NC Release Radar: Our favorite new North Carolina music releases

By Grant Golden

June 28, 2021

Lately it feels like we’re drinking from the fire hydrant of new music, artists are finally ready to drop the art they’ve been crafting during quarantine. It’s a bit of a gift and a curse; there’s only so much time in the day to keep your ears open to the new sounds are constantly buzzing through North Carolina. But fear not North Carolina music fans, CLTure is here to bring you standout local releases from the recent weeks. With bluegrass jams, downtempo psych-rock jaunts and funk bops that’ll get your hips swinging, there’s enough new music in North Carolina to get everyone grooving.

Zoocru – “Honey”

Anytime Durham’s inimitable jazz group Zoocru drops a track, ears inevitably perk up. The quartet recently shared their first single of 2021, and it’s just as smooth as the title insinuates. “Honey” glides atop a sparse yet compelling drum beat and fills the air with echoing keys, searing guitar licks and silky sax lines.

While the track clocks in just over six minutes, it feels shorter and begs for repeat listens. This is a testament to how well composed Zoocru’s tracks are. They display a dazzling sense of restraint. Each instrument is given time to breathe and build up to its own musical climax, resulting in an awe-inspiring series of musical peaks and valleys.

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Natalie Carr – “Scraped Knees”

Natalie Carr is a Charlotte pop artist who’s unafraid to bare it all. Building her sound around woozy beats and emotive lyricism, Carr crafts triumphant pop sounds with somber undertones. Tracks “Blue Lights” and “Sad Little Rant” have amassed hundreds of thousands of streams, and her latest, “Scraped Knees,” rides that wave of momentum, promising to garner even more attention.

Opening with a bassy wobble and minimalistic percussion, Carr’s vocals burst into the mix with a staccato phrasing. While her vocals are bright, her lyrics reflect on a tumultuous relationship filled with self-doubt. With tales of crying in the tub and poorly bleached hair, Carr gives a snapshot of intense emotions packaged into a shimmery pop track. This juxtaposition and sincerity gives her tunes a depth that keeps listeners yearning for more.

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Watchhouse – “New Star”

Mandolin Orange has been one of the state’s most heralded folk acts for over a decade now, so when the Chapel Hill duo announced that they’d be changing their name to Watchhouse it took many fans by surprise. But isn’t a rose by any other name just as sweet? Watchhouse finds Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz expanding on their pastoral folk foundation for something more expansive and adventurous, but with the same heart-wrenching storytelling.

The group has released three singles ahead of their forthcoming self-titled album, and “New Star” serves as the best snapshot for the group’s new ethos. Accompanied by a video directed by Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath, “New Star” uses acoustic instrumentation, organs and harmonicas to glide through the ether. While it’s easy to get lost in the melancholy sounds, Marlin and Frantz’s harmonies and lyrics bring the listener to a place of hopefulness and promise. It’s that same poignant feeling that Mandolin Orange’s tracks gave us for years, but we now get to see it in a new light.

Northside Rocky – “Do What I Want”

Durham’s Northside Rocky is an artist who blurs the lines between genres, landing somewhere between pop, hip-hop and R&B, but never landing in the same space twice. Northside’s flow is amorphous, riding an uplifting vibe that bobs and weaves with the rhythm of the backing beat. On his latest single, “Do What I Want,” Northside pairs with longtime DaBaby collaborator, Sean da Firzt, and Kayo The Wizard for an upbeat radio-ready track.

Opening with a groove-inducing hi-pitched synth run, the beat kicks in and Northside hits the ground running. With verses split between rapping and singing, Northside’s lyrics are carefree and sensual, but peppered with clever wordplay and punchlines. It’s hard not to head bob to the infectious hook as he “sorry not sorrys” his way through showing up late to parties, and these memorable melodies are what makes Northside Rocky such a promising act.

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C.R.I.S.T.E.N – Keiko in Bloom

C.R.I.S.T.E.N is one of those special beat makers who brings color to every sample, drum hit or keys line. This Siler City-based producer crafts rich tracks packed full of detail that brim with nuanced textural elements. His latest release is a collaborative effort with ALYX Ryon, a Maryland-based producer who brings a similar spacey, glitched-out brand of beatmaking to the mix, making Keiko in Bloom feel conversational in nature.

C.R.I.S.T.E.N’s music seemingly lives in the pocket, constantly exploring different grooves and rhythms through chopped samples, boom bap drums and warm enveloping synths. Once you find yourself immersed in a sound, the floor is ripped out from under you and you’re placed in completely new sonic ground. Obscure jazz samples bring life to these mixes as distorted vocal chops and crisp percussion add rhythmic elements that make it damn near impossible to stand still.  

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The Wormholes – “Tsunami”

Charlotte psych-rock duo The Wormholes has been steadily gaining steam as one of the state’s most exciting experimental acts. With a captivating collection of sounds that blends synths, guitars, drums and electronic whirrs, The Wormholes build spacious soundscapes anchored with earworm melodies. “Tsunami” is the band’s third single from their forthcoming record, Light in the Dark.

“Tsunami” is a slinking track that traverses a battle with insecurity and chemical dependencies. The song kicks off with a simple monophonic synth line, but sonically blossoms as the narrator gets more and more somber with feelings of desolation and despair. “Tsunami” is a calculating track that showcases The Wormholes’ darker side of psychedelia and begs the question of what else they have up their sleeve.

Jooselord – “Quarantine”

Leave it to Jooselord to perfectly sum up the frustrations and pent-up aggression of a year in quarantine. Durham’s Moshpit Messiah’s first single since his breakout album of the same name is a perfect summary of all that Jooselord’s music encapsulates. Whether it’s binge watching Netflix or maligning Covid-deniers, Joose infuses anger, humor and sincerity into every corner of his music.

Accompanied with a video that’s already amassed nearly 60,000 plays, “Quarantine” keeps all eyes on Joose as he moshes with his peers in a near-empty room. While the video is visually stimulating with stark contrasts of black and white set design, “Quarantine” stands alone as a powerful single without the visual aid. It’s a track that sums up a year’s worth of anger, confusion and longing in Jooselord’s typical biting style.

Daron. – “Mass Appeal”

Many artists have been riding the wave of ‘70s funk and disco in recent years, but it’s hard to think of an act that’s been able to do so as authentically as Greensboro’s Daron. Last year Daron. was crafting downtempo moody R&B tunes, but after pairing with legendary guitarist Charlie Hunter (D’Angelo, Frank Ocean, Reliably Bad), he’s evolved his sound into a timeless blend of funk, hip-hop and soul. 

“Mass Appeal” is an aptly named track that finds Daron. fawning over an object of affection with uncanny style and grace. Joined by Hunter on guitar and Sam Fribush on organ, the song’s instrumentation feels reminiscent of Prince and Funkadelic with choppy guitar licks and swelling organ lines embellishing a tight drum beat and bass line. Daron.’s vocal cadence bounces between a soulful swagger and rhythmic hip-hop, giving this funk-filled track a contemporary feel and, frankly, mass appeal.

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Into the Fog – Runnin’ Blind & Chasin’ Time

The music of Raleigh’s Into the Fog is an amalgamation of American roots music that comes together around a bluegrass foundation. Formed in 2017 for the competition at the legendary Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Into the Fog has been barreling down the road ever since. In recent years they’ve earned slots at some of the most prestigious roots festivals in the region, but with Covid halting touring, they had a chance to hunker down and craft a stellar sophomore album.

Runnin’ Blind… brings rich storytelling and tight instrumentation with a dynamic blend of tracks. “Midnight in Montana” and “40 Eastbound Road” are blazing bluegrass ditties, while “Back to Tennessee” is a slow-moving ballad and “Less of my Mind” brings a jazzy swing to the mix. Into the Fog never settles too long on a singular sound, which makes their music all the more invigorating for fans.

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Stray Local – “Featherweight”

The husband-and-wife songwriting duo, Stray Local, has a bonafide bop on their hands with their latest single, “Featherweight.” This Raleigh duo has come a long way from indie-folk beginnings and “Featherweight” is a testament to that growth.

Swaying with glistening guitar lines and delicate synth embellishments, “Featherweight” is an ode to fighting through anxiety. Hannah Rowen’s evocative lyrics and catchy hooks are embedded in densely layered instrumentation, bouncing between roots and pop. “I’m a featherweight, but I’m a fighter” she belts during the chorus in a proclamation of perseverance that is expanded upon throughout the track. As the music fades, Rowan’s vocal refrain of “don’t count me out…” rings, and one can’t help but revel in this sonic triumph.

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