Dream Pop Etherealness Meets Singer/Songwriter Intimacy on Bartees and the Strange Fruit’s Debut Album
Words: Kyle Smith
Trippy tape loops, acoustic guitar, mallet percussion, and horns. Might not be your first thought when you think of folky singer/songwriters. But for Bartees Cox of Bartees and the Strange Fruit, it’s a match made in heaven.
A songwriter and guitarist based out of Brooklyn, Cox (who also plays guitar for the vocalist Lizzie No, and plays guitar and sings in the post-hardcore/emo band Stay Inside) started Bartees and the Strange Fruit as an outlet for his folk-leaning music, with the goal that this project could be a conduit for sharing stories about people of color. He got the idea for the project after playing an open mic in DC where someone in the crowd remarked that they never hear black folks playing folk music, not knowing that Cox grew up in that style of music in his rural Oklahoma hometown. In a press release Cox mentions that as a black person himself, he believes that showing how black people fit into what is commonly thought of as “white music” is important. So, Bartees and the Strange Fruit was born as a way for him to creatively address that.
The resulting debut album, Magic Boy is a heady, but warm and honest conversation about Cox’s personal identity as an artist and his decision to leave Oklahoma for the East Coast. The title is taken from a lyric the song “Hear My Train A Comin’,” that goes “I gotta leave this town….and try to be a magic boy.” In that same press release, Cox says, “The ‘Magic Boy’ is how my family sees me…their kid that has made it work in New York, chasing a dream.”
The album is a mix of both heavily produced songs with deep ambient layers and analog effects such as tape loops and space echoes, and more traditional singer/songwriter folk style songs that feature just Cox and his guitar. The mix is balanced and paced well throughout the album, opening on “You’re Here” a track with deeply layered ambience behind a simple guitar melody and a duet between Cox and a female singer. From there it goes to “IDK,” an uptempo footstomper driven by a finger picking guitar part. This second track is a good example of Cox’s ability to hold it down with just his voice and a guitar, and it’s wonderful.
“Gone,” the third track on the album, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s another high production piece featuring tape loops, big analog echoes, strings, and mallet percussion, It is also one of the heavier songs content wise, lyrically discussing the constant fear of growing up as a black person in small town Oklahoma. It opens on the line, “Sundown you’d find us inside with the lantern on, blood on the doorstep, armor of God.” Cox says, “This is a reference to Yukon, Oklahoma…a town where many people of color were run out in the early 2000s, and which was once a sundown town.” It’s a haunting beautiful and honest piece.
“Count it Back,” continues with similar themes but couches them in a more traditional singer/songwriter setting. It starts with a danceable finger pickin’ guitar part on the verses that’s just plain sexy, and a horn section joins in halfway through, adding to the dance vibe of the song.
This is followed by “Get Over It” which is another duet with a female singer. More conversational in tone, the song consists of just acoustic guitar and vocals that were recorded with a big room reverb. This gives the track the effect that the singers are singing to an empty hall. This musical space juxtaposed next to the lyrics of “if you let me down, I can get over it” makes this track a beautiful conversation about the distance between people.
“Best of You” follows and it is another more highly produced song. It begins with a rhythmic tape loop behind the guitar, going to simple rhythmic time keeping with the acoustic guitar in the verse. This one builds in intensity throughout. Adding in horns and strings to mix to create tension. There’s a big slow down at the end of the track – like this intensity is just building, building, building and then the tension it just is too much and the song falls apart. Really a cool musical effect.
“Little Brother” is another one of my favorite tracks on the album. It’s more traditional singer/songwriter story-telling, talking about the hopes, fears, realities, and trials of family life. It’s very personal to Cox’s own story with him moving out East, and this personal relation comes through in his vocal performance especially.
“Eat Your Heart Out” is the final track of the album. It starts fairly minimalist and then it kicks in to a super intense vocal – displays Cox’s ability to sing powerfully and emotionally. This track also gives you a hint of how his vocals fit in the post-hardcore setting of Stay Inside. It ends with dissonant loops of strings with effects, featuring his mother – jazz and opera singer Donna Cox – singing on the outro, bringing the story of the album full circle by making it a family affair.
Magic Boy is a beautiful collection of songs that make you dance, smile, and think. It’s an honest look into Cox’s own life, but in that intimacy there is plenty of things that are universal. An excellent debut release, I look forward to more from Bartees and the Strange Fruit as well as the other projects Cox’s is involved with. Check them out at the links below.