Sunday, July 17, 2016

Record Roundup: Classical Composure

While I'm not sure that the paradigm of sitting motionless and silent while teams of black-clad virtuosi play music makes sense any more, I still believe that classical and orchestral music are among humanity's great achievements. As much as I might like to blow up the performance paradigm, I am equally heartened by the vitality of the scene when it comes to exciting composers and performers who are doing exactly what they want to do. Here are a few of them. 

Errollyn Wallen - Photography This Belize-born Briton is an uncommon hybrid of composer, singer, pianist and songwriter. On this, the second album featuring her classical writing, she displays a remarkable facility with composing and arranging while - crucially - connecting to emotion and storytelling. The white-hot inevitability of her music has me sold even though I often inveigh against contemporary classical that uses essentially traditional forms. The opening Cello Concerto is a one-movement work for cello and string orchestra that is constructed with the proportionality of a master architect. The cello line is impassioned but controlled and there is evidence of a deep understanding of not only classical form, but even Baroque styles. This is history-mining of the highest order, played flawlessly by Matthew Sharp, and you will hang on every note. Hunger follows, a short piece for full orchestra that is not so much in debt to Shostakovich as channeling him. The title even implies a moral dimension, which would please him no end - but not as much as the sheer narrative excitement and clever orchestration. Photography features the string orchestra again for four movements of sheer, shimmering beauty. Wallen isn't pushing any envelopes here, just displaying fully engaged artistry, like a chef who renews a familiar dish by using the finest ingredients. 

The last piece, In Earth, may be the most original on the album, which is slightly ironic considering that it takes off on Purcell's 17th Century song When I Am Laid In Earth, sometimes known as Dido's Lament. So often has this piece been excerpted from Dido And Aeneas, Purcell's operatic masterpiece, that it is practically a second British national anthem. In a flight of fancy I had while listening to Wallen's reimagined version I even found a through-line in this sorrowful song straight to See That My Grave Is Kept Clean - and thus to the British fascination with American blues. But that's a think-piece for another day. All I'll say further is you gotta hear it - and it demands to be played on a decent sound system so you can hear every sepulchral note of Tim Harries' seismic electric bass. You won't soon forget this song, which is beautifully sung by Wallen herself, or the rest of Photography, which is certain bring more attention to this important new voice. 

Lisa Moore - The Stone People Here is someone who will delve without fear into the furthest reaches of piano music (seek out her Frederick Rzewski interpretations) and come up smiling. Her relentless curiosity and absolute commitment have served her well in assembling this album, which contains John Luther Adams' complete music for the instrument. Two of his pieces are quite demanding, but not in the way you might think, as there are no furious runs here. It's more about belief. And Moore believes. There's also Kate Moore's shamanistic Sleabh Bleagh and a memorable vignette, Orizzonte, by Missy Mazzoli, which is well worth the journey. Intriguing works by Julia Wolfe and Martin Bresnick complete a very substantial program. Maybe not for everyone, or for every mood, but you'll never hear these pieces played better. 

Michael Mizrahi - Currents If you're looking for a more meditative contemporary piano album, get up on Mizrahi's soulful collection, featuring short pieces by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Troy Herion, Mark Dancigers, Asha Srinivasan, Mazzoli, and Patrick Burke. It's lovely music that avoids New Age bathos. Let Satie rest next Sunday morning and give this a try.

Alarm Will Sound - Modernists This is a kind of "save the pieces" album for me, but what pieces! The orchestrations of Revolution #9 by The Beatles (I always knew there was music in there) and Edgard Varese's seminal Poeme Electronique are flat-out wonderful. While one might reasonably question the value of taking the electronics or tapes out of pieces famously built on them, I will only say trust me. This is fun, adventurous, and eye-opening music-making. The rest of the album, made of works by Wolfgang Rihm, Charles Wuorinen, Augusta Read Thomas, and John Orfe, is perfectly fine but not especially exciting or distinctive. Put Revolution #9 and Poeme Electronique on a playlist with Bang On A Can's dazzling interpretation of Eno's Music For Airports for a more satisfying mix.

Cypress String Quartet - Beethoven: The Early String Quartets Random records come over the transom and sometimes I'm like "Why? Why did they send this to me? Why did they even make this?" But I put it on and, while I didn't do a full investigation, I can say that this has to be the equal of, or better than, any other version of this sublime music. The recording is close, but not too close (no creaking chairs) and the playing is light and completely free of any stuffiness. I have to say that between this and Leif Ove Andsnes' recording of Piano Concerto #2, I'm starting to have a strong preference for Beethoven's early work. The members of the Cypress obviously love this music, too, and enjoy playing it together, so why not start here if you're looking for Beethoven string quartets? P.S. They also did the Late Quartets but I haven't heard them yet.

Let me know what you think of this "short takes" format - it's a good way to keep up with the deluge!

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: American Tunes
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas
The Inspired Viola of Melia Watras
Missy Mazzoli: Lush Rigor
Bach & Levit: Partita Animals

Friday, July 08, 2016

Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 2

11. Hélène Grimaud - Water Grimaud is a chance-taking pianist who has mainly applied her iconoclastic POV to basic classical repertoire. But Water is something else entirely, an eclectic collection of works spanning the centuries, from Berio and Takemitsu to Janacek and Liszt. She proves herself the master of all she attempts, playing the spaces between the notes as required by Takemitsu and Fauré, or showing great command of filling all the spaces with notes as Liszt demands. To pull it all together, Grimaud collaborated with atmospheric composer Nitin Sawhny to create brief electro-acoustic interludes, which are beautiful little sketches in sound. This is my favorite kind of classical piano album, one which makes you hear old pieces anew, and it's been go-to morning music on many a day. Invite it into your life.

12. Anthony Cheung - Dystemporal
In a perfect world, a sparkling collection of six compositions by Cheung, brilliantly performed by Talea Ensemble and Ensemble Intercontemporain, would be a major event beyond the confines of my own mind. No matter - the music speaks for itself and it is entrancing post-Boulez stuff, with uncannily perfect orchestration and a stylish melodicism that should welcome any listener. The title piece has a hint of menace and makes me think of a circus, slowed down and grown slightly threatening. Running The (Full) Gamut is a cogent piano solo (beautifully played by the composer) that is an ideal introduction to Cheung's strong sense of structure and proportion. Start there if you want to ease your way into Cheung's world and make it part of your own. Save the date of November 11th for the record release concert at National Sawdust. Maybe then Dystemporal will become the event it deserves to be.

13. Anderson Paak - Malibu I gotta tell you - I thought Dr. Dre's Compton was horrible, with even young guns like Paak being drawn into Dre's stodgy and smug conception. So I admit not having high hopes for Malibu, even though his prior album, Venice, had shown great promise. But no worries - on the sprawling Malibu Paak comes on strong as the missing link between Marvin Gaye and Kendrick Lamar, with a little Flying Lotus in there for good measure. This is lush and luxuriant R&B with a hip hop edge, up to the minute but sounding classic all the same. Right from the first cut you feel like you're in good hands. All the guests, from BJ The Chicago Kid to Rapsody to Talib Kweli, are well-integrated, leaving no doubt as to who is in charge. Room In Here is the coziest slow jam in many a year - even The Game sounds ready to cuddle - and, lord knows, we can always use more opportunities to get close.

14. TV Girl - Who Really Cares How do I love thee, TV Girl? Let me count the ways, with your hip hop beats, bittersweet samples and melodies, and your conversational, psychologically acute lyrics, it's hard to get enough! Is it a formula? Sure, like your relationship with your best friend is a formula. And it works just as well. 

15. Skylark - Crossing Over An album of contemporary choral music about death? Let's just say this is an unlikely triumph

16. Wire - Nocturnal Koreans A friend of mine who is a least as big a Wire fan as I am didn't even want to listen to this because of that wacky title. My skepticism was more based on the fact that their last album was a bit of a snooze. Neither issue should concern you: this brief eight song blast finds the post-punk legends at the top of their game. Ironically, these are all songs that were left off the last album, which main songwriter Colin Newman now admits was too "respectful" of the band. Based on these songs, each one a sleek gem with unexpected touches, the more disrespect the better. Damned good for a band in its fourth act - long may they reign

17. Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered Like the Wire album, these are all cuts that didn't fit on Lamar's last album, 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly. While I can see how they didn't fit the narrative construct of that titanic album, they are still a stunning tribute to Lamar's creative fecundity. Over expansively funky tracks he tries on a few new guises here, such as the love-man of the opening cut, or the retro-didacticism of untitled 03 05.28.13: "What did the Indian say?" It's like Reading Rainbow in some alternate universe  - and I doubt anyone but Lamar could get away with it in 2016. I'm on the edge of my seat, wondering where he'll go next. 

19. Rupert Boyd - Fantasias 2016 seems to have more than its share of "Calgon take me away" moments and this delightful travelogue works better than bath salts. 

20. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo That so many people think West is a relentless jerk is one of the artistic crimes of our age. I don't pay attention to his antics - what matters it what's on the records. Granted, Pablo had a more difficult and public birth than most albums (remember when it was going to be called Swish?), and one that would have crushed the life out of most artistic endeavors. But West powered through and got the music off his hard drive - although he's famously been tinkering with it since it came out, an impulse to which any artist can relate. 

Based on the original18 track version I have (there are now two versions on Spotify!), Pablo is his most fragmented album yet, with many songs under the three-minute mark or taking hairpin turns halfway through (I could listen to the spooky 50 second coda to FML for a lot longer). Even so, there are some "tent-pole" songs that keep the album from collapsing, starting with Ultralight Beam, the gorgeous opening cut, which embraces Kirk Franklin and Chance The Rapper in equal measure, while providing an operating principle: "You can never go too far when you can't come back home again."

He then proceeds to test that theory, dishing out some nasty, purposefully provocative stuff. Taylor Swift fans know what I'm talking about - but even Famous has a cutting edge backing track ("Swizz told me to let the beat rock" - good advice). Other standouts are the bittersweet Real Friends, the classic single No More Parties In LA (with a fiery Kendrick Lamar feature), and Fade, a haunting exploration of dying love via early 80's house. That nostalgic touch is a telling sign, as this is the first album where West seems to be looking back, as if trying to trace his path and figure out how it all got so crazy. 

Don't get me wrong - this is hardly a perfect album; there are clunky choruses, punch lines that land like concrete, and other misguided foibles. But there's something beautiful about the way West just lets it all hang out there, the good, the bad, and the nutty. There's the wonderfully tossed off a capella I Love Kanye, for example - which is probably not what you think it is. And one of my favorite moments is at the end of the reflective 30 Hours, where he's just vibing out to the smooth groove provided by Andre 3000 and Karriem Riggins - "This the bonus track...all my favorite albums got, like, bonus joints like this..." Then he gets a phone call - and takes it! "Yo, Gabe, I'm just doing an ad lib track right now, what's up?" Guy's got guts. 

So in the end, Pablo is minor masterpiece of audio collage, with enough moments of transgression, regression, and aggression to slot Kanye West - in my mind, at least - near Houellbecq, Burroughs, and even Huysmans. Not really a pop record, but one with pop celebrity as a subject - and one released into the Hadron Collider of one of the globe's most fanatical pop audiences. Can't fault Kanye for cracking a little under that kind of pressure. Kendrick Lamar would probably say he's gonna be alright and I'm inclined to agree.

Sample my Top 20 with this handy playlist and keep up with everything else I've been listening to here.

What's been making your year?

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Sunday, July 03, 2016

The Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 1

One of my Off Your Radar colleagues recently asked me if I thought this year was as good as 2015 for music. I thought back on my last few weeks of trying to narrow this list down to 20 standout albums and answered "Absolutely!" But I have a secret weapon: classical and contemporary composed music, which occupies six slots on my list so far. 

Also, 2016 ain't over yet and the second half promises some releases that could blow the year wide open. Beck's dance-pop follow up to Morning Phase should have us saying "Wow" over and over, Scott Walker is dropping a soundtrack in August, and Hiss Golden Messenger has something special coming in October. Also, Pusha T is supposed to come out with the album prefaced by Darkest Before Dawn, which was pretty fire itself, and there are rumors Spoon is in the studio with Dave Fridmann producing again. But that's just tomorrow calling. Ado to the side - let's do this. 

 1. David Bowie - Blackstar I will have more to say about this extraordinary album at a later date (promise) but having lived with it for this long I can safely say this rose's bloom is eternal. Bowie is fully engaged artistically, pushing his voice and songwriting into new areas, and all-in emotionally. If not for the demon cancer, I think the future would have held yet more greatness from the Starman. We'll not see his like again - that is tragically certain. 

3. Novelty Daughter - Semigoddess Faith Harding seems to love house, Billie Holiday, and Cathy Berbarian equally - and she put everything she loves into this astonishing full-length debut. Sing hallelujah!

4. Benji Hughes - Songs In The Key Of Animals Life raft of the year award goes to... Unfortunately, based on the so-so live show I saw, it may be Benji himself who is most in need of rescue. 

5. Mutual Benefit - Skip A Sinking Stone This gorgeous album is the most fully realized collection yet from Jordan Lee since 2013's Love's Crushing Diamond, which catapulted him from Bandcamp culture to indie notoriety. With rich instrumentation and vocal-free passages, there's a sense of narrative to the seamless sequence of songs. When Lee announced "We're going to play the second side of the album," at Mercury Lounge last month, it made perfect sense. Lee was also savvy enough to include Not For Nothing, a gently swinging song with a classic feel that exists perfectly either in or out of the album. Slow March is also a standout and should be the next single. I'm also happy to report that the live show has grown even more closely aligned with Lee's goals since I last saw him in 2014. Granted that was at an outdoor show but I remember being surprised at how extroverted the music became on stage. This time the mood was perfectly suspended and sweetly leavened by Lee's charming repartee. So see Mutual Benefit if you have a chance - but get the record now. Lee's quietly embroidered take on Americana should be more broadly heard. 

6. Michael Nicolas - Transitions The very model of a modern cello record. 

7. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book Meeting and maybe even exceeding the expectations of 2014's great Acid Rap mixtape, Chance paints on a broad canvas on this beautiful album. Summer Friends is an instant classic with an assist from Bon Iver soundalikes Francis and the Lights, and No Problem even has Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz sounding like they care. Yes, Justin Beiber is on here but don't let that stop you from hearing the hip hop album of the year so far. And if you're still waiting for Chance to make his major label debut, the chorus of No Problem should make his position quite clear: "If one more label try to stop me/
It's gon' be some dreadhead niggas in ya lobby." I wouldn't get in his way. 

8. Cian Nugent - Night Fiction I admit it took me a minute to get used to guitar wizard Nugent's voice, which is a bit quirky and cracked. But the songs kept haunting me and I grew to love everything about this record. Daniel Fox of Girl Band is partially responsible for the production and the sound is glorious, warm and open. Nugent, a master of the slow build, lets the songs take their time, making it easy for a listener to lose themselves within their wending paths. I hope to have an opportunity to hear him stretch out on these songs live when when he plays Baby's All Right on August 7th. 

9. Car Seat Headrest - Teens Of Denial After Will Toledo garnered a lot of attention for last year's Teens Of Style, which compiled home (or, more accurately, driveway) recordings made over several years, he entered a proper studio and cut this masterpiece. Storming, multilayered guitars drive each song, with assists from occasional horns and keyboards. Burning with passion, Toledo spins tales of high school and young adulthood as if he was the first to experience those stages of life. Which he was, in a sense, as no one can delineate our own lives until we go through them. The best part is that whether those days are distantly ahead or behind you there are plenty of opportunities to find yourself in the songs of Will Toledo and Car Seat Headrest. Sky's the limit for this one.

10. Field Music - Commontime The Brewis Brothers outdid themselves on this one, their best album since Measure in 2010. Gleeful horn arrangements, strings both lush and austere, clever lyrics, and their funkiest rhythms all come together to make this collection a sheer delight. Even his late purple majesty, Prince, found his toes-a-tapping and tweeted his approval. He's got some DNA in this album as do Steely Dan, The Meters, and XTC. But Field Music have been hoeing that distinctive row for years and us longtime fans are gratified to see them getting more attention. The noisy days are over? Not if you play this - and the rest of this album - at the appropriate volume. 

Coming Soon: Ten more great records featured in Part 2!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Record Roundup: American Tunes

I'm going to try to deal with the general backlog of music with a "Record Roundup" of quick(er) takes from time to time. Here, the operating principle is to cover number of good American (but not necessarily Americana) releases that have come over the transom in the last few months. From veterans to new blood, there's a lot to feast your ears on if you follow up.

Chris Maxwell - Arkansas Summer Chris Maxwell has been hovering in my peripheral vision for quite some time as a tangential member of the Holly Miranda universe, along with Ambrosia Parsley. Those planets aligned at Hell Phone last month when Chris and Ambrosia opened for Holly's solo set, and also provided some backup as needed, on guitar and vocals. I liked Chris's flexible voice and wry way with a lyric, as well as casual mastery of a variety of rock forms. While Arkansas Summer is his debut solo album, I wasn't wrong about the mastery as Maxwell has been in the game since the 90's, when he was a member of Skeleton Key.

Self-produced, but ably supported by such Woodstock-area compadres as Phil Hernandez, Marco Benevento, Amy Helm, and Parsley herself, Maxwell pursues fun and introspection while channeling Wilco, The Beatles, and other Anglo-American avatars in fresh combinations. His songwriting is honed to a fine point throughout, but standouts such as Have You Ever Killed Yourself, Imaginary Man, the title track, and Devil Song might convince you the most quickly. His smarts are not only musical; check out the lyrics of the acoustic-driven Things Have Changed For Me: "Allies to enemies/Alibis to apologies/I burrow like a bullet in these complicated strategies/I make promises no one could ever keep/I make mistakes I'm doomed to repeat/Never been called lucky, never had a lucky streak/But things have changed for me." They can for you, too.

Ocean Music - Songs From The City When I saw Ocean Music at the Knitting Factory recently, it was an explosive update on Replacements-Pixies-Van Morrison, with interlocking guitars, pummeling rhythms, and songs that were sometimes concise and sometimes took their sweet time. So clearly singer, songwriter, and guitarist Richard Aufrichtig has already shifted from the beautifully atmospheric acoustic folk epics on this EP and the self-titled one that proceeded it in 2014, but they're a place to start. And start you should, because Aufrichtig has lived a few lives already and is more than willing to sing about all he's seen and experienced. Catch up, then catch them live - can't wait for the next show.

Cory Taylor Cox - Extended Play Like Richard Aufrichtig and Ocean Music, Cox has taken a winding road to get to this place, which is a good and gritty spot to be, with soaring guitars, homespun vocals and solid song structures. Americana with the occasional touch of glam, he could tour with Phil Cook and no one would complain. Keep an ear in his direction.

Sonya Kitchell - We Come Apart If you're like me, you took note of Kitchell's protean abilities when her debut was released in 2005, but then lamented how quickly she was absorbed into the coffee house-TV series industrial complex. She's been through changes since then, especially during the eight years since her last album, and We Come Apart feels like a new beginning. She's more willing to push her voice now and is remarkably comfortable in the variety of settings, from embellished folk to torchy soul, she's assembled here. Reintroduce yourself - you'll be glad you did.

Max Jury - Max Jury Just 21, this three-time Berklee dropout is obviously a huge talent. He's put together a set of songs that mine the history of rock, soul, and folk with surprising musical maturity and that are well-served by this expansively produced debut. But there's also a little of a portfolio feel to the collection: "Look what I can do!" Hopefully he'll find the time, like Sonya Kitchell, to fully grow into his gifts. This album will make more than pleasant listening while we wait.

Bob Dylan - Fallen Angels These Great American Songbook collections may be somewhere to the side of Dylan's overall project, but there's still a lot to like in them, not least Jack Frost's sparkling production. When is that guy going to work with some other artists? While last year's Shadows In The Night held a consistent mood (perhaps slightly too consistent), Fallen Angels has both more variety and a bit more wit. The twinkle in Dylan's eye is especially evident on That Old Black Magic - he's finally embodying the "song and dance man" he once claimed to be and couldn't seem more delighted. You should be, too. 

Various Artists - Blonde On Blonde Revisited While Dylan himself is following his nose through the back pages of American song, there's no shortage of other perspectives on his own deathless canon. Mojo Magazine's track record on these multi-artist single-album collections may be varied, but this one, in celebration of the album's 50th anniversary, is a triumph. After the menacing electronica of Malcolm Middleton's take on Rainy Day Women #12 & #35 most of the artists stay in the folk-rock vein while still throwing new light on these familiar songs. 

In fact, if Blonde On Blonde is feeling TOO familiar this is the antidote. Some highlights are the way Thomas Cohen uses a hooky bass line to add mood to his powerful take on Most Likely You'll Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine, or how Peter Bruntnell drains the sarcasm from Just Like A Woman leaving only deep sorrow, or Ryley Walker's wholly owned Fourth Time Around. And I love the way Michael Chapman (also a 75 year old legend) toys with Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat like a kitten with a ball of yarn. Just as they did with their excellent Physical Graffiti tribute last year, Mojo has produced a special limited edition on ("blonde") vinyl, with some sweet accoutrements. If I didn't already subscribe I'd be ordering that now!

Yes, I know, Car Seat Headrest. And Mutual Benefit. More on them next time when we discuss The Best of 2016 (So Far)!

You may also enjoy:
New Americana Pt 1: Phil Cook 
New Americana Pt. 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon
Holly Miranda Is Here

Friday, June 10, 2016

Space, Time, Guitar: Rupert Boyd

Rupert Boyd is an Australian guitarist of surpassing skill and intelligence with an eclectic ear, all qualities in evidence on his globe-trotting (and time-traveling) sophomore album, Fantasias. By the end of the collection, we have touched down in Argentina, Spain, Cuba, Italy, Hawaii, France, Switzerland, and the British Isles, and moved through 400 years of music. 

When you read "Argentina" your mind probably conjured up Astor Piazzolla, which would be spot on, as it is the neo-tango genius's Otono Porteno, in an arrangement by S. Assad, that opens the record. Like the master himself, Boyd avoids any over-dramatic clichés to deliver a performance that handily deals with the virtuoso requirements of the piece. This sets the tone for what follows, a lively sequence of the tuneful, folky, and exploratory. Boyd's project is enabled by the lighter-than-air, crystal clear sound of the record, which was made in a "centuries old church just outside of London" with John Taylor, a British producer of some renown, especially for his work with guitar and lute players. 

Perhaps it's Taylor's influence, but the Celtic and English folk songs are marvelous here, especially John Dowland's Fantasie, which traverses a few moods in its four minutes. Naturally, Boyd is simpatico with his fellow countryman, Philip Houghton, with whom I was completely unfamiliar. He manages to lay on a bit of mystery, especially in his God Of The Northern Forest - don't be surprised it this one shows up on Game Of Thrones or in the next Peter Jackson fantasy.

I'm especially grateful to Boyd for including two Manuel de Falla pieces, including his own arrangement of Pantomima. Other guitarists should add this to their repertoire and continue bringing attention to this oft-overlooked composer. Leo Brouwer, a Cuban musician who explored everything from Afro-Cuban forms to Bach, The Beatles, and beyond, is also not overexposed. A guitarist himself, his Tres Apuntes takes almost maximum advantage of the possibilities of the nylon-stringed instrument. Speaking of which, my fantasy is that Boyd takes on Luciano Berio's Sequenza XI on his next record - I think it would fit like a glove.

Brouwer's trilogy is one of the meatier pieces on the album, but as expected from the title, Fantasias does not aim to make demands, but to rather provide a bit of smart escapism. We also escape the expected - turns out Boyd covered Granados on his first album so you won't find that guitar-record staple here! I like Boyd's light touch, both on his guitar and in his conception of the album. It's been a great accompaniment to mornings at work and I can imagine it finding a place in your life as well.

If you're in NYC and you want to see Boyd in person, act fast as his album release event is June 16th at the Greenwich House School of Music. All the information is here, including dates in December with cellist Laura Metcalf - they perform together as Boyd Meets Girl and who can resist that?

You may also be interested in:
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicholas

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Radiohead: The Pool At Rainbow's End

I've been playing a fun little mind game while listening to A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead's astonishingly great new album. What if this were a debut album by a new many copies would they sell? How long would it take them to get to 12 million followers on Facebook? Would they fill arenas with 20,000 fans and get them on their feet? In short, would they be one of the biggest bands in the world on the basis of this extraordinarily sophisticated and deeply emotional take on rock music?

Of course, these are all moot points. A Moon Shaped Pool could never be a first album as it is a work of consummate mastery, made by five musicians at the top of their game and working together as one. It feels so completely unified musically that I only rarely find myself thinking about Jonny Greenwood or Ed O'Brien or Phil Selway or Colin Greenway...the sounds are all just there, providing a perfect backdrop for some of the finest singing of Thom Yorke's career. 

Along these lines, one review I heard complained about the fact that they have one of the best drummers around in Selway (and they do) but that he is underused on this record. That completely misses the point, in my opinion, and is a very "rockist" way of looking at things, a hangover from the distant days when Radiohead developed their huge audience with "Modern Rock" songs like Creep. That was a long time ago and the fact that they have maintained so much of their audience would be an interesting thing to study at another time.  

Back to the present. The way I hear it, AMSP is a work by virtuosos who only want to serve the music and not create showcases for themselves. Perhaps their time in the wilderness of The King Of Limbs, their surprisingly ennervated last album (and on which Selway was sorely underutilized) led them to this perfect middle ground between being a rock band and something more futuristic. In some ways, however, this is more traditional music than what they put forth on TKOL, much of which seemed like studies for future remixes. In fact, it was on the remix album, Tkol RMX 1234567, or on stage, that many of those songs found fruition. 

Not so here. Each song is a self-contained gem, layers of guitar and strings and keyboards blending together in an egoless wash of brilliant sounds. AMSP seems in this way to be more of a continuation of where they arrived at on In Rainbows, especially in the direct emotional communication from Thom Yorke. While the album starts on a passionately political note with Burn The Witch, many of the songs are more down to earth. "Hey it's me, I just got off the train," Yorke sings to begin Glass Eyes, "A frightening place/Their faces are concrete gray/And I'm wondering should I turn around, buy another ticket/Panic is coming on strong..." I'm not sure anybody alive couldn't relate to that on some level.

"There's a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in," Leonard Cohen once sang and that seems to be an operating principle here. There's a wonderful variety to Radiohead's approach on AMSP, from lush orchestral settings to seemingly simple, acoustic guitar-led arrangements that harken back to Nick Drake and David Crosby. There's also welcome evidence, if slight, of a sense of humor, such as the tape-warble entry and snores of Daydreaming, or the fact that the album is sequenced alphabetically. While their wheelhouse is still post-Rubber Soul rock, I hear hints of alien R'n'B and soul on Identikit, which fits the lyrical themes of "When I see you messing me around, I don't want to know," and "Broken hearts make it rain." Sade or, even better, Kelela should cover this beauty. Of course, this being Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood's angular chicken-scratch evolves into a math rock solo par excellance before the song stops dead in its tracks - you will, too.

Identikit and the quietly devastating True Love Waits, which ends the album, have both been around a while, with the latter first being played on stage over 20 years ago. This has led to some speculation that Radiohead is reaching the end of the road. I see no reason to think that. Some songs are just not immediately ready to be fixed in the amber of a studio recording. And like Wilco, there's plenty of room in the band for each member to pursue their own interests, from Yorke's electronica to Jonny Greenwood's film scores and orchestral work, and Selway's albums of gently persuasive folk. One imagines that these extra-curricular activities help bring new dimensions to the collective effort when they do regroup. That certainly is the case here, and it's led to one of the finest albums of their career, one that will be near the top of 2016. Take all the time you need, boys. Like true love, we can wait for another masterpiece like A Moon Shaped Pool. 

You may also enjoy:
Do The Cut & Paste
Explosive Atoms In Brooklyn

Thursday, May 19, 2016

John Berry: Wild Incandescence

Incandescent JB
When you start at a school in kindergarten, by eighth grade you pretty much know every single person. So when John Berry transferred in, I spotted him right away. The fact that he had orange hair spiked to a fare-thee-well and charisma that glowed even brighter didn't hurt. But he was so wildly incandescent that many of my schoolmates stayed away from the new kid. I was immediately attracted to him, though, and when I learned he also lived above 96th Street and loved music we were fully bonded. 

John's energy level was so high that I was kind of the straight man, off to the side: "John, are you sure that's a good idea?" I would sometimes ask him when he was about to do something crazy. But most of the time I just basked in the glow and helped pick up the pieces later. 

While we lived only a few blocks from each other, our environments could not have been more different. Mine was a mid-level doorman building where we had a classic NYC apartment on the 11th floor. John's father was renting a duplex loft in a unique old wood-frame building with a diner at street level. John's domain was the whole top floor (and the roof), and the whole space was packed with old stuff, some of which might have come with the place. Even so, I noticed his guitar the first time I visited. Of course, he played guitar - I should've known. 

At the time, I was coming off years of piano lessons and considering the trombone (thanks to Ska, The Specials and A Message To You, Rudy), but I knew a drummer that I thought might want to jam with John: Mike Diamond. Since they weren't friends yet, I hatched a plot to introduce them to each other at a Joe Jackson show, with The Members opening. I don't know how many phone calls it took to arrange but I got it done and we went to the concert. I made the introductions and we took our seats, John in the middle. As soon as The Members blasted into their first song, John was airborne, pogoing in his seat like a madman - as I expected. Mike, however, was taken aback. When John went to the bathroom, the future Beastie Boy leaned over to me and said: "I think this guy's insane!" I assured him that he was cool and not to worry.

Within days, John and Mike were jamming and I had decided to take up the bass. The Young Aborigines were born, so named because we were young and we associated the word "aborigine" with a primitivism that we aspired to have in our music, in addition to the influences of post-punk, disco, reggae and salsa. Listening now to the crude recordings I have, it is impossible to ignore the vitality of John's guitar, slashing at chords or picking haunted arpeggios. He liked a lot of heavy chorus pedal on his guitar, I think for the color it added to the sound. He was totally self-taught and brought the spirit of an action painter to every song.

John Berry, Mike Diamond & Me: the "original young aboriginals"
The band proceeded by fits and starts, never quite finding its place but schooling us all in how to be a group and making us a tight unit, one that we eventually invited Kate Schellenbach to join, to add "primitive" percussion. We got more serious, putting together a 45 minute set of challenging instrumental music (sometimes challenging our own instrumental technique!) that we tried to take on the road. But soon the siren call of hardcore was heard, Adam Yauch came on the scene, and the wheels of history began to inexorably turn toward Cookie Puss, Licensed To Ill, and world domination for the Beastie Boys.

John and I stayed close until I went to college and he began to drift a little, especially after he was cut loose by the Beastie Boys due to chronic lateness and heavy drinking. Frankly, I didn't think hardcore or hip hop was really for him, which was proven later by his turn to folk, country and Americana.

We lost touch until, like so many high school friends, Facebook brought us back together. He had an idea for a book about those early days and wanted to interview me, but it never happened. We finally connected at a show of his amusing and well-executed folk art, appropriately at a bar on Berry Street in Williamsburg. He was still the same John and we had a great time, playing songs from our iPods and talking about everything. But something was off. Occasionally, our conversation just...missed, derailed by non-sequitur. I couldn't tell if he was going deaf, or had had a stroke at some point, but I worried for my old friend. I was right to be concerned, as his illness was beginning to take hold. I never saw him again.

John and I spent hours and hours together, mostly playing music, seeing shows, or trying to make the Young Aborigines coalesce. One of my favorite memories had nothing to do with any of that, however, but rather took place when I invited Mike and John to come on a ski weekend in the Berkshires. We called it the "Fresh Air Fund" for Young Aborigines - not exactly politically correct, but blame it on our youth. On the way to the country, we stopped at a Four Brothers pizza restaurant and squeezed into a corner booth with my parents. While we were certainly boisterous, we managed to give our orders without incident, but when the waitress turned to go back to the kitchen, John got that light in his eyes, raised one finger, and said, "And a booty to go!" Mike and I almost died laughing. 

It was just another moment where John went just that little bit further out, past everyone's comfort zone, and into an ether of his own making. I guess he's there permanently now. So do something silly, play an out of tune guitar like you mean it, make the next person you meet your best friend, and get a taste of what it was like to be the man I called JB. While his light can never be extinguished, it's now up to us to reflect it back into the world.

JB on the mic, reading poetry
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All Photos (c) 2016 Jeremy Shatan