Listening Deeper: James Place’s Voices Bloom

History weighs on us all, particularly when it comes to matters that still have yet to be resolved. Issues like racial, gender, and sexual equality continue to bubble in society as a push-pull for rights occur. So what can we do about it? Get creative.

There is a narrow plank to be walked as it relates to authenticity. As we’ve seen in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, empathy in art is a double edged sword. There’s a fine line between the camps of appropriation and honor, misunderstanding and attentiveness. To listen to others, to see others, and resonate a struggle is no easy feat — particularly if you are on the outside of a problem. It’s easy to get swallowed in controversy.

Musician James Place (AKA, Phil Tortoroli) has taken on this challenge with his new album Voices Bloom, a tight forty minutes of intellectual techno and deep house ambience that offers audial solutions (or reprieves) from contemporary problems. The seven track, forty-ish minute album presents itself as an unsubtle political manifesto starting with the captivating “Courage To Ask,” a song that carries on like a constant introspective question.

The song features recordings of both Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, the former’s words being the basis for the song’s title. This may seem like a ploy to invoke or appropriate blackness but is instead something different: it’s a conversation between two very intelligent, lauded individuals offering a call and response to each other, at different times, at different places. Their being conjured in 2017 helps to reinforce this.

The Angelou quote in the song is more or less—

In this particular society, we are supposed to be so contained. Men are supposed to be men. Women are supposed to be women, and not need, really need, anybody. The ability to ask ‘Will you be my brother?’–the courage to ask–is often missing.

But what’s missing in this call to action is who this was in reference to: James Baldwin. The quote ends with “James Baldwin was a brother,” inferring that she and Baldwin had this courage of self.

The song concludes with a human rights leaning quote from Baldwin, who says—

It is the unalterable truth: all men are brothers. That’s the bottom line. If you can’t take it from there, you can’t take it at all.

The interplay between the two quotes played over a warbled chorus pushes and impresses into a listener that there is a humanness missing in society. As Angelou and Baldwin’s love for each other — one that went beyond gender, beyond friendship — and suggests a genuine love of people, a kinship, a compassion that is missing today. It’s that courage to ask.

Upon first listen, it’s easy to shrug the song off as a silly parlor trick but is something much more profound as it handles these words with literal underscores, resonating pulses of sound that seem to capture the aura of these artists and thinkers as a cloud of thought forgotten and forgotten and forgotten. It’s well done and, as Place told Vice, “it feels necessary to extend any platform I’m given to voices of color.” It’s all to help people speak up, as the album’s title suggests.

While “Courage To Ask” is the most directly political, songs like “Move In Blue” feel like a lost Andy Stott track intent on your moving forward to seek a new wholeness via extended tonal vocals placed on a beat that circles in introspective revolutions. “Rumor And Choir” goes literal with the theme of unity by layering a deep chatter over a somewhat angelic pulse of voices that eventually wash together, perhaps in a merging of troubles greater than themselves. “Theatre” similarly dons Stott’s gloomy aesthetics (a la “Lost And Found“) to create a haze of dark techno that feels like you’re simmering in too much information. It’s a song muddled by the fog we all feel when too much news is hitting you at one time.

I’ve not dug very deep into Place’s catalogue but a little album like Voices Bloom goes beyond what most artists — particularly electronic artists — are doing in terms of “their part” to galvanize listeners to more than dance. Voices Bloom pushes for you to listen beyond the sound but to actually open your ear to hear what’s happening behind noise. It’s a small metaphor for the day-to-day in troubled times: what are you actually hearing? Are you actually listening? How are you contributing to the noise? Or are you yourself the noise?

These are things to consider in an ambient cloud, one that we all seem to be weighed and lifted by in recent times.

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