This post is written by Justin "J Co." Corp - engineer at Second Street LLC. Justin has worked at several recording studios in Chicago and has a Bachelor's Degree in Commercial Music from Millikin University.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice,
for it's not the same river
and he's not the same man.”
There is a silent change that happens in your mid-20's. Even as you live with the same roommates, work a similar job, and live a similar lifestyle, there is a susceptibility to change that comes with every new day. You watch your parents and grandparents gradually lose vitality, and your childhood home (if you still have access to it) takes on a new meaning. Within the past few years, my high school closed permanently, my childhood home was sold, and my childhood church has dissolved. There is no institution or home that can live on forever. But life goes on, and in a way, these events are crucial to the bliss of reminiscing. Never have I had so many dreams of playing floor hockey, walking through a laundry room, or making art in Sunday School than I do now.
It's hard to describe this silent, slow, subtle change that we all eventually experience. For this reason, I was delighted to hear a recent release from a local Chicago artist that helped me contextualize these experiences I was having with the feelings of love and permanence. As a singer-songwriter with a gift for production, Samuel Aaron's newest project dives into longing, abandonment, and gratitude without feeling too sappy or grand. With no further ado, here's one of the shortest and most graceful releases that I've had the privilege to write about: Samuel Aaron's Versions of Love Songs.
Samuel Aaron is a singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist whose soulful music sits somewhere between pop and alt rock. More than that, Samuel Aaron is an artist that takes the time to give credit to those that have elevated his music throughout his life. He has noticeable influences in songwriting pioneers like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, while also exploring the sounds of newer artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Ethan Gruska (a personal favorite of mine). With a clear sense of his past, Aaron draws on classic songwriting motifs like love and loss with an increased sense of awareness and in-your-ear intimacy.
Aaron's vocal timbre rests perfectly above his productions, which draw upon bedroom lo-fi, funk, and folk elements. Aaron had his first streaming release a short two years ago with the single "By the Way" in advance of his first EP entitled ALL I AM IS ALL I HEAR. The path to his newest release began in 2021. The first single to be released was "Anything Left," which was later accompanied with a charming live performance. A lyric video for "Keep Me Around" provided the final push as the full EP, Versions of Love Songs, was released three days later on October 14, 2022.
What Does It Sound Like?
As is the case for many of the faces of the modern independent music scene (perhaps thanks to Bon Iver), Versions of Love Songs capitalizes on the collision of digital and acoustic music. A near-silent start to the project begins with a glitchy modular synth pad, revving up and down to set the scene on a delightfully cinematic, shimmering soundscape. As the tempo sets in and we finally begin to groove with the drum programming, Aaron gives an impression that we'll be living this serene digital world for a verse or two... until a phone dial tone interrupts this illusion. We hang on with anticipation for something -- anything -- to bring us back into this shiny "Francis and the Lights"-sounding world that has been laid out in front of us. Instead, Aaron comes back slower and lower, departing from the "I just wanna be around you" lyrics that have stoically guided the song thus far. We arrive on a key distinction: "If you keep me around, I promise that I will never hurt you." A clicking phone SFX closes the song with punctuation as if to shake the daydream away.
The EP features moments of homely acoustic guitar introductions, paired with innovative production choices that could only be done with today's technology. My favorite moment of the entire record is a trick that he pulls at the 1:30 timestamp in the second tune, "Stubborn": a sonic wave crashes down on the otherwise tepid landscape and transitions us into a slow-burning, passionate world in which collaborator Hunter Borowick has space to tear the house down with a John Mayer-esque guitar solo as dialogue samples and synths battle.
The phrase Versions of Love Songs is not a faux-profound title by any means. It is the truest description of the project. It is obvious throughout the entirety of this work that Aaron has a gift for creating sensual, intimate indie ballads. But they're certainly his version of them.
What Does It Feel Like?
There is a deep appreciation of the artistic process that rings clear in Versions of Love Songs, working to enhance every part of it. Look no further than the live music video for "Anything Left," where a one-man production meets photographers, videographers, musicians, and choreography in a photography studio bathed in natural lighting. Even outside of this project, Samuel Aaron is a frequent collaborator with visual artists, filmmakers, and other musicians out of his newly-opened home studio.
Rather than a joyful proclamation of love, Versions of Love Songs tends to embrace the more melancholic sentiments of love. "Anything Left" is a song about abandonment. It's the nomadic feeling of coming back to the things that you loved, and finding that there's no more to discover. For those of you that haven't experienced it yet, there are times where the places that you felt so at home with - whether that be a person, house, school, even a church - suddenly escape your grasp. As a song of loss and contemplation, there is something so sorrowful and human about the arrangement. The lamentation in the vocals and piano is amplified by a brief trumpet solo in the exact center of the track, courtesy of Michail Thompson.
"You're Still Here" is the most uptempo track on the album, featuring heavily effected drums, filtered synths, robotic vocal effects, and a kick drum that commands your attention. The second half of the song moves like an electronic reworking of an acoustic track, which is not uncommon for Aaron's songwriting. This was the first Samuel Aaron song I had the chance to hear, as it was added to our "On The Block: Indie & Rock" playlist last month.
After a digital rinsing, we end with an analog rebirth. Rich acoustic guitar tones pave the way for the final track on the album, "Write the Rest Away." The arrangement, the tone, and the care that shine in this record mesh with a classic Nashville-style production that allows the song to feel both romantic and tragic.
“The meaning of the river flowing is not that all things are changing
so that we cannot encounter them twice,
but that some things stay the same only by changing.”
I said at the beginning that Versions of Love Songs is not only concise (at just over 16 minutes long), but also graceful. The approach that Aaron takes towards music provides a deep connection to humanity. It's a chill listen, but not without depth. It's a romantic album, but not without pain. It's a solo project, but it wouldn't be the same without countless musicians, co-producers, engineers, and others along the way.
Looking for a chance to see him tackle this project live, along with some special guests and surprises? Of course you are! On November 14, you can find Samuel Aaron and pals, plus Chicago DIY rocker Alga and electro-pop musician Kenneth Rhys at theBook Club for an exclusive post-release show. This show is also featured in the PULL UP! series by our friends over at Real Ones - a platform that we humbly view as the best Chicago music show around.
Have you listened through the EP yet? Are you feeling what I'm feeling? Let me know in the comments and don't forget to follow and support your favorite Chicago artists!
On The Block...
"Proven A Star" - Girl K
Girl K disrupts the retro-indie scene with their newest trancey and dancey single. Squelching synthesizers, filter sweeps, and EDM influences serve as the luscious bed for silky pop vocals. I am always looking forward to the newest Girl K release!
"I Don't Regret A Thing" - Angelenah
Taking a time-out from directing, poetry, photography and more, Angelenah gives us a new EP with a smooth introduction and spacious production. Each song has a drastically different style and flavor, all reminiscent of TLC and other 1990's R&B greats.
"SPIN" - OTNES
Splitting time between Chicago and Nashville, the new release by OTNES (rhymes with Hotness) has enough ear-candy for a whole feast. The width of the background vocals and the imaging on the synthesizers makes my ears feel like they're in sonic heaven.