic...?"
I've been sitting here for too long thinking about how to answer that. And even though I'm weary of practically everything being framed through the lens of COVID-19, there's little way to avoid it.
NPR's Tiny Desk Contest deadline was pushed back a month. One of the main prizes — a national tour with an NPR show — won't be happening this year. The same goes for CapRadio's third annual Tiny Desk Sacramento Showcase and, in general, the national mood is understandably dim.
Still, I couldn't be happier to tell you, none of that stopped area artists from showing up for this. While submissions may be lighter than years past, the amount of talent remains top-notch. We saw familiar faces return (hi there, Lillian Frances! Hey, The Midnight Dip and Casey Smith!) and there were so many musicians we didn't have the time to explore in a single web article.
And there was even some growth. Our panel of local contributors is now up to four and we're here to share some of our favorite local Tiny Desk Contestants in 2020.
David Mckissick's Picks
David is a trumpeter, composer and the band leader of South Sacramento’s A Tribe Quartet, also last year's Tiny Desk Sacramento headliner.
The New Crowns | Sacramento
This track isn’t about your traditional Cinderella story. It’s more relatable and DEFINITELY on my Saturday morning playlist. Immediately I’m hit with America (the band) vibes, similar to “Ventura Highway” or something from that record. I really love how cohesive they are as a group. They set the mood well before Timothy Brown comes in with the vocals, and when they do I find myself almost in another world, captivated.
Brown’s vocals are refreshing, firm and original. The bridge is sick! Guitarist Connor Chavez gives us some sweet rock ballad vibes that drew my attention. I love that this video is captured in somebody’s apartment (dope poster of Mac Miller on the wall btw). This song is an absolute banger. I really appreciate the amount of work that went into getting this together.
Cristina Elena | Sacramento
Right off the bat, I appreciate the level of skill it takes to be able to play the piano (in odd meters) and sing at the same time. I really like the way Christina Elana tells her story. It’s unique to her but relatable even if you aren’t from Sacramento. You can see and hear emotion in every lyric. I chuckled a little at the panic in her face as she sang about “going 65 in a 45 zone.” She segues into her childhood, jumping on an old trampoline, a noisy fridge and her dog that never stops barking. It’s playful, personal, bittersweet all at once. It’s an impressive level of storytelling.
The Bad Barnacles | Sacramento
I didn’t know I liked surf rock until I heard this song. They remind me a little of The Doors and also capture a vintage rockabilly/'70s surf kind of vibe. They play the heck out of a minor blues riff. The effect the lead singer uses makes his voice take on the characteristic of an instrument. You can tell these cats have played together for a while and I love how everyone in the band is grooving and locked together. The lyrics are interesting (from what I can make out) — asking the river to take away his woes. This is a stellar group.
Tony Brisson | Sacramento
At first listen, Brisson comes off as a complete natural. In spite of the name, it sounds like his "Sugar Coated Dreams" are actually nightmares or a disillusion of reality. He references being kept up at night and a few lines make me feel like people are casting him aside after he’s no longer useful. Other lines make me think he’s struggling with someone who isn’t being completely truthful with him. I like this song a lot because the lyrics can be interpreted many different ways. The chords he chose for the song are a good fit and Brisson’s vocal inflection reminds me of artists like Ben Rector. The way he sustains notes keeps me drawn in. "Sugar Coated Dreams" has plenty to like (even when it’s not so sweet).
Jennifer Reason's Picks
CapRadio's Classical Midday Host
Tefty and Meems | Roseville
I got hooked twice in quick succession on this one. First, kick off with up-close shots of the sweet, sweet gear so I can see just what Tefty is doing to create the track? Yes please. (I mean, it’s basically my wish list of items, all in that first shot. Swoon.) Then Meems starts singing, and ... what?! Swoon again! I almost fainted. What a voice! I liked the different but impactful take on a concept we’ve all heard sung about a thousand times (I gave you the best I had to give when we were together, you threw it away, blah blah). The duo alter that trope when we hear: “You got all of my good nature, but that’s not all I can be.” Yeah. That's the stuff.
Jake Hill | Sacramento
I love it when solo acts have a full, energetic sound and personality without the need for a full band. That’s Jake Hill. His giant guitar playing + grab-you-right-away vocals + onstage energy are all I need here. He also has this fantastic, unexpected grit to his voice and it was just the right instrument to deliver strong, self-aware lyrics. There’s commitment across the board — his voice, lyrics and playing showcases Hill as a true showman, and an effortless storyteller. A great modern take on a juicy old cowboy song.
Island of Black and White | El Dorado Hills
Ok, the vans. I loved the vans. The image of them circled together made me want to call all my friends and make music from our respective cars. What a fun way to handle a trying time, and make the best of things. There is so much visual creativity here — the power plug start, the unicycle accordion, the desk in the middle of the cul de sac, the bottle of wipes subtly stuck to a window — lots of points earned in addition to it being super well played. Overall it just put me in a great mood! It’s impossible not to smile with this song. I’m most impressed with their coordination. This looks like it could have been a logistical nightmare so kudos to the sound crew for a killer mix, recorded outside no less.
Rebekah Hood-Sava | Oregon House
I’m stereotyping myself with this one, but I don’t care. My degree is in classical music, so yes, this one appeals to me. It’s not just that I love the cello in general, I’m also a sucker for a loop station. I really love what she did here — lots of mini two-bar loops, allowing for lots of creative layers. Halfway through changes up the groove entirely, which kept me fully engaged. It’s so inspiring when someone takes a gorgeous centuries-old instrument outside the box, making use of all the modern possibilities in the sound worlds available through technology. That can be a brave undertaking in a genre that sometimes rabidly clings to its roots, ready to reject the forward thinkers.
Gheni | Sacramento
This one punches all the nostalgia buttons for me. This is exactly the type of song my dad and brothers would sit in a circle and jam out, when I was growing up. In fact, they even had the same exact guitar as the lead singer. (And to make it even more weirdly familiar, my dad’s favorite photo/video edit was always that same kind of sepia tone color Gheni chose for this song) So, is this me really voting for a fond childhood memory? Maybe. But I sure was tapping my toes/banging my head along with these guys. A little “blue-eyed soul” as they say, gets me every time. And those lyrics, ouch. A little too close to home right now: “We’re all so human, aren't we all ... having a devil of a time.”
Majel Connery | Berkeley
There’s this inviting, inexplicable intimacy about the performer as much as the song. It pulls me in before I even realize what’s happening. I find myself hanging on her every perfectly sung note, and appreciating the depth of every lyric. “My hands are flowers, my face is snow.” “I’d like to see if I can last on nothing but sun.” Yup, It sweeps me away. Her audio choices are consistently interesting and diverse. One of my main complaints with electronic artists is a lack of bass, so it’s nice to hear Majel bring that to this piece. The cherry on top for me, she’s a classically trained opera vocalist turned electronic creative and I just can’t get enough.
Andrew Garcia's Picks
Station Advisor to KSSU, Sacramento State’s student-Run radio station. (An aspiring radio producer himself, he teaches students about audio production and broadcasting)
Miggy & Friends | Sacramento
“Shades of Roy Hargrove,” was the first thought to cross my mind as Miggy (trumpeter Miguel Recendez) and his crew of supremely talented friends struck up their first notes. They display sharp hip hop sensibilities and a penchant for all things cool throughout this original jazz composition. Kevin Hamby sprinkles a beautiful Rhodes keyboard into a swirling melody that features some effortlessly smooth interplay from the leads Isaac Negrete (saxophone) and Miggy himself. Though I must tell you, the song stealing moment comes during bassist Bryant Whaley’s turn to solo. Gliding all over his five-string, Whaley’s funky playing can’t help but force a smile across his bandmate’s faces, culminating into a driving crescendo that drummer Nico Vines joins in on to bring it all home, back to the pocket. The future of jazz and of Miggy and his collaborators is very bright.
Willy Tea Taylor | Oakdale
Beset on all sides by cultural curios, stacks of records, trinkets, and the soft brown patina of old wooden furniture Willy Tea Taylor shares a slice of Americana in “Fighting Man.” Crooning over the soft ringing of his tenor guitar Taylor embodies a narrator who bears witness to a difficult life unfolding before their eyes, “You were crazy as a child, raised in a different kind of wild”. Taylor’s subtle, nimble playing serves to highlight the craftsmanship of his lyrics and the empathetic journey he takes us on. “I understand,” he sings out in earnest, “Nothing’s ever easy for a fightin’ man.” It can’t be easy writing and performing such a powerful song but damn if Willy Tea Taylor doesn’t make it look easy.
Mother Muerte | Vallejo
On a first listen, Mother Muerte’s entry soothed me into an exquisite trance-like calm. The cyclical and reverb-drenched chords of her guitar and the chanting refrain of “ooos” floated gently over my psyche. As I dove deeper through subsequent listens, I realized there is something much more sinister lurking underneath the surface of “Impending Doom.” Halfway through Chelsea Rose Salanoa’s guitar playing becomes more stringent and her ethereal voice takes on a more haunting tone as she pleads “wake me up, wake me up before, this dream becomes much more.” In a world where impending doom seems to be around every corner, I’m glad we have music as vibrant as this to soothe us.
Comfort Creature | Sacramento
“Staggered Peaks” begins sparsely and with a raw energy as Comfort Creature lays out a lyrical mosaic of rich imagery in the opening chant that will become the foundation which the rest of his song is built. Philip Kumsar begins to add layers with each ensuing repetition of the form, including shakers, ominous synth pings, and droning keyboard bass lines. All leading into an absolute knockout of a voice, booming out words of pain for a lost loved one. “Staggered Peaks” ends abruptly, leaving me with more questions than answers much in the same way those that we love do when they pass on. The complex lyrical and emotional tapestry Kumsar weaves here is challenging but one that I’ll enjoy unraveling a little bit more each time I listen.
Sam C Jones | Sacramento
The title grabbed my attention. I went in hoping for a fun, dare I say jaunty little shanty about sailing and life on the open sea, however, while Sam C. Jones did deliver on my expectations, there is so much more to this tune than I had imagined. Jones' poetic one-liners and almost performative delivery serve to build a winding narrative of love, loss, regret, and moving on that gives Dickens a run for his money. This song is so rife with clever wordplay and adept folksy metaphors that I can hardly do much to talk it up in a way that is not immediately present upon first listening. “When home ain’t where the heart can be free … It’s time to cast your line back to the sea.” Let me just step back and allow you to enjoy lines like that and the rest of the track for yourself.
Nick Brunner's Picks
CapRadio Modern Music Director
Makebelief | Sacramento
Schuyler Peterson was still wrapping production on his debut record when the deadline for Tiny Desk 2019 came and went. This year aaaaaalmost slipped by him too until his partner, artist Eva Roethler, convinced him to take a day for Bow Down. The artist is in signature Makebelief mode here — heavy, melodic drums, warped facial expressions to help those emotive vocals. Peterson told me he knew he wanted to do a new song since putting the music on his debut album to bed. Bow Down was "new and exciting" for Peterson (not to mention the furthest along in the writing process having just been finished).
Erica Ambrin & The Eclectic Soul Project | Sacramento
Before she even begins singing, Erica Ambrin's voice is warm and powerful, setting up what we're about to hear. If I hadn't had a visual, I would have guessed the band was larger than a three-piece. I hadn't known about Abrin and the Eclectic Soul Project until now and This is big energy without being overwhelming. "Suga" is a must-hear if you're a fan of Talking Heads, Angelique Kidjo and roots rock (though certainly not ONLY those).
Stevie Nader | Antelope
Ever since DLRN brought Stevie Nader to their CapRadio in-studio session in 2013, I've been hooked. "Together" takes a hard turn from the hallmarks of what I came to expect from him. Slick studio production is traded for a lo-fi recording. The poetic, confident swagger in his voice takes a back seat to intimacy. And the setting where he shot the video ties it all ... together. It can be fun to see an artist you think you know well take new routes in their career. I'm looking forward to seeing what Nader has for us next.
Dia Luna | Sacramento
There can be a lot of power in the simple and sparse. Dia Luna (Andrea Marisa Diaz) proves that not just in this piece, but all of her work. "Animal" feels like it's part chant, part prayer and that trance-like pace makes the track feel much faster than it's runtime. Her video for Animal had me instantly curious about the rest of her work and I recommend you make time to fall down that particular rabbit hole.
Adrian Bourgeois | Sacramento
Leave it to Adrian Bourgeois to save the little spark of hope from a dark corner of Pandora's Box. Both fragile and strong, this tune came from Bourgeois' return to northern California. "I wrote this song about a month ago driving up from my LA apartment to begin quarantine at my parent's house in Sacramento indefinitely, not knowing when I’d return or where things were headed." I can only imagine how many songs will come from the wake of COVID-19 — Bourgeois brings us one of the most outwardly vulnerable.
Foxtails Brigade | Oakland
I'm cheating a little here and writing about a band a bit further than the CapRadio FM signal reaches. Foxtails Brigade is an Oakland group that centers around the songwriting of Laura Weinbach and Anton Patzner. Their entry this year is an unreleased track from their catalog and I love the structure. Patzner's lead guitar melody is infectious and Weinbach's voice ties it all together in such a satisfying way. Put this one on repeat.
More About Our Contributors:
David is a trumpeter, composer and the band leader of South Sacramento’s A Tribe Quartet, also last year's Tiny Desk Sacramento headliner.
Jennifer has been a classical host at CapRadio for a year now, but she’s been talking about music long before that! A musical alumni of Sac State, Jennifer is an avid performer in the community and host of many artistic events in the area.
Station Advisor to KSSU, Sacramento State’s student-Run radio station. (An aspiring radio producer himself, he teaches students about audio production and broadcasting.)