Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Levitating With Car Seat Headrest


Although Teens Of Denial, Car Seat Headrest's triumphant 2016 album, is laced with keyboards and the surprising blast of a horn section, leader Will Toledo definitely subscribes to Lou Reed's dictum: "You can't beat two guitars, bass, and drums." And, except for occasional hypnotic loops, that's what he delivered in stunning style to a packed house at Webster Hall last Friday night (and into Saturday morning - it was part of the Governor's Ball After Dark series). 

For a bit of verité reaction, here's the hyped review I dashed off on Bandsintown after the show:

"Fantastic show! The band's connection to the audience was something to behold. Webster Hall practically levitated with the energy. Will Toledo is a true master of song, singing, guitar, and the stage - and his band was more than up to the task of supporting him. Practically every song was a highlight but Unforgiving Girl and Fill In The Blank were extra special. Also notable was the epic ballad-like approach to Bowie's Teenage Wildlife. I would see them again in a heartbeat!"

I also posted this video, just a hint of the energy in the room, which had the ballroom's sprung floor bouncing:



One thing Father Lou did not mention in his recipe for success was lyrics, which were obviously a huge aspect of his art. So it was for Buddy Holly, the original avatar of "two guitars, bass, and drums," and so it is for Toledo. He's brilliant at turning self-doubt and bad behavior into empathetic anthems ("Drugs are better, drugs are better with friends are better, friends are better, friends are better with drugs are better..." or "We are not a proud race, it's not a race at all, We're just trying, I'm only trying to get home: Drunk Drivers!" or "I didn't want you to hear that shake in my voice/my pain is my own.") and the audience knew every word. The last time I heard this much audience participation was at the Kanye West show and in both cases it was an amazing thing to experience. This is one reason we go to concerts in the first place, for the thrill of being among the subset of "our people" that includes fans of the act on stage.

Nap Eyes, the opening band, commanded only a sub-subset of the people in the room, the chatter sometimes threatening to drown out the more delicate moments. But their quietly determined indie - somewhere between Mutual Benefit and Velvet Underground 3rd - won them some new fans, who crowded around them at the merch table after the show. While it wasn't the ideal setting, I was glad for the chance to see them, having really enjoyed their last album Thought Rock Fish Scale, which includes the modern classic, Stargazer

I've been trying to get to a CSH show for about two years, ever since Toledo poked his head above the Bandcamp morass, but they always sold out in minutes. Now I know why - and thank goodness for the credit card pre-sale! I won't belabor the point further: See this band

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Rock On (And On)
Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc.
The Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 1
Best Of 2016: The Top 20

Monday, May 29, 2017

Record Roundup: Rock On (And On)

I made a tiny zine about long songs - let me know if you want a copy!
So far, 2017 is proving to be a good year for what we still call rock music. Part of the vitality of the form can be felt in two emerging trends I have observed starting earlier this year.

1. Live Albums: Rock has always thrived on stage and one of its central challenges has been capturing that lightning in the studio. A good live album bypasses that issue and gives us the raw, uncut power we seek (although sometimes with a little tweaking). As I noted in my review of the excellent and exploratory live album by Brazilian psych-rockers Boogarins, official concert releases haven't been so common lately. But even before that album came out, Sleater Kinney put out the explosive Live In Paris, which must have been manna for fans, as was Carrie & Lowell Live by Sufjan Stevens. Hiss Golden Messenger also put out a beautiful document of an early concert from their current tour. Get it for free - and if it doesn't compel you to by a ticket next time M.C. Taylor comes to town, I don't know what will. Perhaps this trend is a reaction to the bolted together industrial strength shiny objects that dominate the top 40. Either way, it's a heartening development and I think there will be more. 

2. Epic Tracks: Long songs by rock bands is another trend that has ebbed and flowed ever since Dylan waxed Like A Rolling Stone and The Doors ended their debut with The End. While they've never gone away entirely, this was the first year that I've felt moved to start gathering songs longer than seven minutes in a Spotify playlist imaginatively called Epic Tracks 2017. Maybe it's the Blackstar effect, as the title track from Bowie's final album was a 10-minute masterpiece, or it could be inspiration from Car Seat Headrest, who turned heads in 2016 with The Ballad of Costa Concordia, which powered on for 11 minutes and change. 

When it came to starting up the playlist, more than one song from Father John Misty's astonishing Pure Comedy could have made the cut. Tough choice, but I picked the incantatory expanse of Leaving L.A., which devastates in one minute and causes a snarky chuckle in the next, to finish the mix. His old colleagues Fleet Foxes are also included, represented by First Of May/Ôdaigahara, the suite-like first single from their upcoming album

A less expected occupant is my cousin, Billy Joseph, with the title track to his lushly produced album Ride On The Mystery, which finds him pushing his voice into new places, before letting guitars and synths take over. I was also surprised - and most pleasantly - to hear Jay Som stretch out on For Light, the last song of Everybody Works, her striking collection of sophisticated indie - all recorded in her bedroom. She really can do it all. 

While lengthy songs are common in metal, Mastodon's latest, Emperor of Sand, is such a killer return to form that I dropped Jaguar God into the list. The Feelies have also been known to play long and, as it happens, my favorite song from their lethargic new album is In Between (Reprise), a blistering 11 minute rocker. LCD Soundsystem is another sacred cow that disappoints as often as it delights, but fortunately their new single is in the latter category and one song, Call the Police, is a natural fit for the playlist at just over seven minutes. 

Keep me in the loop on anything I've missed - I'm hoping the Epic Tracks 2017 playlist itself goes to epic length by the end of the year!

In addition to the albums mentioned above, here are three other rock albums that I've been returning to often.

The Courtneys - II This is a familiar sound: driving rhythms, guitars that chime, grind, and mesh, taut bass lines, edgy-sweet female vocals, a whiff of the 90's. Familiar enough, in fact, that I almost turned away. But then the hooks got their hooks into me, the band's conviction and craftsmanship became more convincing, and the lyrics revealed a sly commentary on the nostalgia the music seemed to represent: "You'll never get old and you'll never die/It just makes me want to cry." It's an addictive, joyful collection that improves on their debut in every way. No sophomore slump here! Start with Silver Velvet or Lost Boys (yes, an homage to the Kiefer Sutherland classic) to see if your boat gets afloat. The Vancouver-based band is on an extensive world tour (sometimes as an opening act), which will be returning stateside in September. I wish I could see them at the High Watt in Nashville, but I will gladly settle for Park Church Co-op in Brooklyn on October 16th. 

Novella - Change Of State This is also a second album, although the Londoners have been honing their sound since 2010. All that hard work paid off in their distinctive debut, Land, which came out in 2015. So Novella's progress is more incremental than The Courtney's, but it shows in the greater focus they bring to their crystal-clear psych-rock, which starts with flowing melodies and marries shimmering guitars to a hypnotic beat that casts back to Klaus Dinger's motorik drumming in Krautrock pioneers Neu. First-timers should dial up the title track or A Thousand Feet, with its haunting refrain of "But there's nothing there," and a spacious arrangement that probably gives plenty of opportunities to stretch out in concert. Now if they would just play NYC...or at least make a live album.

Spoon - Hot Thoughts By now an American institution, Spoon returned after three years with yet another terrific album, their ninth in a 20 year career. The production shows even more attention to detail than their last, They Want My Soul, which is saying a lot. Their ongoing fascination with techniques borrowed from hip hop and R&B continues to inject sonic excitement into the songs, which are already little wonders of jagged chord changes and jarring emotions. Dave Fridmann (known for his work with the Flaming Lips) is once again their able co-conspirator in the production chair, and I also note that main songwriter Britt Daniel is using co-writers outside of the band, which is unusual. I'm not sure if that is the source of the more telegraphic, minimalist style of some of the lyrics, or some other aspect of the songs.


Another difference is that the core of the album was recorded as a quartet, without multi-instrumentalist Eric Harvey, who had been a member since 2004. This seems to expose the other players' contributions - in a good way, with Rob Pope shining especially bright on bass and adding a post-punk edge to keep things from getting too polished. Jim Eno is forever superb on the drums and newest member Alex Fischel continues to deploy intriguing keyboard textures while also being Daniel's sparring partner on guitar. These changes in personnel and process may be what it takes to keep things fresh this far into their career. While they have sometimes been accused of being formulaic, I can safely say that nothing else they've put out sounds like the nearly ambient Pink Up, which could almost be from side two of Bowie's Low, or Us, a melancholy instrumental laced with spacey sax (by Ted Taforo) that transports me to the futuristic L.A. of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. It's an adventurous ending and one that points in new directions. Like rock music itself, Spoon continues to be surprisingly durable and rewarding - long may they reign.

P.S. If the music described herein is in your sweet spot, follow my Rock, Folk, Etc. playlist on Spotify to hear more and keep up with new releases.

You may also enjoy:
Boogarins Live: Parallel Play
Long Time Coming
Bulletproof Spoon
Live Review: Play Misty For Me

Epic Tracks 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

Cage Tudor Rauschenberg MoMA

Pianist & composer David Tudor on the program cover
"Both those who love 4'33"and those who hate it probably agree there's something provocative about it," composer David Lang (co-founder of Bang On A Can) told the audience at MoMA, referring to John Cage's most notorious piece. He's certainly right, and as I don't mind being provoked by art, I am firmly in the "love" camp. Another point he made was that Cage created the piece for avant-garde piano virtuoso David Tudor, which gave the unheard music far greater potential than if just anyone had sat down at the Steinway for four minutes and change. This was the perfect introduction to the performance by another virtuoso, violinist Todd Reynolds, which was part of a two night series focusing on music related to the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the museum. 

Reynolds did a remarkable job, striking a different pose for each of the work's three movements, dignified at all times but not without a puckish wit. I was put in mind of how someone like David Bowie could create unheard music in a still picture, like the unusual Hollywood-style portrait he had made for the Sound + Vision retrospective in the early 90's. It was not only a new look for Bowie, but it also seemed to refer to songs yet unwritten. 
Todd Reynolds, surrounded by the "silence" of 4'33"
Of course Cage, with his acknowledgement of the role of chance in his compositions, meant for us to pay attention to the sounds we do hear during 4'33", as no space is perfectly silent. In Titus Theater 1, two stories below West 53rd Street, there was plenty of listening to do. The periodic rumble of the subway was a lead "instrument," underpinned by the buzz of some electronics or lighting behind and to my left. There was a brief chorus of voices outside one of the fire exits, and the rhythm of my heart, which sped up for some reason during the first movement. It's not always easy to be in the moment, I guess. 

One brilliant way Cage dealt with that anxiety was to make it perfectly clear how long the piece will be. It went by surprisingly quickly, an appropriate appetizer for what was to follow. First up was After David Tudor (Homage To Fluorescent Sound), a tribute by Lang and Jody Elff to Tudor's composition for fluorescent lights, which can never be performed again. As Lang explained, not only is there no audio, video, or score, fluorescent lights have seen some improvements since 1964 and no longer make the humming and clicking sounds Tudor was amplifying. 

What they came up with was an assortment of fluorescent light fixtures, artfully arranged on the stage, and activated by Lang and Elff from a central console. Buzzing sounds of slightly different timbres began and ended, lights went on and off, my retinas got a workout. Sonically it had a slightly retro feel, which was appropriate, although I may have been the only one going all the way back to Franz Waxman's 1935 score for The Bride of Frankenstein, which featured some interesting "electricity" effects. It was a little unclear whether Lang and Elff were improvising or following some kind of plan, but there was a sense of build-up and finale as the piece came to a close. All told, it was a fun and affectionate acknowledgment of Tudor's pioneering work. 

Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis (1961), which "translates star charts into musical instructions," was up next and began without pause. Members of The New School's Ensemble 4'33", making their performing debut under Reynolds' direction, were arrayed around the perimeter of the room, giving us an immersive experience. The music, as fragmented as a pulverized mosaic, was made all the more satisfying for being the most melodic thing we had heard all night, even if the lights continued to buzz throughout.

The human ear seeks to organize sound, first by assigning a direction and source (bassoon at 3:00!), and then structure. There was none of the latter that I could discern until I realized that the atomization is the structure and relaxed into the randomness. Taken that way, Cage's conception is flawless and the performance could not have been better. The subtlety of some of the sounds, whether from electric guitar, percussion, cello or trumpet, was astonishing and quietly moving as the players coaxed it from their instruments. There is a great deal of flexibility in how this work is performed, and some recordings (James Levine, I'm looking at you) seem to conventionalize the music. I think I prefer Ensemble 4'33"'s approach, which seems somehow truer to Cage. I'm also sure I would hear more in a repeat performance, but I don't think it's in the stars.

You can watch the first night of the series, featuring music of Morton Feldman, Bryce Dessner, and others, here. The Rauschenberg show continues through September 17, 2017. 

You may also enjoy: 
BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed
THE [KĀJ] ENSEMBLE’S 100 WALTZES FOR JOHN CAGE 
Pianos In Context
Bang-Up World Premieres

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Goldfrapp, Silver Eye, Brooklyn Steel

Goldfrapp's Star Power
I don't know when I started reading credits. Perhaps it was when I was 11 and got Revolver by The Beatles for my birthday. "Tabla - Anil Bhagwat," it said under Love You To, a combination of syllables that was mysterious at the time and that has stuck in my mind to this day. Similarly, when searching for clues in the tiny type of the booklet for Tricky's Maxinquaye, I came across the name Alison Goldfrapp. It was not only a name that was impossible to forget, but her performance on the spectral blues of Pumpkin was equally so.

That's why I keep reading the credits: It puts my antenna up for what's next. So I was already hailing a ride to get on the sleek train that was Felt Mountain, Goldfrapp's debut from 2000, made with her partner in cyber-crime, Will Gregory. I don't think they get enough credit for delivering one of the most perfectly formed first albums of recent decades. Mixing the glam stomp of T.Rex and Bowie (yes, Gary Glitter, too), a melodic inventiveness that could be described as Mozartian, and updates on the electronic adventures of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder made for a winning combination. Goldfrapp's voice was a wonder from the start, and wonderfully human, the flesh on Gregory's chrome-plated bones. That humanity was often expressed in a mature sexuality that was frank and unattached to prosaic pop love songs. The hint of dissonant Weimar cabaret only amplified the mood, although that element has retreated on subsequent releases. 

Even so, Black Cherry and Supernature, albums two and three, only ramped up Goldfrapp's pleasure centers, with songs like Strict Machine and Ooh La La taking on an unstoppable momentum - in England, anyway. They didn't make a dent commercially this side of the pond, but it made perfect sense to me when I was flipping the channels and came across them on VH1 playing to a football field of Britons (maybe it was Glastonbury), all of whom were feeling the spirit. No doubt that was partially due to Goldfrapp's sheer star power: it was the first time I saw her stagecraft, which is simple yet extremely effective, as she rides the binary of dancing vs. theatrical movement. That split is a fair representation of the way the mechanical, analytical side of their music is put in service of physical propulsion. 

The fourth album, Seventh Tree from 2007, seemed like more of a left turn at the time than it does now. The occasional acoustic instruments (and Goldfrapp's pastoral Napoleonic cosplay on the cover) gave the impression of a folk makeover for the duo. But Gregory's musical sophistication led to these new sonic elements being put in service of their vision, rather than vice versa. In short, it was just as addictive as prior albums, if a little more inward-facing, with songs like A&E becoming canon in short order. 

Then they took a break. Gregory has a wide variety of extra-curricular pursuits, arranging and composing for soundtracks, etc., so perhaps that slowed them down. Or it could have been personal matters, but they both keep their private lives private. There was some pushback against Seventh Tree from critics and fans, but I can't imagine supreme artists like Goldfrapp being affected by such things. Either way, when they returned with Head First in 2010, it was my turn to be disappointed. Inspired by Euro-disco - a genre that may appeal more to those in proximity to, or in residence on, the continent - it sounded rather thin. "Where's the whomp?" was the question I posed to the world via Twitter. Except for Shiny & Warm (the title could be their mission statement), which was a perky take on their signature sound, I never fell for Head First. 

Besides two songs on The Singles, there was no new music until 2014, when they released Tales Of Us, which truly was a left turn. With delicate chamber arrangements by Gregory, no electronics to speak of, and Goldfrapp's most personal lyrics yet, many hailed it as a triumph. While I wanted to love it, I found it to be exquisite but surprisingly inert, at least until nearly the end when Stranger swoops in on soaring strings to rescue the album. Call me a philistine, but I just don't think gravitas is the only way to display artistic development. I'm not saying that Goldfrapp is only allowed to make kicky and hypnotic electro-dance-pop - it's just that they're so good at it!

Now, three years later, they've returned to form with Silver Eye. From the opening one-two of Anymore and Systemagic, both featuring elemental riffs played on analog synths and irresistible mid-tempo dance beats, to the tripped out finale of Ocean, there is not one wasted note or gratuitous effect. It's been twenty years since that Tricky album and Goldfrapp's voice shows no signs of time's ill effects. But it's not as though they haven't continued to develop - deeper cuts like Zodiac Black and Faux Suede Drifter display elements of dub and a new sense of effortlessness that brings to mind the Italian cosmic prog of Sensation's Fix. The rhythms are sometimes even more intricately mesmerizing, with less reliance on four-on-the-floor grooves than before. The time was right for them to come back and take their place amongst their many children like FKA Twigs, Py, Novelty Daughter, Tei Shi, and Grimes. 

I was quickly addicted to Silver Eye and when a two-night stand at Brooklyn Steel was announced I counted myself lucky to get a ticket for the Wednesday as the Thursday sold out almost instantaneously. Having recently been to the King's Theater and National Sawdust, I was also excited about taking a a look at this new venture from Bowery Presents, the last on my list of recently opened venues to check out. Located near the Graham Avenue station of the L, Brooklyn Steel seems to be just ahead of the curve of deeper Greenpoint becoming a more familiar destination. Even so, I was able to find a hip spot for dinner, Humboldt & Jackson, located on the corner of the same name. Good food, a great whiskey selection (Elk Rider Rye where have you been all my life?), and a warm room with nice service made for a fine pre-concert experience, marred only by a wretched playlist of Eighties pap that managed to include some of my least favorite songs. File under: Trends to end. 

Brooklyn Steel was only a few blocks further and was, no surprise, a repurposed factory building. ID was checked on the sidewalk and the security checkpoint was just inside the doors of the enormous vestibule. While they didn't scan my belongings, I was required to remove everything from my pockets and put it all in a plastic dish before walking through the scanner myself. I'm glad I got there early! I presented my ticket on my phone, the barcode was read, and I was finally all the way in. The double-height lobby still had that "new car smell," which may have been partly due to the mist spilling out from performance space. It also had the expected look of what we used to call "industrial chic" in the 70's, but it wasn't overdone. 

There was a solidly curated bar on the left and a merchandise area on the right, which currently only had small Goldfrapp posters on display, alongside some CD's and vinyl brought by Corbu, the opening band. The posters were nice enough for $10 but would only be available after the show. I planned to check back then to see what else was on offer. 

There was still time to explore so I climbed the stairs to the mezzanine level. I noted a door to the VIP room, guarded by a man and a combination lock, before continuing onto the balcony. There was another bar on the wall opposite the stage, which was a longer throw than I would have liked from the balcony railing. This was exacerbated by a dead center VIP section which put the beautiful people eight or ten feet closer. I don't know the measurements but it felt further than the one at Terminal 5, which holds 3,000 to Steel's 1,800. Even so, there were already clumps of people staking their claim, either sitting on the floor or leaning against the railing. The VIP was empty. 

I ordered a Bulliet Rye from the bartender who, like everyone else who worked there, was completely professional and very nice, leading me to wonder if Danny Meyer is a silent partner in Bowery Presents. Either way, somebody there cares about hospitality. I wanted to be closer to the action so I went downstairs to the floor, which was only about a quarter full. I noted another bar on the back wall and went to find a spot to await the opening act. 
Corbu opening the show
I had listened to Corbu's debut album, Crayon Soul, and found some of it to be surprisingly sophisticated and engaging, but there were also a number of tracks that felt unfocused or even generic. Still, there was something to Corbu and I was curious to see and hear how they would do on stage. The five members took the stage in matching outfits, each featuring a luminescent panel and evincing a late-sixties futurism. For their first time on a big stage they acquitted themselves fairly well, cheerfully going through their set despite the chattering audience. I can't say I was riveted but I think they made some new fans. If they're going on the whole tour with Goldfrapp, it could be a whole other story by the last night on the road. Either way, I'll be keeping an ear out for them in the future. 

After Corbu's short set their gear was broken down quickly, the lights got darker, a huge puff of purple smoke emitted from the stage, and the crowd in the now packed room pushed toward the stage, murmuring in anticipation. Cheers went up for the musicians, clad all in black and looking serious, as they took their places, and then a huge roar went up as Allison Goldfrapp emerged and moved toward the microphone. She looked fantastic, with her hair still dyed ruby red as it is on the cover of Silver Eye and wearing an ensemble that would have been merely stylish had it not been made of reflective silver fabric. She greeted the crowd and seemed genuinely moved by the long ovation. 

They started the set with Utopia and took us there, musically speaking. She was in great voice and the configuration of two keyboard players, a bassist and a drummer was ideal for Goldfrapp's sound world. Lovely Head was next and I suddenly thought: this woman probably sings coloratura in the shower - she sounded that good. The crowd was into it, but many people were more concerned with recording and observing than losing themselves in the music. Don't get me wrong - I took pictures, too, but tried to be strategic about it and put my phone away for most of the time. I wanted to dance, to let those crushingly inevitable beats move me as intended, and to be transfixed. Goldfrapp were more than holding their end up and I wanted to do my part to participate.

As they went through their set, Goldfrapp's command of the stage only grew more impressive and I felt like I was in a shamanic presence and was ready to follow her wherever she led. Anymore and Systemagic both more than held their own among classics like Train, Ride A White Horse, and others, as did other songs from Silver Eye. Even Dreaming from Head First sounded great, as did Shiny And Warm, played during the encore. The sound system throughout was excellent, highly detailed and not too loud although there was power to spare. There was a moment when the keyboard players switched to Keytars and momentarily flummoxed the audio, but the signature squelch of those once forgotten instruments was worth the glitch. 

As they went through what flowed like an expertly organized playlist, I noted that there was an interesting divide between the four musicians, one which pointed up the combination of the sensual and the mechanical in Goldfrapp's music. The keyboard player on my left and the drummer were both grooving hard, the one leaning into her bank of synths, head nodding, and the other sinking into his rhythms with the relish of a hungry man at a feast of his favorite foods. On my right, the keyboard player stood tall at her rig, executing her parts with an almost clinical detachment while the bass player was all stoic perfection. And Allison Goldfrapp stood in the middle, a locus for all these approaches and attitudes, moving with the ease of a natural star. I don't know if this split was calculated but it worked for me, blending with the brilliant lighting and the intriguing projections to make a real show. 

Brooklyn Steel proved to be a great new mid-size option for concerts, although Bowery Presents might want to work on the AC. "Are you hot or is it just me?" Goldfrapp asked on more than one occasion. It wasn't just her - it was sweltering by midway through the set and did not improve. Also, I'm not sure if Goldfrapp has an excessively tall fan base or if the stage is not quite the right height. All I can say is that I'm 6'1" and felt like I was straining to see the band from about 10 rows back. I don't remember having the same experience at Bowery Ballroom. 

The generous set, followed by a generous encore ending with an ecstatic Strict Machine, had me floating out of the room towards the exit and cool night air. A quick check of the merch booth revealed nothing more than those posters - no vinyl, CD's or t-shirts - so I kept moving, happy to note that Corbu were holding court with friends. All the way home, I basked in the glow of having seen one of the true masters of the stage. I don't know where Will Gregory was that night but he missed a hell of a concert - don't make the same mistake when Goldfrapp hits your town

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Nordic Night At National Sawdust

Nordic Affect performing Point of Departure at National Sawdust

It was unseasonably frigid last Wednesday when I headed to Williamsburg for my first visit to National Sawdust. I've had my eye on this venue when it was just a rumor and I was looking for a new job in development. While I never saw the right job for me on their listings, I was excited when they opened and have been intrigued ever since by the variety and creativity of the offerings I heard about in emails and on Facebook. I despaired as events featuring Talea Ensemble and Helga Davis - two of my favorites - went by with me unable to fit them on my calendar. But then all things converged and I was able to attend when they hosted Nordic Affect's New York City Debut. 

This avant garde chamber ensemble created one of the albums of the year with Raindamage and perhaps they also brought the chill in the air from their native Iceland. But there was a warm welcome at the unassuming door that admitted my wife and I to National Sawdust. The chic black interior was made up of interesting angles with the ticket desk on the right and a bar at the end calling you towards the door of the performance space. There is also a separate sit-down bar with a window on to North 6th Street that looks like a great place to get a drink whether music is on the agenda or not. 

We continued on into the room itself and were stunned to discover one of the most beautiful interiors in the city. It's a work of art with obliquely-angled seemingly symbolic panels covering the walls and ceiling surrounding the high stage. We sat at one of the little round tables, joining someone who was there solo. It would have been a little tight - but do-able - had a fourth person joined us. The menu promised creative cocktails and upscale bar food, which would have been even more intriguing if we weren't stuffed from dinner at Sweet Chick. I'll keep this option in mind for next time - which I hope will be soon!
National Sawdust's stunning interior
With zero fanfare, the four women of Nordic Affect came on stage and performed Clockworking, the title track from their 2015 album, accompanied by eerie footage from a 1966 film called Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison. It was riveting to watch the blown-out black and white forms of the workers moving in rhythm to Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's music. The performance was completely precise but not uptight, with a relaxed joy in making music immediately evident. 

The sound at National Sawdust is so superb that I hardly gave it a thought, the clear acoustic allowing nothing to get between me and the music. This was especially commendable in the pieces that included electronics, like the title track to Raindamage, which they performed later in the evening. But first we had a new work by Hildur Guōnadóttir, Point of Departure, which asks each performer to sing long notes along with their instrument. It's a similar approach that Guōnadóttir took on 2 Circles, a work for violin solo that Nordic Affect's Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir recorded on Clockworking. The results are both meditative and mysterious, with a hint of Medieval plainchant, and a keen observer couldn't help but notice the silent interactions between the players that allowed them to pull it off perfectly. 

Next was Anna Thorvaldsdóttir's Shades of Silence, which also appeared on Clockworking. Before starting it there was a brief pause while Gudrún Óskarsdóttir prepared her harpsichord, placing various items on the strings inside. She also played the sides of the instrument, creating woody thumps, a picked out a sparkling melody from time to time. The performance made the piece seem more approachable somehow, maybe because you could observe how the various parts fit together. 

This was also true of Raindamage and Þýð, which were both performed as a trio by Stefánsdóttir along with Gudrún Hrund Hardardóttir (viola) and Hanna Loftsdóttir (cello). Stefánsdóttir explained that the latter piece, composed by Úlfur Hansson, was built up out of so many layers in the studio that there would be no way to replicate it in concert without a little help - from the audience. So she divided the room into thirds and asked us to hum along with the instrument in our section. She also asked us to stand and reminded us to breathe. I don't think I was on key the entire time but when I crossed into harmony with her violin there was a sensation of belonging and inclusion. Whether being asked to help or not, the audience is part of every concert. It was also a good reminder at how much concentration it can take to play this demanding music, even as they performed it with apparent ease. 

The final work included the full quartet and another projection. Called Loom and composed by Sigfúsdóttir with visuals by Dodda Maggy, this new piece had only been performed once before, earlier in Nordic Affect's American tour. The film consists of hypnotic circular patterns, which were echoed in the music, creating a perfect bookend for the concert. It was easy to become hypnotized there in the dark as the music drew you further into the colorful animations. 

While Loom was conceived to include the film I think the music will stand on its own should Nordic Affect decide to include it on their next album, which is sure to be spectacularly fascinating either way. As I've written over their years, for a tiny country, Iceland is producing a high volume of excellent music. Rather than finding this baffling, I simply listen in wonder. I recommend you try it and see if you find yourself doing the same. 

You may also enjoy:
Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage
Skylark's Liminal Journey
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas
Best Of 15: Classical & Composed

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wordless Music Plays Barry Lyndon

 
For years, I've been getting intriguing emails from Wordless Music detailing their different projects, which always include a few concerts where they accompany a film screening with a live performance of the soundtrack. This has become a popular sideline for the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras as well, creating a new (read: younger) audience for some graying institutions. 

I was there back in 1981 when Abel Gance's monumental silent film Napoleon was restored and shown at Radio City Music Hall with a live score composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola. It was shattering and intense experience, and set a very high bar for this sort of thing. More recently, when we went to see Frankenstein at the United Palace Theater with an improvised soundtrack played by guitarist Gary Lucas, an event that was suboptimal in nearly every way, making me a little gun shy. Partly for that reason, while I'm often attracted to Wordless Music's concepts they tend to hover just below the line where interest becomes commitment. 

But when they announced Barry Lyndon with a live score, there was no question we would have to go. I was lucky enough to see Stanley Kubrick's masterful period piece when it opened (yes, again at Radio City Music Hall) and I was immediately enraptured. Since I was only 10 or 11, there were certainly nuances I missed, but I was enthralled by Kubrick's evocation of a slightly alien past filled with all-too-human characters. Years later, I showed it to my wife and her reaction was identical. We also became obsessed with the music, some of which I tracked down piecemeal, as the Oscar-winning soundtrack was out of print at the dawn of the CD era (it is once again, but you can listen on YouTube or buy a used copy). I finally found it on vinyl and we were able to enjoy all the music as it was assembled by Leonard Rosenman for the film. It became a soundtrack to our own lives for a while.

As this was our first Wordless Music experience, we were confronted by sticker shock: they charge top dollar ($70 - $100) for tickets. Nevertheless, we took the plunge and reserved seats. Saturday night found us driving out to Flatbush where the beautifully restored King's Theater is located. We were coming from a family gathering on Long Island, which is why we used our car for what was literally a trip down memory lane. We found Flatbush to be the same riotous neighborhood it was when we lived there over 20 years ago, still pulsing to the beat of blaring dancehall reggae and busy with street vendors, and we felt at home even though it had been a long time. 

The municipal parking lot described in the email from Wordless Music was either closed or beyond my ken, but we lucked into a space on the street. While circling we had noticed an IHOP, which suited our mood more than the jerk chicken or Dominican cuisine that can be found on every corner. The cavernous and seemingly brand new restaurant was nearly empty so service was fast and breakfast for dinner was as delicious as ever. 

As instructed, we got to the King's Theater nearly an hour early. There was a line down the block - but that was for ticket pickup and I had ours on my iPhone so we went right in (it's like EZ Pass: why doesn't everyone do it?). The website having prepared us for a security checkpoint of nearly airport-level stringency, we emptied our pockets and walked through the scanner before taking in the stunning scale and detail of the restored theater. 


There was an excited hum in the lobby as people availed themselves of the many bars scattered around, which sold not only top-shelf liquor but candy and high-end snacks, including wrap sandwiches that would have been handy if we hadn't had time for dinner. We made our way to our seats, assisted by the helpful ushers, and sat down. The theater space was exactly what the lobby promised, with whimsical caryatids and elaborate gilded decor. 


The little program book was well printed and designed, with gorgeous stills from the movie and some background information. I noted many familiar names in the orchestra and realized that Wordless was working with some of the best musicians in the city. I read the whole thing cover to cover while my wife Googled historical information on the theater, which originally opened in 1929. Before we knew it, it was 8:30 and the film hadn't started yet. The natives were getting restless, clapping in their seats, until there was an announcement around 8:45 that went something like this: "Welcome to the historic King's Theater. Due to unprecedented demand at the box office, we have to delay the start of our show as everyone gets to their seats. Please be patient." I will be more respectful of your time and say no more - except to call "bullshit" and note that the movie started a over an hour late, which is a little cruel considering it's three and a half hours long. 

As soon as Ryan McAdams, the conductor, raised his baton, I blew any annoyance away and let myself luxuriate in Kubrick's exquisite vision of Thackeray's novel. Hearing the opening chords of Handel's Saraband helped, of course, as did seeing the spectacular digital projection of the remastered film. Seeing Barry Lyndon this far removed from when it was made brought home the remarkable restraint practiced by Kubrick and his production designer Ken Adam, which kept them from making a movie that just looked like the 1970's. The candle-lit cinematography by John Alcott is second-to-none and adds intimacy to even the grandest interior shots. Ulla-Britt Soderlund and Milena Canonero, the costumers, are also to be commended for not going all Yves St. Laurent on the 18th century. They got a hearty round of applause at the end but I was the only person who clapped for Ken Adam - like any James Bond fan, I know that he was one of the best ever at his craft. Alcott, Adam, Soderlund and Canonero all won Oscars for their incredible work.

The performance of the music was similarly flawless and perfectly cued to the projection (the dialogue, however, was only 99.5% in sync - another minor quibble). While Rosenman's work on the soundtrack was remarkable, I would venture to say that 40 years of evolution in the performance style of 18th century music was only to the benefit of Kubrick's conception, with a dryer, less ornamental approach enhancing Thackeray's gimlet-eyed but compassionate view of Redmond Barry's triumphs and travails. The piano trio (Timo Andres, Pauline Kim Harris, and Clarice Jensen) deserves special mention - I would love to hear them perform all of Schubert's Opus 100. The Irish folk musicians jumped into the traditional music, originally played by The Chieftains, fearlessly and with both feet, and tenor Nils Neubert's vocal turn in Paisello's Cavatina was a small wonder. 

The event further proved that Barry Lyndon is one of the greatest films of all time. It is the platonic ideal for how to adapt a novel with a strong narrative voice, an Olympus that is seldom scaled and never summited, and, even with the slight mishaps, Wordless Music did it proud service. I really can't say enough good things about it - it must be seen to be believed, preferably on a big screen. So, I will gladly remain on Wordless Music's mailing list and hope that next time the whole experience is as finely calibrated as the magnificent musical performance. 


"It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now."
-William Makepeace Thackeray

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

Boogarins Live: Parallel Play


I like to listen to music while skiing (big surprise, right?) and have found that live recordings add a wonderful extra energy as I carve my way down the slope. So the other day I was listening to Led Zeppelin play Orlando in 1971 and after a pummeling opening set they transitioned to an acoustic interlude. The taper began fumbling with the mics, probably in a effort to better capture the suddenly delicate sounds coming from the group.

Instead of being annoyed at the breaking of Zep's magical spell, I found myself connecting directly to the bootlegger's excitement and the powerful compulsion to record rock concerts that arose in the late 60's. While some tapers might have been driven by commercial concerns, I believe more of them were inspired by the idea that what happens here tonight might never happen again. 

The industry eventually recognized what was going on (and the loss of potential income) and ramped up the production of live albums, a genre which had its heyday in the great lives and double-lives of the 70's (sample an idiosyncratic selection here). There's probably a lot more that could be said about the decline of the live album since those hairy days, which is one reason I'm usually listening to bootlegs while I ski. However, one new recording has been in regular rotation since it was released in February, and it's not hard to imagine the Led Zep taper with his finger on "Record" here as well. 

I speak of Desvio Onirico by Brazilian psych band Boogarins, which may just be the first great live album of the millennium. Consisting of four long tracks recorded in 2016, each in a different location, this "dreamlike detour" demonstrates a huge leap in their approach since the first time I saw them, when, fantastic as they were, they often pushed the needle on volume and power rather than finesse. 

Infinu (Infuse), from their 2013 debut album As Plantas Que Curamopens the album with some subtly altered stage banter. Then they play the song fairly straight for about three minutes, dishing out the splashy call and response riff with aplomb, before one of them takes off on a questing guitar solo that seems to draw from inexhaustible resources of bent notes and flamethrower tonalities. At a climactic moment the song breaks down to the bass player, the crowd cheers, and it appears it might be ending. But the bass gains momentum and gradually pulls everyone back into a wild exploration, each occupying their own space on an interconnected landscape. 

Just when it seems to have nowhere else to go, it comes back to the bass, which keeps riffing as the band says their farewells: "We are Boogarins from Brazil, we hope to be back soon." As bright chords introduce a new motif for an extended coda, it dawns on the listener that the album has started with an ending, perhaps even an encore. No wonder they were in such a zone - they'd likely been playing for at least an hour already! Don't apologize for cheering along.

Tempo, originally on Manual, their second album, and recorded at Rock In Rio Lisboa, begins with an overture of spacious chords and distortion introducing a stop-and-start verse that seems full of questions. The chorus, a repeated muscular phrase played by both guitars, ramps up the tension but the real fireworks begin after the second verse, which includes the sound of a passing jet plane. Things begin to fragment, one guitar producing oscillating feedback and the other picking out notes, while the drums roll and tumble along. The chorus phrase returns, and the tempo starts to heat up. Things get loud and chaotic before a delicate version of the main riff resurfaces and they sing another verse. They play out the song by burning through multiple accelerating iterations of the chorus before coming to a dead stop - done. 

Auchma is also from Manual and "it goes long and crazy live," as they admitted on Facebook. Indeed - most of the eight minutes in this version is taken up by remarkable parallel play, with both guitarists seemingly engaged in their own pursuits but somehow still remaining in the same universe. Your ears can play a game of deciding which is the lead instrument by switching back and forth. And then a synth or maybe just an oscillator comes in like a shortwave radio, all squiggles and bleeps, and Auchma hits a new stride. If this is long and crazy, gimme more. 

The final song is an improvisation named after Manchacha Roadhouse, the club in Austin where they recorded it. Driven by a galloping shuffle on the drums, the song continues the idea of parallel play, with the two guitars and a fat electronic tone each following their own muse. About halfway through, it gets super quiet even as the tempo increases, becoming a propulsive meditation that eventually breaks apart, burning up on reentry. Instead of applauding, I can imagine the audience breathing deeply as one and nodding in the direction of their pilots before exiting into the Texan night. 

It's anybody's guess where Boogarins goes from here but I feel sure their next album will be a doozy. Watch them infuse an Austin studio with magic and and keep your eyes out for a live date near you. 

P.S. Boogarins aren't the only ones on the live album tip in 2017. Sleater Kinney fans rejoiced at the release of Live in Paris and Hiss Golden Messenger just came out with Parker's Picks Vol. 1: Live at The Parish, Austin, TX 10​/​18​/​2016, an excellent recording from their recent tour. And if you want to relive a recent concert, you may just find it at NYC Taper