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8 Tracks: Music that ignites the senses

Pianist and composer Kelly Moran translates her love of figure skating into the luxuriant "Butterfly Phase."
Pianist and composer Kelly Moran translates her love of figure skating into the luxuriant "Butterfly Phase."

8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time.

Synesthesia, according to an NPR article from 2013, is "a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense produces experiences in a totally different sense." Taste color, hear pictures, etc. It's hard to know exactly how many people have synesthesia, but there are times when my own senses cross to create a unique experience with music.

Two specific examples jump to mind: At a performance where two dancers moved slowly and with small gestures, like ghosts swimming through water. In the cavernous Canopy Studio, an aerial arts space in Athens, Ga., the only sound was the friction of muslin cloth and toe tape against skin. They danced without music and, yet, I could hear music; it was a heavy and monotonic drone of strings, as if submerged underwater.

A similar but different experience happened at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C.: James Turrell's light installation Milk Run features heavily saturated shades of soft reds in a dark, silent room, yet the effect felt like listening to blissfully noisy ambient music. This doesn't happen enough that I'd call myself a synesthete, but I do think the mind's eye can fill in the blanks when met with beautiful or bewildering art. This week on 8 Tracks: A few songs that pirouette and paint, plus new music by Charli XCX, Mdou Moctar and TikTok shoegazer Wisp.

Julia Holter, "Evening Mood"

As abstract and aloof as her pop songs can be, Julia Holter translates mood into something both tangible and magical. When she recently guest DJ'd an episode of All Songs Considered, Holter told Robin Hilton and me that a goal for Something in the Room She Moves was to "capture feelings." On "Evening Mood," that feeling is oxytocin, the love pheromone. The song's sun-streaked pastels are illustrated by Chris Speed's fluttering clarinet, Beth Goodfellow's heartbeat drums and Tashi Wada's sparkling blocks of synths.

Amirtha Kidambi's Elder Ones, "Farmer's Song"

The New York-based vocalist and composer Amirtha Kidambi is heavily invested in decolonization and deconstruction of borders physical, mental and musical. "Farmer's Song," inspired by a mass labor movement in India, wheezes on a whooping harmonium riff that gives her band room to groove and rage with equal measure. Lester St. Louis, in particular, gives the protest song its unique curvature — like dancers suspended from and flying on silks — as his cello extends Kidambi's dirge with ecstatic glissando: "We work from cradle to grave, conditioned like a slave. Not knowing a living wage, we work from cradle to grave."

Kelly Moran, "Butterfly Phase"

Kelly Moran's compositions for piano are elegant, even luxuriant, in their experimentation. She's linked with FKA twigs on tour and in a Tiny Desk; their shared aesthetics are quickly apparent. On "Butterfly Phase," Moran translates her love of figure skating into a piece of music that exists in two states: a capital-R Romantic melody that glides with grace and serenity, but also frenetic, but still effusive staccato notes on the upper keys. The music video features a routine by figure skater Elizabeth Yoshiko Schmidt, harnessing the outward beauty of the performance and the inward nerves of the performer.

Charli XCX, "Von dutch"

OK, this one has nothing to do with synesthesia... unless you see flashing lights while listening to rave-y pop music. Charli XCX's been here before (see: early MySpace demos, her co-write on Icona Pop's ode to complete chaos), but this is Fight Club: Trash Pop Mode. EASYFUN, who also produced "Femmebot" and Barbie standout track "Speed Drive," amplifies the pop singer's destructo-banger tendencies: gritty synths, a dizzying four-on-the-floor and a bratty vocal delivery all wrapped into an early 2000s electroclash mystique. On the worst and best night of your club-hopping life, this will be your soundtrack.

Mdou Moctar, "Funeral for Justice"

When I saw Mdou Moctar live in 2022, I couldn't help but think: "This rocks." That's some critical wit right there. To my credit, however, the Tuareg guitarist had shown us more folkloric acumen on 2021's Afrique Victime — a pastoral quietude with a slow burn. "Funeral for Justice," a song pointed at African leaders who let France and America push them over, flashes far more arena-rock moves — crunchy feedback! big, dumb riffs! — yet still maintains a slippery fingerplay at punk speeds.

Swati Bhatt, "Embrace"

My colleague Nikki Birch, video producer for Jazz Night in America, is always turning me onto music not in my regular wheelhouse. This absolutely gorgeous song by New Delhi-based singer Swati Bhatt, co-produced with Bob Lanzetti and featuring some of his Snarky Puppy bandmates, is somehow lush and light at once. A swooning arrangement of harp, synths, violin and percussion offers a decadent space to cry, but still serves the song's soothing core: "Shed your crust and leave behind / Worries that crowd your mind," she sings. "Gauge the beauty of the storm."

Wisp, "See You Soon"

Look, like most elder millennials, I don't spend any time on TikTok other than what's texted to me. So when All Things Considered producer Jordan-Marie Smith asked if I'd heard of Wisp, I responded: Isn't that the name of a teeth cleaner? Shoegaze — the blown-out, feedback-ridden genre for loners and losers with Fender Jazzmasters — is popular on TikTok, the platform for loners and losers online together. The 19-year-old Wisp appears to be TikTok's shoegaze goddess and it's not hard to hear why: "See You Soon," with a despondently catchy guitar hook, creates a hushed tension that erupts at just the right moment.

Combo Chimbita, "Margarita"

Combo Chimbita's Afro Colombian psychedelia is already several shades of soulful haze, but add Ticklah's dub reggae touch to these intoxicating rhythms? ¡Ay, Dios mío! Here the New York band hangs on a languid guitar riff, ping-pong synths and Carolina Oliveros' amber-toned trills, but waits a full minute to unfurl cumbia's signature chuch-chucha-chuch rhythm on the guacharaca. It's a delayed gratification that swims in the dubby deep end and dance drifts into the ether.

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