The modern American supermarket is an amalgamation of products and services- an impossible to miss behemoth of a building full of people and things. On the road, one can’t help but notice the presence of these cornerstones of commerce. They’re within 20 miles of just about every living citizen (I’m looking at you, Walmart). Whether you’re driving to work or to a bar gig across the state, you’re going to see one. Chicago based musician Paul Sottnik is no stranger to the road, or to supermarkets. As a young traveling musician, Paul spends a lot of time running from one gig to the next. His eclectic nature has put him in the driver’s seat of numerous projects- anywhere from rock bands to classical ballet accompaniment. Paul is a bit of a supermarket of musical ideas himself. In his latest 4-track EP, Supermarkets, Paul dances on the fine lines of genre, bending the ideas and testing the boundaries of ambient and jazz music. I got a chance to park the car and walk through the automatic doors into Supermarkets, and sifted through the lush array items and ideas Paul brings forth on this new release.
Each track is named as part of a series of “Supermarket” titles. Paul throws us into the fray immediately with “Supermarkets V.” The piano welcomes the listener in with an ostinato, giving the song a chilled vibe like taking a walk on a crisp fall day. A breezy synth paints the backdrop while a talking bass line breaks through the mix. Paul mirrors thee bass groove with a bass-vocal line sitting an octave up to add texture. The drums give the song a pulse, accenting parts of the ostinato before an accordion peeks out from behind the atmospheric window that gradually opens as the song expands. The accordion develops the piano line, creating a nice melodic variety which sits on top of the drum and bass pule. The song climaxes nearer to the end, as an organ works its way into the mix, giving way to a grand piano part which transitions nicely into the next piece. “Supermarkets II” is indeed the second track on the EP, the only one where the roman numeral matches the track listing. This swanky jazz tune elicits the feeling of being in a late-night jazz club in the 20’s. Obviously we’ll never experience what that may have been like since booze is legal now, but Paul does well to replicate that atmosphere so often portrayed in media, setting the scene with distant trumpet lines that cry out into the reverb washed mix of vocal harmonies. The piano takes on its own conversation, dancing on top of the foundation of vocal parts. There’s a subtle sprinkling of guitar chords that add meat in the middle of the piece before the trumpet comes back to take the narrative spotlight. Paul adds some delicate background pieces and Easter eggs on this track to keep it interesting in the short ~2min.
“Supermarkets IV” takes on a different feel. Paul creates more of an atmosphere here than in the previous tracks, opting for an explorable soundscape. It’s really cool how he’s able to add in all these numerous parts, allowing the listener to find their own focal point in the song much like a Brian Eno/Harold Budd creation. But, unlike these ambient forefathers, Paul maintains the jazz elements in the piano and sparse accordion lines, giving the song its own characteristic Sottnik feel. The song ends very abruptly, ripping the listener out of the trance and right into the next track. Easily the weirdest piece, “Supermarkets III” starts off with a really intriguing bass and guitar duel with more of a folk feel to it. The guitar sports a vintage sound here- kudos to Paul as he records and produces all this music himself and can nail these textures. The piano sheds its reverb and plays along nicely with the guitar and bass, adding a sense of improvisation to the conversation between the guitars. A backdrop of acapella-style vocals allows the song to breathe and, along with the shaker, gives an alternative pulse that goes both with and against the feel of the guitars. Through the complex maneuvering of these countering lines, Paul is also deft at sprinkling textures in the background that add to the supermarket feel of the piece. Namely, a vibraphone pops in at the very end like a sort of cadence signifying that the album is ending- the store is closing.
Paul does a great job of combining numerous genres to create a unique sound. Accessing a plethora of tools, he’s able to create soundscapes that grant the listener the opportunity to find nuances with each listen. While many of the parts can seem like an exercise in counterpoint, the accessibility is undeniable. Whether it’s your first listen or fifth, this EP will be able to bring something new to the table every time. The significance of being able to portray a concept so well without lyrics must be spoken to as well. Paul delivers on an interesting EP with a ton of replay value. I highly recommend this EP, and find it to be a nice addition to Paul’s already stellar discography. You can find his music on Bandcamp and other streaming platforms. Check it out!
Recorded performed and produced by Paul Sottnik in 2018
Artwork by Jackie Chuchanis