Sunday, December 21, 2014

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Old Favorites, New Sounds

At the beginning of every year I start a Spotify playlist called Of Note In [insert year] which is my place to dump interesting sounding tracks, whether its  things I read about, songs people recommend, or new releases from artist I follow. If it's not on Spotify I have to work a little harder to keep track but I have other ways. If you use Spotify and want to keep up with most of what I'm listening to, you can follow the playlist and then you will get a little notification whenever I add something to the list. That way you can avoid that "Wow, I could've had a V8!" moment when I start posting my best of lists. Get a leg up and start following Of Note In 2015 now.

Having done the heavy lifting of the Top 20, now it's time to draw attention the other things that got me going over the last (nearly) 12 months. First up: new records from some familiar faces.

Old Favorites, New Sounds: 

While I loved the last two albums by The Strokes, I thought Casablancas' first solo album was awful. Phrazes For The Young seemed to play to every one of his weaknesses, with out of tune singing, stilted melodies and a cheap sound. Tyranny by Julian Casablancas + The Voidz is a different beast altogether, and it is a beast, with a sound that bolts blistering guitars to boxy electronics and features what seem almost like random noises that drop in and out, in a strange approximation of dub techniques. Casablancas distorts his voice more than ever, which is ironic considering Tyranny is supposed to be a concept album about wealth inequality and an overbearing security state (I think). I can tell that he thinks what he's singing about is really important, and for some reason that's enough for me. Also, there is an almost operatic sweep that comes through, especially on the nearly 11 minute Human Sadness, which makes for exciting listening. The ambition Casablancas brings to Tyranny is almost overwhelming, with through-composed song structures, deep layering in the production, and a slight sense of mania. I didn't know he had this in him, which is a rare thing to say about an artist I'm so familiar with. While it would make me sad if there were never another Strokes album, Tyranny makes me wonder if Casablancas has actually outgrown them. There's no end to where he goes from here.

When Lucinda Williams is in her sweet spot, it's almost always good, and much of her first double album, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, is very good, if not quite at the level of her last album, Blessed. But West Memphis is one of her greatest songs ever, with Tony Joe White adding extra swampiness to possibly the grooviest song about injustice since Dylan's Hurricane. 

EMA's The Future's Void had much that fascinated but it was not quite the major statement I had hoped for. Still, nobody does quite what she does so I was glad for a follow-up to the shattering Past Life Martyred Saints, one of the great records of the century. Even quirkier, The Pink Caves, the second album from German-American band Fenster found them hoeing their fragile little row with more great songs and homemade sounds, and indie stalwarts Cibo Matto returned with Hotel Valentine, their most entertaining album since Viva La Woman. 

Almost Like The Blues is now in the pantheon of great Leonard Cohen songs, no matter if the album, Popular Problems, didn't entirely live up to its promise. Now 80, Cohen has certainly been more productive of late than Aphex Twin, who took 13 years off before releasing Syro. Expectations ran high, naturally, and while it was a very good album, with some of his jammiest tracks yet, it wasn't the roadmap to the future that he used to provide. Speaking of elder states-people, do yourself a favor and listen to the first five songs on Marianne Faithfull's Give My Love To London. If the rest of it had kicked that much ass, it might have been in my Top 20.

Brian Eno celebrated his new bromance with Underworld's Karl Hyde by putting out not one but two fine albums, Someday World and High Life. The first found the two finishing some of Eno's old pop songs in the vein of Wrong Way Up, Eno's 1990 collaboration with John Cale, and the second was filled with expansive yet incisive jams that announced Hyde as an afro-beat inspired guitar magus. Parquet Courts also put out two scrappy, fun records but might want to contemplate bringing a little more focus to their thing next time. Of the two, Sunbathing Animal had more staying power with me than Content Nausea.

Coming next: Hip Hop.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Best Of 14 (Part 2)

1. Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness Of Dancers - The first time I listened to to M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch's fifth album as Hiss Golden Messenger, I dismissed it. "Somebody really likes Slow Train Coming!" I thought, before moving on. Granted, that was more of an impression I had gotten from their earlier stuff, finding it held back by an almost aplogetic politesse. But the fact is I really like Slow Train Coming, and there aren't many records that sound like It, so I kept going back. Gradually I tuned into the almost outrageous audacity of Taylor and Hirsch's strip-mining of the past, not only Dylan but a lot of other 60's and 70's folk rock. They just don't care what you think and their lack of concern is what cuts them free. I knew I was smitten when I began Tweeting lyrics regularly. "I think I'm obsessed," I told my wife, "I think this is the best album of the year."

Taylor and Hirsch produced the album themselves, calling on a brilliant cast of musicians to make the sound in their heads a reality. They came up with a nice blend of studio polish and casual intimacy ("The name of this song is called Day O Day," Taylor's kid says before that song begins) that fits the songs like a well-worn glove. This is what it sounds like when a band comes into their own. If you need convincing, seek out the earlier version of Lucia, the first song on the album, which they recorded years ago when they were in The Court & Spark. The production on that take is so overbearing you can't even connect to the chorus. Now, when Taylor sings "She was beautiful/It was circumstance/Watch the boat on the water learn to dance," I just nod my head as if I were there on the banks of the wise old river with him.

Among many wise decisions Hiss Golden Messenger made when crafting Lateness Of Dancers, one of the wisest was bringing in Mountain Man's Alexandra Sauser-Monnig to be the sweet Emmylou to Taylor's gritty and slurred Dylan/Parsons. On several songs, her voice limns his gorgeously, blending, echoing and circling around it like touches of color in a winter-gray sky. One reason their partnership works so well is that Taylor is now the complete master of his voice, knowing when to push it, when engage in almost exotic melisma, and when to deliver the words with utmost delicacy, as if they might break under the emotional weight.

Finally, a note about those words. These 10 songs contain some of the finest song lyrics of the decade, line after line of arresting imagery, heartfelt stories and choruses as solid as a hymn. "I lost myself in the jack-knife daylight/I sang "Rock Of Ages" til I was cross-eyed" (Black Dog Wind) or "The dead are here, they never go away/So I never ask them to" (Mahogany Dread) are just two examples of Taylor's plain spoken yet well-crafted writing. He's also not afraid to kick up some dirt on Saturday's Song, evince a beguiling malevolence on I'm A Raven (Shake Children) or not-so-simply rock out on Southern Grammar, making for a varied album.

The title of Lateness Of Dancers comes from the pen of another southern great, Eudora Welty, in her story Delta Wedding and the album is truly a flawless marriage of old and new. Lateness Of Dancers has become so entwined with my soul that I no longer just listen to it, rather I commune with it. Taylor and Hirsch have worked long and hard to get here and I feel truly lucky to have met up with them at this point in their journey.

2. Beck: Morning Phase - Much of the criticism of this remarkable return to form focused on its similarities to Sea Change as Beck assembled the same musicians in the studio for the first time since he made that album over a decade ago. But even if the players are the same, I find it quite a different listening experience, lacking the self-pity that marked some of Sea Change. Somewhat paradoxically, Morning Phase is more distant, even magisterial, while connecting on a deeper level to shared human experience. Follow the drum.

3. Breton: War Room Stories - Album number two from London's post-modernists finds them expanding their sound with orchestral arrangements and pop moves. While America sleeps, they are also becoming one of the best live bands on the planet. Now you can prepare yourself further with the deluxe edition, which adds 11 additional songs.

4. David Greilsammer: Scarlatti & Cage Sonatas - While Greilsammer's technique is formidable, what's more remarkable is his absolute commitment to such different composers. Simply one of the best, most engaging piano records I've ever heard.

5. Hollie Cook: Twice - Another bliss-inducing dose of pharmaceutical grade reggae-pop-dance songs. Prince Fatty controls the boards again, lavishing his usual expert roots sound with strings, harps and a touch of Chic. Keep this one away from the polar ice cap, as we're having enough trouble keeping that thing from melting as it is. Warm yourself when Cook returns to New York on January 8th.

6. Spoon: They Want My Soul - Britt Daniel, Jim Eno and co. add yet another brilliant collection to one of the deepest catalogs in the post-Nirvana landscape, and maybe their toughest album yet. Bonus meta-moment: listen for the reappearance of former nemesis Jonathan Fisk, who gets a drubbing along with "educated folk-singers" on the title track.

7. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger: Midnight Sun - After so many years championing Sean Lennon's talent, it is very satisfying to see him have his moment with this collection of beautifully crafted and emotionally resonant psyche-rock.

8. Hamilton Leithauser: Black Hours - "Don't know why I need you, I don't need anyone," Leithauser sings on this triumphant album, his first without his band The Walkmen. Perhaps he's singing to Paul Maroon, the guitarist in that band, who is nearly as essential to the success of Black Hours as Leithauser himself. Perhaps less needed was the help of Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, whose two contributions are not at the level of the others, but the vinyl edition sounds fantastic and comes with four more wonderful songs that are.

9. Tweedy: Sukierae - In a year filled with excellent releases from Wilco world, Jeff Tweedy, with the able help of drummer son Spencer, released this songwriting masterclass. With songs that are alternately haunting, arty, funny, and pure pop, Tweedy proves that there's still life in the White Album paradigm.

10. Nicole Atkins: Slow Phaser - Smart, sleek, hook-filled pop is hard to come by, although there is plenty of over-praised music masquerading as such. Atkins is the real deal, a complex character with huge voice that can swing from smoky to sweet. Tore Johansson, who produced Slow Phaser free of charge to help Atkins out after Hurricane Sandy took out her house, proves that all Swedish producers aren't calculating chart-hounds. Every track is filled out with well-placed touches that serve the songs perfectly and enhance their inherent catchiness. I find myself singing We Wait Too Long and The Worst Hangover ("Operator, operator, give me number 911 - I'm dying") among others, at odd moments, like as soon as I wake up. If you procrastinated on buying this since I last wrote about, I forgive you as it is now available in a deluxe edition that features a storming live set taped earlier this year at Detroit's Masonic Temple. Now, you have no excuse.

Coming soon: The Best of the Rest of 14 and Out Of The Past (Reissues and Other Older Sounds). What's your Number One?

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Best Of 14 (Part 1)

Just three of the great records included in 11-20.
My turntable, CD player, iPod and Spotify account have all runneth over with fantastic music this year. Hopefully my attempt to quantify the many, many great records I've heard this year into a Top 20 list won't keep me awake at night, but you really should not rest until you've heard all of these. First up, 11-20.

11. Debby Schwartz: A Garden Of My Own - In which my old friend Debby makes good on the promise she showed all those years ago in the Aquanettas. 

12. Brooklyn Rider: American Almanac - Furious energy and a spate of new commissions make this the string quartet album of the year. 

13. Hospitality: Trouble - Hospitality maintain their charm while deepening and darkening their sound with hints of glacial prog and electro.

14. Kate Tempest: Everybody Down - I recently read that a large percentage of those who were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize had sold less than a 1,000 copies of their albums. I certainly hope that Kate Tempest, who was a member of that select group, has found more listeners than that. Of course "sales" are only one measure of success in today's world and, while Tempest was ultimately passed over for the Mercury, it would have been just one more award for this decorated poet, rapper, playwright and novelist. Everybody Down is a kaleidoscopic song cycle about young Londoners set to state of the art, insistently danceable beats by Dan Carey. Tempest makes the most of her slightly raspy voice, finding melodies in the words and inhabiting the different characters with total commitment. New details emerge from the songs at every listen. She will be performing this material for the first time in New York on March 24th, 2015 at Mercury Lounge. Needless to say, I already have my ticket.

15. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness - Olsen arrives at the forefront of songwriting and singing with this top-flight album.

16. John Luther Adams: Become Ocean - While Adams' gorgeous Pulitzer Prize winning tone poem may not solve climate change, it will certainly change your own personal atmosphere. Smashing recording and performance from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony.

17. Scott Walker & Sunn O))): Soused - In what may be the most surprising collaboration since Lou Reed met Metallica in Lulu's abbatoir, Soused found Walker joining forces with drone metal avatars Sunn O))) (named for the logo of an American amplifier company) to produce possibly his least obscure work since the last Walker Brothers album. Hearing his magnicent tenor ring out with a line from Oh Shenandoah ("Across the wide Missouri") to start the album is a thrill and when the guitars start wailing and slashing it sounds uncannily right. Lyrically, Walker is up to his usual tricks, exploring the dark side of American popular culture (Brando: "I took it for Wild One. And then for my sin"), the darker side of history's anti-heroes (Herod 2014) and other pitch-black subject matter. There's a strong feeling of theater to the whole enterprise and Soused demands to be listened to in one sitting. It's a real experience and one that seems to have given new purpose to Sunn O))), who have been plowing their singular furrow for nearly 20 years without really getting anywhere. Walker has harnessed them brilliantly, drawing on their mastery of guitars and textures to add weight to his soundscapes. Soused connects like a haymaker - be forewarned.

18. Golden Retriever: Seer - One could almost imagine Scott Walker finding a place for his frightening ruminations in the sounds created by Matt Carlson (modular synth) and Jonathan Sielaff (bass clarinet) as Golden Retriever, except their music is somehow more friendly and inviting than what he typically goes for. They make the most of their limited palette, drawing on sources both ambient (Harold Budd comes to mind) and avant garde (they cite Alvin Lucier) to create long, spacious environments for the listener to explore. There's a lot of color and detail to Golden Retriever's music and the feeling of excited collaboration between Carlson and Sielaff is palpable - and contagious. Don't let Seer fly under your radar. 

19. Jonny Greenwood: Inherent Vice OST - While his Radiohead bandmate Thom Yorke gets more ink for his thoughts on the business of music delivery than for his mostly terrific new album, Greenwood quietly goes about his business. He's already had quite a year, what with the beautiful recording of a symphonic suite from his There Will Be Blood soundtrack released on Deutsche Grammophon (as for Bryce Dessner's music on the same album, the less said the better), and his fluid, concentrated performance of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint included on that composer's record of Radiohead-inspired music. Now we get his latest soundtrack for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel. While I confess to not being a fan of Anderson, he's done a great service by repeatedly giving the reins to Greenwood and enabling him to create some of the most striking movie scores of our era with There Will Be Blood, The Master and now Inherent Vice. 

Greenwood seems to see the sound-world of a movie as a whole, composing his own pieces and also selecting other music as an incredibly apropos supplement. For Norwegian Wood, he sequenced songs by Can in between his symphonic cues, creating a unique tapestry. Inherent Vice also contains a Can song - their classic Vitamin C is the second track, after Greenwood's lush, pensive theme - but there are also songs by Minnie Riperton, Neil Young, surf-rockers The Marketts and soul singer Chuck Jackson, among others, for his most varied soundtrack yet. There's even a curio for Radiohead fans: a version of Spooks, which they've played live but never recorded. As finished here, it features Greenwood alongside two members of the now-defunct Supergrass and a spoken narration. It's terrific but "not really rh," as Greenwood himself Tweeted.

In some of Greenwood's own compositions, there are echoes of Bernard Herrmann's brilliant score for The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, with delicate woodwinds and strings intertwining to explore psychological depths perhaps ignored by the characters. His guitar comes out on Spooks and couple of other tracks that have a band feel, but for the most part he stays away from his day job. The Markett's track is a bit goofy and Kyu Sakamoto's Sukiyaki is kind of irritating, but the Minnie Riperton song is surprisingly great, and the important thing is the totality of the listening experience. From what I've heard, some who excessively laud Anderson are finding Inherent Vice to be quite a bit less an the sum of its parts. Not so for Greenwood's music. I'll probably save the $12 bucks and stick with the movie he's already created in my mind. You shouldn't form any opinions on Greenwood's work based on the movie's trailer, which features exactly none of his contributions. The soundtrack to Inherent Vice will be released on December 15th. 

20. Perfect Pussy: Say Yes To Love - I admit to a secret fascination with online comments related to this young band from Syracuse. Invariably someone will say, with absolute authority: "This just isn't good noise or hardcore," which usually makes me think: "As if they care." While they do draw on those traditions, they have no need to fit into any genre or subculture or follow anybody's rules. Their debut album is short, serrated and sweet, like their performances. A recent concert from Paris shows they can rule a big stage as effectively as a small one.

A burst of blistering noise - that's a good way to end a Top 20, clearing the decks for 2015. However, there's still more 2014 to come: next time I'll go back to the beginning and deliver numbers 1-10. After that will come The Best of the Rest of 14 and Out of the Past (reissues and other older sounds).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Power Pop To The People

Alex Chilton holds on in Memphis

Let's get a few things out of the way. Like many people, I discovered Big Star retroactively, following the trail of breadcrumbs left by The Replacements. I'd heard of them, of course, often mentioned in the same breath as the Flamin' Groovies, but never heard a note - it wasn't easy to find their stuff for quite some time. When I did hear it, I connected with it immediately. Remembering Alex Chilton's voice on The Letter by The Boxtops, I kept thinking, "This is that guy?" Number One Record and Radio City are both classic albums and Third (Sister Lovers) is pretty fantastic, although fragmented. I also like a lot of I Am The Cosmos, the posthumously released album by Chris Bell, who was Chilton's main foil in the early days of Big Star.

On the other hand, I have often been confounded by Alex Chilton's post-Big Star career. While there are a few good songs (Like Flies On Sherbet, Bangkok), much of it is so shambolic or wrong-headed as to seem not only disrespectful of his fans but of his own talents. He also made a point of disparaging his achievement in Big Star, and the group in general, which bugged me. Nothing he said or played got in the way of my enjoyment, though - Big Star is in the firmament and poisoned arrows from any source can't knock them down.

Although F. Scott Fitzgerald stated that there were no second acts in American lives, Big Star sure proved him wrong when a one-off concert in Columbia, MO in 1993 kick-started a revival of the band that lasted until Chilton's death in 2010. An album of the concert was released that same year and was a delightful surprise. Featuring Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens along with keepers-of-the-flame Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies on guitar and bass, it was a spirited and short set of well-chosen Big Star songs plus two covers. While there are some tentative moments (Stringfellow calls it a "delightfully fragile show"), there are a lot of fine details as well and in no way did it shame the legacy of the group. I listened to it quite a bit at the time and still put it on from time to time. I especially liked that they covered Baby Strange, one of my favorite T. Rex B-sides - it's always good to find a kindred spirit.

Part of the joy of Columbia was the simple thrill of hearing these great songs take shape in front of an audience, after so many years of hearing the studio versions. In 2009, we were afforded an even more spectacular opportunity to do so, with the release of the stunning Keep An Eye On The Sky box set, which included a complete recording of a 1973 concert at Lafayette's Music Room in Memphis. This is a trio version of the band, with Chilton and Stephens joined by Andy Hummel on bass. It sounds like there are about 10 people in the audience but the band is on fire, with Chilton ripping off leads, chords and complex figures, while Hummel holds down the anchor and Stephens drives the bus, heavy on the ride cymbal. Chilton is in fine voice, too, able to handle the range from soulful to raucous. They were already performing Baby Strange back then, as well as Todd Rundgren's silly Slut, which reappeared in 1993. They nodded to a third hero by including Hot Burrito #2 off the first album by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

There were also earlier releases of live material from 1974, with Chilton showing all too clearly the ravages of the lifestyle that is well-represented on the third album, but between Columbia and Lafayette you have a nice representation of Big Star on stage. Turns out there was more in the vaults, however, and not just audio but film of a complete show from 1994, now seeing the light of day on Omnivore Recordings under the name Live In Memphis. They played in front of family and friends (including Chris Bell's parents) at the New Daisy in what was apparently a warmly received homecoming. 

I admit to being slightIy skeptical of this whole enterprise and when I read that Chilton's former bodyguard (there's a tale) had shot the footage my doubts increased. It seems I needn't have worried. While I haven't seen the whole film, the clip of The Ballad Of El Goodo is beautifully shot, with multiple cameras, and nicely edited as well. In fact, watching this one song has me pretty convinced that this the ideal way to experience Live In Memphis. Watching Chilton's face, still boyish but a bit more lived in, as he puts his all into the song's imprecations to "hold on" is a window into both where the song came from and what it meant to him that night in Memphis after all he had been through. Based on that one song, I am more than eager to see the full thing, which is after all the only professionally made document of a complete concert by Big Star in any form.

That's not to say that the music on its own is to be avoided. At this point, the Posie-fied version of Big Star had played quite a bit in the wake of the 1993 concert, including shows in Tokyo and London, and had gelled more in the process. The set is longer than a year earlier, and looser, with everyone having a lot of fun, bantering with each other and the audience. The uptempo songs drive harder, with a sense of abandon that is very engaging. Looser also means sloppier, with Chilton up to some of his old tricks, entering verses and choruses off the beat and practically daring Auer and Stringfellow to keep up with his off-kilter guitar. 

There are more covers, including 35 seconds of Springsteen's Fire and an ill-advised "playful" take on Girl From Ipanema, which overstays its welcome even at under two minutes. Still, that's really the only cringe-worthy moment. The sound is good enough, although I go back and forth about whether dialing down the drums would be helpful or if their big sound adds to the live feel. Overall, Live In Memphis will be a balm to the ears and especially the eyes of fans of the band and Chilton. Kudos to the team at Omnivore for so lovingly rescuing this material from obscurity. 

Big Star had many descendants in addition to The Replacements, most famously and productively the great Wilco. Jellyfish, the early 90's group helmed by Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Jason Falkner (both now strutting their stuff in Beck's astonishing road band), is sometimes included in that cadre. While that power pop sound is definitely in their DNA, they probably take as much from The Monkees, Harry Nilsson, Cheap Trick and Paul McCartney's solo work. Now Omnivore (busy, much?) has prepared reissues of both Jellyfish albums in expanded editions, each featuring a wealth of bonus tracks - demos, live takes, one-offs - to come out on January 20th, 2015.

I never really took to Jellyfish and it's been at least a decade since I listened to Bellybutton. My impression is still basically the same, that here is a group of extremely talented craftsmen with a pretty broad knowledge of music doing exactly what they want to do. It's just not for me. Part of it is the overly brittle sound they chose for their music - I would just like a little more warmth and sense of interaction between the players. But in the end, my opinion doesn't matter much. Jellyfish has their fans and they will be over the moon with Omnivore's typically excellent archival work.

The first disc of the Bellybutton set includes the original album plus ten live cuts from three venues they hit while touring the album. They sound sleek on four songs from the Roxy, charming at the Hard Rock in San Francisco (performing McCartney's Jet, Falkner offers "That's all we know!" as the song ends), and positively storming on the big stage of Wembley arena in London. The second disc is all demos, nine from Bellybutton, one from the second album, five that were never finished, and a cover of Donovan's Season Of The Witch. All of this material will be available as a separate digital download called The Bellybutton Demos. 

For demos, most of these songs are nearly fully realized, with multiple instruments and a modicum of production. These aren't your "bash it out on an acoustic just to get the song on tape" kind of early takes, so they don't provide all that much insight into their writing process, except to point out that working in the studio was an essential part of it. Of the unreleased songs, Queen Of The U.S.A. had serious potential - all they would need to do is hack out the silly sound effects from the bridge and this thing could've been a hit. Always Be My Girl is tuneful and fast-paced - with a different drum approach, it could have been a With The Beatles outtake. Let This Dream Never End is almost pure lite-FM R&B, replete with Greg Phillinganes keyboards and Paul Jackson rhythm guitar. Michael Jackson, Elton John, hell, even Whitney Houston might have found success with it. Season Of The Witch is one of the great groove songs of all time, but Jellyfish never quite seem to find their place in it - completists will be thrilled, as they will be with the rest of this definitive reissue.

Since the demise of Jellyfish, Falkner and Manning have always been busy and in 2000 they teamed up with drummer/composer Brian Reitzell (Redd Kross, Air, numerous soundtracks, including Lost In Translation) to form TV Eyes. They made one album in 2006, which found release in Japan only, played three concerts, and promptly moved on. Looking for something different from what Falkner calls "the macho 'alternative' post-grunge fallout," they took inspiration from Gang Of Four and other post-punk bands, as well as early electronica like Kraftwerk, Japan and Gary Numan's Tubeway Army. The broad swaths of guitar also bring to mind the work of Bill Nelson, especially his Red Noise album, which proved old prog-rockers could get angular, too

Now, thanks once more to Omnivore, this material is no longer for collectors only, and it's worth investigating. While none of the songs equal their influences at their best, each one is fully realized and built-out with all number of layered keyboards, processed drums, disengaged vocals and cool sonic touches. Falkner, Manning and Reitzell are all pros in the studio and it shows, with Reitzell showing his hand in an genuinely haunting re-mix of Time's Up, one of the bonus tracks. What's also clear is that their affection for their sources includes a little well-placed amusement - they know Cars is a funny song as well as a great one - and although they steer clear of parody, they're not afraid of a little pastiche. So check out TV Eyes for some 
expertly assembled machine-tooled post-punk paranoia, especially if you don't mind a dash of fun in the recipe.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Information For 16 Strings

Like the binary system, string quartets can convey seemingly infinite amounts of information using a simple and easily replicable structure. Two recent releases from Brooklyn Rider and the Juilliard String Quartet highlight some of those possibilities.

The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, featuring 13 new compositions commissioned by the group, comes swathed in layers of information before you even get to the music. The inspiration for the collection, the liner notes explain, comes from Der Blaue Rieter Almanach, the compilation of music, art and essays published in 1912 by The Blue Rider, an art collective based in Munich and centering around painter Wassily Kandinsky. Brooklyn Rider's name is an homage to the German artists and the inspiration for their Almanac comes from the way Kandinsky and company allowed different forms of art to inform each other. In fact, the spark for the Munich visionaries was provided by Kandinsky's Impression III, a quite wonderful painting itself a response to a performance of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet in Munich in 1911.

To carry through the idea, Brooklyn Rider asked the mostly young composers (at 63, Bill Frissell is the oldest) to compose a new work based somehow on the work of an artist they admired. Muses include everyone from William Faulkner to Keith Haring and from James Brown to Mierle Lederman Ukeles, the Artist in Residence at the Department of Sanitation. The composers themselves come from all over the map, including two of indie rock's finest drummers, Glenn Kotche and Greg Saunier, a few notable jazz musicians, such as Vijay Iyer, Frissell, and Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus and a few singer-songwriters. All of the writers for the album are people who perform as well as compose, which could be one of the factors that gives the Almanac its extraordinary energy.

Right from the start, with Necessary Henry! by Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli, we are treated to a surge of churning power from the quartet. With inspiration from composer Henry Threadgill, Koheli works in all sorts of jazzy swoops and glides, along with percussive thwacks before driving the piece to furious conclusion of unison playing. It's a knockout. Maintenance Music follows, by Dana Lyn and inspired by Ukeles, brooding but tense for the first few minutes, then turning to playful skittery interactions between the players. That's the other thing: all of these works are short, with the longest nearing nine minutes and shortest under three, making for a nicely balanced listening experience. In fact, it may be the perfect shuffle play string quartet album. And you don't have to engage with the liner notes to enjoy it, although this is one case where they do make it more fun.

Padma Newsome of The Clogs portrays the Australian desert through the eyes of Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira in Simpson's Gap, using sonorities that Aaron Copland would have found well suited to the American prairies. It's a broadly tuneful work that hides layers of pain and struggle beneath the surface. The Haring Escape by sax player Daniel Cords (no relation to BR's own Nicholas Cords) is suitably cartoonish in depicting the liberation of Haring's populist drawings from the stuffy environs of private collections and galleries, bringing to mind the ingenious musical engines of Raymond Scott. Aoife O'Donovan, a singer-songwriter, took her inspiration from William Faulkner for Show Me and conjures up song-like passages infused with the melodies of the American South. It's pure charm. 

My first reaction to Dig The Say, Iyer's James Brown homage was "oy," based on the clunky title alone. But damn if he hasn't gone and done it, convincingly translating James Brown's methods to the world of the string quartet. It's simply delightful - and slightly hilarious - to hear cellist Eric Jacobsen expertly play a Bootsy Collins bass line. As Iyer says, Brown's "...groove-based music features complex polyphony, expressive virtuosity, and a ritual-like intensity," all successfully captured here. Dig it. Iyer's description of JB's music could also be used for Greg Saunier's work with Sean Lennon in their improvisatory duo, Mystical Weapons. However, his work here is one of the more mediative pieces on the Almanac. Titled simply Quartet, Parts One & Two and inspired by Christian Wolff, a composer closely associated with John Cage, it features long, plangent lines and such clarity that it's almost as if the quartet was reduced by half. 

Saunier's work segues nicely into Morris Dance (for choreographer Mark Morris) by Iverson, which, as you would expect, features some parodic moments, most notably an oh-so-deep cello cadenza. The piece ends with a little singing, which is a nice touch and sets up the next piece, Exit, by BR's violinist Colin Jacobsen, which features Shara Wordon on vocals. He gets away with two muses, using words from Kandinsky poems while drawing on the "inquisitive nature" of David Byrne. It's a tuneful, circular work with as much singing and clapping as string playing. I've always enjoyed Jacobsen's contributions to BR's repertoire, and Exit, part of a song cycle called Chalk And Soot, is a striking new direction for him.

Five-Legged Cat by Venezuelan performer Gonzalo Grau, is almost as funky as Dig The Say. Besides the merengue rhythms of his homeland, Grau also looks to Chick Corea for "colors, textures and accents," and his work has all those things in spades, as well as being wonderfully entertaining and atmospheric. Christina Courtin, another young singer-songwriter who also plays violin, is quite self-deprecating about Tralala, seemingly almost regretful about choosing Stravinsky as her muse. Not to worry - there's a lot to be said for Tralala's folky playfulness and episodic nature. She works some dance rhythms in as well, which I'm sure old Igor would appreciate. 

Glenn Kotche, who's already having a bang up year, contributes Ping Pong Fumble Thaw. Electronic composer Jens Massel provides the catalyst and the title, with the piece moving quickly through four movements. Not surprisingly, it's a very percussive string ensemble we hear, with plenty of pizzicato and woody sounds. As with many of the Almanac's compositions, you should not restrain any toe-tapping while enjoying Kotche's miniature symphony. 

Finally, we come to Bill Frissell's entry, John Steinbeck, which grew out of the reams of music he composed for a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival. It eventually became the album Big Sur and was composed there, not far from the settings for many of Steinbeck's stories. If your familiar with Frissel's guitar-scapes on from his own records or on albums for John Zorn's Naked City or many of Hal Willner's productions (check out Marianne Faithfull's Strange Weather), you will find the ambient textures of his brief quartet familiar. It serves as a contemplative coda to all that came before, ending what is certainly Brooklyn Rider's greatest accomplishment so far. Unlike a five-legged cat, they don't put a foot wrong on The Brooklyn Rider Almanac. 

None of the composers on the Brooklyn Rider album (or its members, for that matter) were even born in 1946 when the Juilliard String Quartet was founded. Naturally, it has replaced all of its members since then while maintaining a tradition of deep involvement with the music of its time with a strong focus on American works, while also bringing its own perspective to the classical repertoire. While there are likely several JSQ recordings that can be referred to as landmarks, perhaps none more so than the 1991 release of what was at that time Elliott Carter's complete string quartets, Nos. 1-4.

Well, as It happened, the irrepressible Carter wrote a fifth quartet, publishing it in 1995. Considering that he was productive until his death in 2012, just a few weeks short of his 104th birthday, I'm somewhat surprised it was only one more! Now the JSQ has reissued those four extraordinary performances along with a new recording of String Quartet No. 5. Don't toss out the older release too quickly, however: it included a definitive recording (with Christopher Oldfather on piano) of Carter's not insubstantial Duo for Violin & Piano, which was composed between the 3rd and 4th quartets and has now become somewhat of a digital orphan. In any case, of the first four quartets let me just say that if you've been following the string quartet's journey from Mozart and Haydn through Beethoven, Bartok and Shostakovich, you need to know these works. It may in fact be the only American cycle that can hold its own in that rarified bunch. 

Carter certainly did not let the side down with the 5th, delivering a fragmented and playful 12 movement piece that also displays the absolute limits of counterpoint and how interacting individuals can make up a whole. Still a landmark recording, it's almost as if Mt. Rushmore grew a fifth head - not something that happens every day and well worth celebrating.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 2: Tweedy & Son

When last we met the members of Wilco, nearly every member of the venerable band had released their own albums - everyone except for main singer and songwriter, Jeff Tweedy. Now his record is here, a double album called Sukierae, made in collaboration with his son Spencer under the name Tweedy. For years, Wilco watchers have been hearing about Spencer's drum prowess, and even hearing it on the last Mavis Staples album produced by Jeff, or on recordings by The Blisters, the OK indie rock band Spencer founded. But now we have the full parental endorsement, 20 songs, several of them featuring just father and son.

Let's get one thing out of the way: Spencer can play. Just 18 years old, he is a tuned-in, versatile rock drummer who easily handles anything his dad throws at him, from the punky blast of opening track Please Don't Let Me Be So Understood, to the tense art-rock of Diamond Light Pt. 1, or the chugging folk-rock of Low Key. It would be unfair to compare him to Glenn Kotche, Wilco's groundbreaking percussionist, but he's not missed in this context.

But as integral as Spencer is to Sukierae, make no mistake: Jeff is in the driver's seat, writing all the songs, singing, playing multiple instruments, producing, arranging and recording nearly everything at the Wilco loft in Chicago. The end result is as convincing a display of his casual mastery as we're likely to get. Despite sometimes sounding tossed off, almost all the songs resonate emotionally and contain well-turned hooks and tangy little touches that keep you coming back. I could see an argument for paring Sukierae down to a single disc, but if you listen in a sitting (try it, you might like it), there's an accretive effect of all the verses, choruses and bridges stacking up, seemingly generated from an unending fount of creativity. You might find yourself thinking American song is in a healthy place with this Tweedy guy.

His deep engagement with the history of his medium is reflected in that first song, with its jokey reference to the classic song sung by The Animals, Nina Simone, and so many others, and Hazel, the penultimate track, which calls back to an under-appreciated Dylan song of the same name from the Planet Waves album. Also, the sequencing of the record can't help but bring to mind the White Album, with its whipsaw shifts of mood and its variety of approaches. The sonic environment of Sukierae is more limited than the classic Beatles album, but Tweedy shows a lot of imagination in how he chooses to present each song.

Like The Beatles, Jeff Tweedy also knows when a little help can be useful, deploying Scott McCaughey (who played with R.E.M. for more than 15 years and currently heads The Baseball Project) on several tracks, mostly on piano, and calling in Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig (who perform as Lucius) to sweeten things with their background vocals on nearly half the songs. I especially love their work on sardonic rocker I'll Sing It, where they channel a little of that Flo & Eddie sound from Electric Warrior. Their Lucius bandmate Dan Molad is also heard on two tracks, but credited differently for some reason. There are three songs with Jeff on his own, with Fake Fur Coat an excellent example of the genre of "strumming and picking folk songs with lyrics that blend the surreal with the quotidian." It is, after all, Dylan's world and we can hardly blame Jeff Tweedy for living in it.

Although the lyrics can be oblique at times, there is a general sense of vulnerability, and even fragility at times. Nobody likes to cry in front of their kids, but there is absolutely no sense that Jeff is holding back to protect Spencer. While Jeff has had his rock star troubles, it seems like things turned out pretty well on the home front, and that feeling of familial cohesion is one of the external delights of the album. It should also be mentioned that father and son share at least one of the emotional cruxes of the album: wife and mother Susan Tweedy's diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, for which she is currently being treated. Sukierae (pronounced "sookee-ray") is one of her family nicknames, making the album partly a tribute to her - and it's one she and all the Tweedies can be proud of.

Coming soon: Wilco returns with two career-spanning collections, celebrating 20 years of excellence and exploration. The first, Alpha Mike Foxtrot, will be a box set of rarities and unreleased material, and the second, What's Your 20?, will feature that number of "essential" songs from their eight studio albums.