SOUNDTRACK OF 2020: Cordoba’s Specter

SOUNDTRACK OF 2020: Cordoba’s Specter

Photo by Ayethaw Tun. Members of Cordoba. From left to right: Eric Novak, Brianna Tong, Cam Cunningham, Khalyle Hagood, Zach Bain-Selbo, Zach Upton-Davis.

Anything feels possible as of late. If a zombie apocalypse were to happen, I’m sure that people would respond with a shoulder shrug and a “meh.” In 2021, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is still far off, and a return to in-person shows is still unsafe. In 2020 we lost many DIY music venues. Notably the loss of venues like Situations and Rancho Huevos has left a hole in the Chicago DIY music scene.

It is in this veritable pit of despair that we turn to the arts to comfort us. Music has a way of making everything seem alright, even if just for a little while. There are those times though, in which we need more than comforting. We need to shout. We need to scream. We need to dance around our kitchen and stomp our feet. We need music with more substance. Cordoba, a genre bending Chicago sextet, created just such a catharsis in their debut LP 2020 release Specter.

With Specter we are provided with a soundtrack for the journey to the light at the end of the tunnel. As stated on the album’s press release, Cordoba is “…motivated by a deep-seated feeling that the fabric of society is quickly unraveling, and their songs react to issues like gentrification, police brutality, and escalating social unrest.” Indeed, Cordoba’s music highlights many struggles, such as systemic racism and crooked politicians, just to name a couple close to home in Chicago.

When I listen to Specter, I am reminded of the ways in which we navigate a less than spectacular life. There’s joyfulness to the album. It is especially present in the third track, “Mutual Aid”.

Coming in at just over a minute, Cordoba packs everything they have into this short piece. It begins with a fanfare that feels like the moments right before a battle. The guitar carries the song to a peak, and then is joined once again by the horns for a strain that screams “victory”.  Without words this upbeat song speaks to its title perfectly, its composite parts working in harmony to create something in a very short time frame. This echoes the mutual aid efforts taking place since the pandemic began, with folks tapping into a practice that goes back hundreds of years, revolving around the care of other people. For many who rely on in-person gatherings, events and indoor dining for their income, the blow dealt by the pandemic has been especially sharp. The unemployment situation remains dire. To address the crisis, Chicago’s DIY Facebook group has started its own mutual aid group for DIY musicians. The goal of the group is to provide financial assistance to artists within the scene, with a focus on marginalized identities. In their song “Mutual Aid” Cordoba provides an anthem for hard work being done within their community to meet the devastating challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Skip two tracks over to “Waters Rise”, and lead vocalist Brianna Tong take you to a sacred space through the decadent flow of the arrangement. Tong leads the listener through the beginning of the song, which gives way to sultry saxophone, layered, rich, and resonant with the ring of gospel. But what makes “Waters Rise” so special is it’s soul and R&B undertones, reminiscent of protest songs from the 1970s, such as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. When we are navigating a world set on disenfranchising those with less power, it is songs like this that keep us going.

But Cordoba reminds us that not every protest song is a smoothly asked question like, “What’s Going On”. In their track “No Answer”, Cordoba invites you to shout along with the sometimes garbled lyrics, giving it a very Riot Girl feel. When paired with the repetitive horns that puff out singular, distressed notes, the impact is profound. But still, like Marvin Gaye, Tong poses one very simple question, “Why do I have to pay for water?”.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Cordoba for Quip Magazine, before pandemic times, when I invited the entire crew over to my apartment. It was one of my favorite interviews I have done. You feel at home among them, and well in this case, I actually was at home! And, similar to how the writer of the Cordoba interview featured in The Sick Muse Issue 9 felt, I had trouble transcribing my interview because of all the band’s energy. They were excited to answer questions and felt deeply about both the music they make and how they navigate activism. It was like a get together with your friends, which makes for the best of interviews. 

In my interview with Cordoba, we discussed the intersection of art and politics. “I definitely do not think art is inherently political,” Tong said. “You could have crappy hotel art that is just nothing behind it. I used to be a community organizer and was also in a band and the two were kept very separate, so I didn’t think a lot about how they were really connected. I see a lot of people doing cool stuff to bring the two together, like fundraising. But I think in some ways that you can imagine better worlds and put that imagination in a format that people can consume.”  Similarly in their interview for The Sick Muse, Tong touched on this saying “I think it is an important part of people’s radicalization to actually feel about what the fuck is happening, and not just be like this is how it is, it sucks.” And so while Cordoba’s Specter certainly speaks to the times, it also exists purely as it is: a form of entertainment and distraction. With a perfect balance, Cordoba manages to blend their political commentary with entertainment.

Specter Album Cover (2020)

Music cements us to a place in time.  As Tong said, “you have to actually feel what the fuck is happening”. We need things like music to help us break down any barriers to being in the moment, even if that current moment is not the best. In the years ahead when we look back at social distancing, mass layoffs and world wide protests, we’ll remember the art we made and the music we listened to. I’ll certainly remember Specter.

And remember, protesting can be as simple as taking care of yourself. Rest is radical. Take a load off and enjoy Specter today. 

Treat yourself to a CD on their bandcamp.

Check out their lyrics in TSM Issue 14, songs “Factory” and “Crimson” off Specter