For all its many faults and the litany of systemic oppression that punctuates its existence, there’s one fact about the United States that overshadows all others: that this country was founded on stolen land. It was taken, by brute force, from the Indigenous tribes that originally inhabited its terrain, and who were then betrayed and persecuted and, ultimately, became the U.S.’s first victims of genocide. It’s a horrific, shameful history that anyone who’s ever, say, worn a Native headdress at Coachella should be forced to confront.
The heavy weight of that past flows like blood through Niineta, Joe Rainey’s debut album released on 37d03d, the community record label founded by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. A Pow Wow singer of the Red Lake Ojibwe—based in what is now called Minneapolis—his vocal stylings pay tribute to the Indigenous singing of the Ojibwe that have been handed down over centuries, but also infuse them with a modern twist courtesy of producer Andrew Broder. The result is 10 songs that bristle with beautiful tension and a deep, dark, wordless poetry.
At times, and especially at first, Niineta—an emphatic Ojibwe pronoun that translates to “just me,” Rainey’s acknowledgement that it’s his take on his ancestral music and his alone—feels like a breezy soundtrack to a lost summer. Opener “jammer from the slammer”—a recorded phone call with a relative from inside Jackson Correctional Institution—is a rudimentary recording of the Pow Wow style that then follows throughout the next nine songs. The vocals and atmospherics of “b.e. son” are soothing and calm, yet paranoid and unsettling, something that “easy on the cide” doubles down on.
But as the record progresses, the atmosphere becomes darker and more oppressive, more uncomfortable. Just listen to the blackhole swell and sonic histrionics of “jr. flip,” or the apocalyptic instrumental layers that build in “turned engine,” which sound like the world opening up and swallowing itself. There’s a brief moment of reprieve in the gentle, sparse heartbeat of “ch. 1222,” but that soon gives way to the desolate 11-minute glitchy disquiet of “phil’s offering,” a startling fusion of cultures that turns into a hypnotic, insistent, unrelenting pulse full of historical trauma before it fades—slowly, sadly—into silence. With that nothingness comes the sound of history, the sound of death, the sound of horrors that can never be undone.