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New Tom Goss album is feathery, atmospheric left turn

Ambient project ’Territories’ is daring but only intermittently compelling

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Tom Goss, gay news, Washington Blade
Tom Goss, gay news, Washington Blade
Tom Goss’s new album ‘Territories’ was inspired by gay marital troubles. (Album cover courtesy Press Here Publicity)

This week saw the release of songwriter Tom Goss’ seventh studio album “Territories.” Goss, who is best known in the gay music scene, not unlike Steve Grand, could be best identified by his distinctive brand of indie rock, a style he dedicated his previous six albums to perfecting. 

Uptempo acoustic guitars and drums, an instrumentation like much of the indie rock music of the mid-2000s (think Augustana), undergirded Goss’ storytelling songwriting tendencies. But for Goss’ small, devoted following, “Territories” arrives as something of a shock.

Since his emergence on the scene around 2006, his focus has been on the kind of folk rock so conducive to storytelling, and his folksy, even slightly mushy lyrics have been successful in connecting with his gay audience. Although his 2016 “What Doesn’t Break” included far more synth and electronic effects, it could still be classified as characteristically indie-pop/indie-rock, even with a slightly harder edge. 

The major influences of the new album seem to be ambient music and ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). ASMR has emerged in the past couple of years as a fad, which uses repeated, everyday sounds to create pleasurable feelings for listeners. “Territories,” produced by Ian Carmichael, capitalizes on the popularity of ASMR, creating tracks that would perhaps more accurately be considered soundscapes than songs.

It’s a curious, maybe savvy, move on the part of Goss and his producers, but the songs are effectively stripped of any internal drive. Instead of the music being moved by a palpable sonic tension, one has more the impression of floating along aimlessly. It’s ideal music for the bathtub, for intimacy, but is so disconnected from the ordinary rhythms of life that the music is hard to place. It’s like sweeping cinematography without the directed action of the plot. Nonetheless, there is a continuity to the wanderings, with many of the songs tied to specific geography (“Berlin,” “Quayside,” “Quebec,” “Amsterdam” and so on). And Goss succeeds in making the listener hear the distinction of each location.

Take for example the single “Berlin,” a story about sexual reawakening in the German capital. Of course, the city has been of interest to gay writers and artists, especially in the English-speaking world, since Christopher Isherwood’s classic “Goodbye to Berlin” in 1939. The subsequent adaptation of the novel into the 1972 movie “Cabaret,” starring Liza Minnelli, Joel Gray and Michael York, permanently cemented Berlin in the gay imagination. 

The music video for “Berlin” pays tribute to this aesthetic, with its costumes and back-room-of-a-cabaret setting. It’s an interesting, conscious situation of a contemporary gay story in reference to iconic cultural markers. Press materials for the album say the song is inspired by Goss’s long-time husband’s infidelity and their subsequent decision to have an open relationship, which led Goss to a sexual reawakening. 

“Quayside” is the best of the on location tracks — the song is balanced, not lacking in direction like many of the others. If anything, it suffers from an overly redundant chorus, not unlike Goss’ hymn to “Berlin.”

Despite the washy, vaguely nauseating synth punctuated by ASMR, the album manages a couple of gems despite itself. “Eve” is a fantastically balanced, sexy song that succeeds on every point. There is a delightful Ben Folds-esque quality to it, and rather swimming about without direction, the track takes us somewhere. It’s bound to be one of the more popular on the new album. Likewise, “Zedel” is a delightful blues-influenced track, which Goss pulls off deftly. One common feature of these tunes is that both are keyboard driven, which gives the music more structure and Goss a framework in which to shine. 

“Territories” is a conceptually interesting album that suffers from a somewhat poor execution. It’s neither from a lack of production quality nor talent, but rather the absence of moderation. My bet is that the next album will favor a wholly different concept, and that, by that time, ASMR videos will have disappeared as quickly as they first popped up in our YouTube recommendations.

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Music & Concerts

Washington Arts Ensemble to host immersive concert

Creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture

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The Washington Arts Ensemble will host an immersive concert experience on Saturday, June 18 at 7 p.m. at Dupont Underground.

This concert will show how distinct genres influence pop culture and articulate the commonality between classical, jazz, and electronic music while creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture.

Some of the works that will be performed include “Switched-On Bach selections” by Wendy Carlos, “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals by Camile Saint-Saens, among other works.

Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on the Washington Arts Ensemble’s website

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Music & Concerts

John Levengood releases anthem “Say Gay!” to protest discrimination

Slated to perform new song at 2022 Capital Pride Festival in June

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Recording artist John Levengood’s latest song ‘Say Gay!’ is out Friday. (Photo courtesy Levengood)

“Say gay! Say gay! Say gay!
“Say what? Say what?
“One little law won’t shut us up!”

Slated for digital release this Friday, recording artist John Levengood’s latest song “Say Gay!” confronts anti-LGBTQ legislation such as the “Don’t Say Gay” law by encouraging others to “profess their queerness loudly, proudly, and never in the shadows,” Levengood said in a press release shared with the Blade on Tuesday.

On June 12, Levengood is set to perform the song’s live debut at the 2022 Capital Pride Festival in Washington, D.C., to streets teeming with community members, food trucks, and local vendors, according to the press release.

“The rise in oppressive legislation and proposals have many in the LGBTQ+ community alarmed,” the press release says. Levengood “hopes this song can be used as a metaphorical weapon to blast holes in the argument that teaching children about acceptance and diversity is more appropriate at home than school.”

The bill, enacted by the Florida Legislature earlier this year but not yet in force, would limit teachers’ ability to teach LGBTQ topics in some school settings and obligate school officials to disclose students’ sexual orientation and gender identity to their parents upon request.

A D.C. resident himself, Levengood currently works over the weekends as resident host and karaoke emcee at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, Va., an LGBTQ bar and restaurant.

Levengood is no stranger to the music scene, in 2013 moving through multiple rounds of auditions for the third season of “The X Factor” before coming up short of formally appearing on the show, according to the release.

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of rural Virginia, the press release added that music has been an outlet for Levengood to express himself from an early age. The new song marks his seventh musical release.

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Music & Concerts

Tori Amos spins magic at Sunday night D.C.-area concert

First show in the area since ’17 finds Gen X icon vocally subdued but musically energized

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As with many veteran rock stars, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on how hot or cold Tori Amos’s 30-year-old solo career is at the moment. It sometimes seems like she’s moving past the take-her-for-granted-because-she’s-never-away-for-long phase, and there certainly was that sense in the air Sunday night for her D.C.-area stop of her current “Ocean to Ocean Tour,” her first show here since 2017, which, with COVID, feels like a lifetime ago.

But there are also signs that it’s never been chillier for Amos in the overall pop culture landscape. It’s been a decade since she charted a single on any chart and there were no videos or singles from her “Ocean to Ocean” album last fall. It landed just outside the top 100 on the U.S. Billboard 200 album sales chart altogether, a new low that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago when her “regular” (i.e. non-specialty/concept) albums were almost guaranteed a top 10 debut. 

The slide has been swift, too: 2014’s “Unrepentant Geraldines” hit No. 7, the next album (2017’s polarizing “Native Invader”) only made it to 39, then came “Ocean’s” thud at no. 104. There’s a lot you could point to to explain it — streaming, her aging Gen X fan base, the endless undulations of the music industry itself — but in some ways it has started to feel like she’s getting less and less return on her artistic dollar than one would expect. 

Yeah, that always happens with veteran female pop stars once they hit their 50s and beyond, but Amos and her small but mighty fan base, who for decades exhibited a devotion of Grateful Dead-like proportions, outran the trend for so long, to see it finally catching up is a bit bewildering.

But then you go hear her live at a decent-size venue like The Theater at MGM National Harbor (which seats 3,000 and was about 97 percent full), and it feels nearly like old times. Sure, some of the excitement was just that we’re all gagging at being at concerts at all and having mask restrictions and vaccine requirements paused, but there was an electricity that, while mellower than it was at Amos concerts in the ’90s, still felt magical. I’ve never in my life seen so long a line for the merch table.

The concert itself was, for the most part, sublime. It was the first time since 2009 she’s toured with a band and while her solo shows are great too, there was pent-up yearning to hear her unleash full-on with a solid rhythm section (Jon Evans on bass, Ash Soan on drums) again. Beat-heavy songs like “Raspberry Swirl” and “Cornflake Girl” sounded tepid with canned beats the last few times out, so to hear everything truly live (save a few BGVs and effects) last night was heavenly.

It was Gen X queer night out Sunday night at the Theater at MGM National Harbor for Tori Amos’s first concert here since 2017. (Photo by Desmond Murray; courtesy Girlie Action)

The show had special poignancy too, as Amos grew up in the region. She has written and commented heavily on the immense toll her mother’s 2019 death took on her personally and artistically, so that the date happened to be Mother’s Day gave the proceedings added gravitas. “Mother Revolution” and “Jackie’s Strength” spoke, of course, to the holiday, though (and this is quibbling) I would have vastly preferred “Mother” from “Little Earthquakes,” a deep cut we haven’t heard live in eons. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Highlights included the slinky, rhythm-loopy opener “Juarez”; “Ocean to Ocean,” one of three cuts performed from the new record, which shimmered with Philip Glass-like piano arpeggios; the vampy, slinky interplay between the three musicians on “Mother Revolution”; and unexpected fan favorite “Spring Haze.” Amos, overall, is varying up the set list quite a bit less than is her norm, so it was one of the few surprises of the evening. 

The lengths of several of the songs were drawn out considerably. At times — “A Sorta Fairytale,” the aforementioned “Revolution” — that worked well and gave the band time to languidly jam. At other points, it felt a bit self-indulgent and even slightly boring — as on “Sweet Sangria” and “Liquid Diamonds.” 

“Russia,” a bonus cut from the last album, sounded just how it did when Amos performed it here in 2017, but took on added resonance because of current events. Closing line “Is Stalin on your shoulder” was chilling.

Overall, the show — lighting, pacing, everything — largely worked. The sound mix, which fans have said has been muddy at some venues recently on the tour, was pristine. Pacing only lagged a few times in some of the mid-tempo cuts from later albums, but just when you felt some were zoning — the flow of those entering and exiting is a good barometer — Amos whipped things back together with a fan favorite like “Past the Mission” or “Spring Haze.”

It all came to a satisfying, audience-friendly climax with “Cornflake Girl,” then the two encore cuts, “Precious Things” and “Tear in Your Hand,” both from the first album. 

Vocally, the range was there and sounded lovely, but the oomph was considerably held back. Vocal preservation for the many dates ahead? Probably. It’s understandable. Amos, at 58, may lack the stamina she had 20 years ago, but it did feel underwhelming in passages that in years past would have been full on, balls out like the “Bliss” bridge or the “nine-inch nails” passage from “Precious Things.” 

Not one acknowledgment or mention by Amos of the female folk duo openers Companion. I’d have invited them out for a few numbers to sing BGVs. I mean, heck, they’re in the house, why not? And other than the welcome, a brief soliloquy on Mother’s Day was the only Amos comment of the entire night. 

Still Amos never came off as aloof. She seemed genuinely excited to be playing live again and the queer-heavy crowd responded in kind. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)
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