There is a buzz around the Bay Area and pockets of the country as the release date for Magic In The Other’s (MITO) debut album, What We Know Is Possible, nears its September 14th release. The buzz surrounds a band, comprised of Ezra Lipp on drums, Roger Riedlbauer (Jolie Holland, Mercury Falls) on guitar and Steve Adams (ALO, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers) on bass, crackling with creative energy and a new take on familiar sounds. The debut is a gorgeous mix of rock, jazz, and blues that come together in MITO’s own brand of what can correctly be called, “avant-rock.” But it is not just this new style of music that MITO brings to the table, instead it is the amalgam of these players that make the music special.
Helmed by drummer Ezra Lipp, who might be the humblest San Francisco music luminary on the scene, the album has his stamp all over it. Truly, it was Ezra’s vision and thought process, that not only birthed this band but led it down the winding road by which it wends its way today. There is not a selfish bone in the man’s body and he consistently gives himself over to the music and the muse gig after gig. Ezra will be the first to say that MITO’s success is due to the sum of the trio’s talents, but it is important to give Lipp his due. Ezra has played with the very best in the Bay Area music scene (most notably as Phil Lesh’s “go to” drummer with his Phil Lesh and Friends projects as well as 2018’s Tour d’Amour with ALO) but always as a sideman. Now he has his band. Lipp is a drummer that lives out of time, his syncopated beats and inventive rhythms have made him one of the most sought-after musicians on the road but in addition to that, he consistently gives back to his community through his playing, his generosity and his podcast, “The Ezra Lipp Hour (More or Less) that is currently on hiatus for obvious reasons but HIGHLY recommended here because it gives the listener a window into Lipp himself, his influences, the music he loves and the level upon which he operates.
But this album! When this record was conceived, it is not unfair to say that “songs” were not the band’s focus. Instead, their exciting performances showcased the band’s forays into both orchestrated and improvisational Jazz/groove instrumentals. Tempo shifts, bouncing guitars that could turn to a snarl on a dime, steady, throbbing bass that intermingled with imaginative rhythms sent those who were listening closely into head-nodding ecstasies. This was something different. It was music that had not been yet been seen or heard. It was perhaps a little reminiscent of late nineties KVHW but it progressed well beyond that and therein is the excitement. As the band went into the studio and began laying down tracks for the album, it was clear that there was more on their minds and these thoughts turned to lyrics and lyrics turned to verses and verses turned into songs. Since the 2016 election, America has slid into uncharted territory, climate change is manifesting into disasters that are impacting this country, from east to west and in between, nearly monthly. Instrumentals cannot properly address these times, but words can. So, lyrics were laid atop that tack-sharp instrumentation on about half the tracks on the record, the other half holding space for the outstanding instrumentals that fans have come to love.
What We Know Is Possible is perhaps the first record to arrive in the midst of our current world struggles that truly tries to make sense of these times in which we live. It could have gone dark, but dark is not where MITO goes. There is a strong message of hope here that lifts the listener up. Collectively, the songs become an anthem of empathy amidst a daily grind of negativity. Songs that take hurtful topics like natural disasters (specifically the Sonoma County fires of last October that impacted Ezra and his friends personally), as well as an apocalyptic political landscape and turn all that hurt and confusion on its head by examining these negatives through a quest for personal positivity. They seek the answer to the question of how to still boundlessly love one’s fellow man and embrace one’s personal blessings amidst a world, quite literally, on fire. With lyrics like, “I am a product of my privilege, but I can still tell right from wrong,” These songs peer through the dark and glimpse the light of cooperation. They are a clarion call to eschew the stereotypes daily bandied about and leave them at the curb. While there are some among us that would write such heady thoughts off as “snowflake talk,” what so many of us realize now is how necessary the discussion truly is. That music might help the discussion along is only fitting. But do not couch these words as a suggestion that this album has a political agenda, no way, it’s just an invitation to come to the table.
It’s not just the lyrics, the playing on this record is utterly inspired. Lipp put together a band of players that coordinate their unique strengths into laser focus. When that focus is applied, the sound can be devastating in the best sense of the word. One listen to “Power of Pelicans” will illustrate this. While Steve Adams’ bass line has just enough of the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One” in it to make the song immediately accessible to a wide range of listeners, Riedlbauer’s guitar takes some serious wing over Ezra’s wild swings and strikes on the skins. Throw in some horns that initially find the melody and sit with it for a bit but soon begin their own slow descent into a kind of auditory anger and the listener connects to that “avant-rock” side of this trio. Here is a song in which the players all say what they want to say without saying it at all. There is a growl to this one, a searing burn that cuts and slashes and gives us a hint of what a monster it can be played on a stage to a full room.
MITO gives us an LP of thoughtful lyrical pieces placed against perfectly played, sharp instrumentals that get the listener thinking, and probably dancing in their living room. This is a band to watch, it is a band worthy of repeated listens and visits as they build on a momentum that has taken northern California venues and festivals by storm. Buy this album (pre-sale started 9/4!) and hear what blossoming greatness sounds like. Embrace three good guys making music that gives voice to a people in a time that needs it and makes you want to high-five somebody.