DIY Music – Stephanie Niles

New Orleans-based jazz/punk musician Stephanie Nilles‘ fourth album, Fuck Off Grizzly Bear, is generating a substantial amount of buzz after it surprisingly climbed to the top of Pitchfork’s Album Title of the Year year-end list, an astounding feat considering it’s March.


Nilles and her upright bassist, Matt Wigton, took a loose DIY approach to the album, recording in Nilles’s childhood home, which she studio-nicknamed The Hell House as its surrounding town boasts more churches per capita than any other town in the United States. The duo recorded 3 hours worth of material over one weekend, and originally planned to release 7 separate e.p.’s, but a last-minute decision to “go green” halted the duplication of the project in its tracks.


According to the exhaustive liner notes, Nilles opted to record the entire album directly to a vintage Fisher Price cassette recorder, employing sound engineer Mike Judeh to use only its built-in microphone. After wrestling with the tape machine placement “for hours,” Judeh decided to surgically implant the recorder inside Wigton’s upright bass (resulting in a broken G string that had to be replaced with a bit of fishing line), illuminating a resonance and warmth lacking in today’s mainstream recording industry. Upon mixing the record, Nilles was unhappy with the “sound” of the opus, and so recruited mastering engineer Brian Lucey to digitally render additional analog hiss.


Why Nilles opted to title the album Fuck Off, Grizzly Bear is unclear. The cover alone is sure to enrage a number of environmental activists. I can only hope that the depiction of Nilles flipping the bird at a member of a soon to be endangered species was a digital composite. Why musicians think that they can abuse defenseless animals to help sell their albums (think the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog) is a mystery that only they and their therapists can answer. In any case, the title track is nothing more than a list railing against the absurdity of the digital age, spouting such jarring lines as “Facebook is just the gateway drug to stalking.” But apart from a vague reference to Grizzly Bear’s Two Weeks in the song’s opening piano riff, the darling band of the indie-rock community is left out of the equation. One is left wondering if Nilles even knows who Grizzly Bear is.


Stand-out tracks include For a HiLife Commercial, which is a vivid character study of a wall street frat boy. For it, all of the instruments were painstakingly tuned down a quarter-tone so that Nilles could occasionally utilize auto-tune (she sang into her iPhone’s T-Payne auto-tune app), which ironically serves to make her voice sound slightly and intentionally off-pitch throughout. Dark Matter is an original poem set to music by Mexican folksongwriter Jose Alfredo Jiminez. In order to write it, Nilles spent months holed up in her grandparents’ basement in Northern California, watching YouTube videos of Mexican rancheras.


With the exception of an achingly heart-warming version of Mike Bloomfield’s 1974 blues ballad Love Me Or I’ll Kill You, Nilles steers clear of love songs altogether, touching instead on such predictable subjects as the 2008 presidential election, the BP oil spill, pornography, and the integration of American public schools circa the 1950’s. All make this eclectic but disparate collection of originals and covers seem, at times, verbose bordering on pedantic.


Although the record’s piano work is nimble and intricate, it leaves the listener wanting more. Nilles began playing the piano at the age of 5, and, a child of the 80’s, she quickly set her sights on learning to play every musical instrument [that Prince plays]. It should be noted, then, that she is only 22 years into her career; it is possible that her craft will hone itself over time. That said, Nilles’ fourth record is a solid and inspired effort. A super-senior effort, however, just might be something for listeners to get excited about.



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