Transatlantic record label Kith and Kin’s inaugural release, Freedom of the Press, out July 27, is a compilation whose proceeds will benefit the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
It’s also a textbook case of making lemonade when life serves up lemons and then adding a lysergic spike for good measure. The record’s very existence is predicated upon the near-incessant attacks on journalists and news outlets coming from the Trump administration. On the other hand, it might also be the most effective effort to date at highlighting the breadths and depths possible in a loose-knit musical movement that has been bubbling under for years now.
“Every day, I just feel like there’s this steady drum beat from the current administration that was restricting, from my point of view, certain aspects of the first amendment, slowly eroding these democratic values that we have, as a matter of course, almost as a policy, chipping away at this pillar of democracy, which I consider the frontline,” Kith and Kin’s Scott McDowell says. “I’ve always relied on the press to tell me whats really going on.”
Kith and Kin is run by McDowell, who also hosts a music show called Long Rally on famed New Jersey freeform radio station WFMU, and Nick Mitchell Maiato, who has had a hand in releasing underground fare from artists like MV and Howling Hex on his Manchester-based Golden Lab Records label. In releasing a compilation, they saw an opportunity to create a thesis statement for what they want the new label to be and what they want it to do, while commenting on the state of the industry.
“I really wanted it to feel like a whole, not a Spotify playlist or a collection, but like an album,” McDowell says. “I listen to Spotify and I like the ease of access to it, but it really misses something in terms of context, so whatever else we do with the label we’re going to make that sure we provide plenty of context so people can take what they hear, if they like what they hear they can figure out where it sits in the culture.”
They reached out to artists they knew and to artists they admired to pitch the project. They immediately found an eagerness to pitch in, though McDowell is hesitant to speak to the artists’ intentions.
“I think there’s just a natural feeling in music and in the arts of wanting to include people, rather than separate them,” he says.
The cohesiveness McDowell references is strongly felt on Freedom of the Press, despite, or perhaps because of the diversity of sounds on display.
“They do share a sensibility and a vibe, I think, that hearkens back to the golden age of rock music in the sixties and seventies. We call it these days ‘Cosmic Americana’ or ‘Cosmic American Music’ that signified cultural shifts. All of these bands, to my ears, reference some of those moves,” McDowell says.
References to these pioneering bands abound. Sonically, sure, but in other ways, too, both direct and indirect. Naming a band Garcia Peoples, for example. It’s a vibe, a spirit, likely owed to too many contributing factors to name.
“There’s something going on in terms of the way that music that sounds familiar is hitting people right now. It’s sort of like a re-up, a recharge to these very common sounds that we’re all used to. You know, hearing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the grocery store,” McDowell offers. “It’s not cultural regression, necessarily, but it’s referencing the huge changes that occurred back then.”
Take the album’s highlight and its most succinct encapsulation of theme and ethos: Wooden Wand’s patient, pulsing “Hall of Mirrors.”
“If there is fear, let’s not conceal it/If a secrets been cached, let’s reveal it/If there’s something we want, let us go and steal it/Our disguise will be a hall of mirrors,” James Jackson Toth, who solely comprises Wooden Wand, sings over slow, deliberate piano chords that could have issued from any point in time since rock’s beginning.
While they are influenced by the sonic exploration of their sixties and seventies progenitors, these bands are not shy about moving beyond such sacred ground in order to incorporate the sound of the artists who bubbled up subsequently (and due) to those pioneers; from those a generation removed, like Lee Ranaldo, Earth, and Bardo Pond, to contemporaries like Steve Gunn and Mary Lattimore. To call it anti-jam jamming doesn’t quite work, but it’s hard to picture any of these bands cosplaying a Grateful Dead show. These bands reject the undue reverence paid to standard-bearers by the jam bands who have attempted to distill the sound and the experience to a collection of agreed-upon signifiers. In doing so, those carbon copiers have bypassed a spirit.
McDowell chalks it up to broader listening. “They’re coming from a musical headspace that’s much broader. A lot of these musicians started in punk bands or in underground scenes where the exposure to a multitude of styles and sounds was more commonplace, so I think that just absorbing the histories of a wider swath of music and coming from a stance that is very underground counterculture that comes through somehow in the music,” McDowell says.
His explanation speaks to the timelessness and urgency of the music, but could just as easily speak to the timelessness and urgency of the now. Will the histories be absorbed? Will the countercultures come through?