Thursday, April 19, 2018

In Praise Of Classic Rock Retirement

It’s now become a thing, aging icons like Elton John, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Rush and Joan Baez announcing their retirement from touring or even renouncing their careers entirely. While they may cite different reasons, from Parkinson’s disease to young children at home, it all adds up to one of the biggest sea changes in the landscape of popular music since The Beatles broke up. 

Cue the hand-wringing: "It's extremely worrisome,” agent Marcia Vlasic told Rolling Stone, echoing the thoughts of several others in her field. “Once these artists really do retire, who will be the replacements?" 

Ron Delsener, who has been promoting concerts since the 60's and is now Live Nation’s New York Chairman, takes a more sanguine view: “We'll always have superstars,” he says in the same article, "Justin Timberlake and the National, they're the new guys coming up—they'll be the new U2 or the new whatever." Hope for a big-ticket arena-filling future also comes in the form of the usual Top 40 suspects: Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Lorde, etc. 

Except some of those acts are already proving soft at the box office. Taylor Swift, for one, riding the last gasp of poptimism and also pricing out her family audience; Lorde, for another, likely due to being more of a niche artist than initially suspected. 

So from a purely business angle, I can see reasonable arguments for both hope and despair. But from an artistic, soul-nourishing perspective, when it comes to classic rock retirements, I say: Bring it on!

By staying on the road so long and driving up prices far beyond inflation, these legendary acts selling the warm milk of nostalgia have turned concert-going into a sometime thing, a once-a-year special occasion, just at the time when musicians are coping with seismic changes that have forced them to secure most of their lifeblood from concert revenue. All the greatest-hits shows and complete-album residencies are cutting our younger artists off at the knees, which is where the true danger to the music itself lies. 

I see a couple of dozen concerts a year, with an average ticket price of $12, not only supporting local and touring artists near the start of the career, but also experiencing the intimate and spontaneous magic that may have led you to popular music in the first place. Sure, some of the bands I follow may lie at the more musically obtuse side of the equation, but plenty of others provide the sweet satisfaction of rock & roll at its best or deliver on the promise of the singer-songwriter model better than any arena-level star today. 

You have to ask yourself: Whose compass are you following? Are you following the received wisdom of radio stations with extremely limited playlists and just going with what’s comfortable and familiar? Or are you willing to put in a little bit of effort (and even less cash) to give something new a try and give a shot in the arm to young artists who were likely at least partly inspired by those hoary dinosaurs still roaming the arenas?

If you’re still reading, you may be wondering how you might go about getting out of the rut that has kept the concert business in a false state of security for far too long. You also want to avoid the path some of my bereft friends have followed, which is to turn to the increasing array of tribute bands. Even if some are astonishingly competent that’s still an investment in the past. 

So, here are some practical steps you can take - and ones that don’t involve my shoving my own taste down your throat. If you want to get an idea what I like, check out my Best Of lists from the last few years or follow my Of Note In 2018 playlists, all of which are linked below. 

  1. Download the following apps: Songkick, Bandsintown and Fans. Create accounts, turn on location sharing, and let them scan your music collection, whether on Spotify, Apple Music or any number of services. You can use these sites on a desktop as well but they really shine on a smartphone.
  2. Use the apps to see who’s playing closest to you in the near future. None of the artists you’re tracking may be on tour, but you can let the algorithm suggest things you might like. Bandsintown makes this easy with a slider on the Events tab that goes from “All Artists” to “Recommended” to “Tracking.” If you put it to Recommended, you will get an alphabetically arranged cloud of names with the artists you’re tracking in bold type and the rest in a lighter color. Songkick also has a Recommended tab where they explain the origin of the suggestion, i.e. “Tracked by people who track artist X,” which can give you an idea of what type of music it may be. Depending on where you live, you may also want to adjust the radius of your search to the maximum distance you’re willing to drive to see a show. 
  3. Start clicking some names. If a date and location seem feasible, use your preferred service (Spotify, YouTube, etc. - there’s also a lot of free listening on Bandcamp) to investigate the relevant music. If you subscribe to Apple Music, Bandsintown will let you click right through to some songs. If you like what you hear, buy tickets immediately (commitment!) and put it on your calendar. Invite an adventurous friend or two if that’s how you want to roll. 
  4. Go to the show. If it’s good, share about it on whatever social networks you use, inducing FOMO throughout your network. Also, say hi to the band - they may be at the merch table, which is certainly not going to happen at an arena concert. And buy something! Even a $1 pin or sticker will help them out. 
  5. Make sure to track your new favorite artist. Was the opening act good? Track them, too. That way you'll know when they're coming back while also giving the algorithm more information for new recommendations. Lather, rinse, repeat! After a few good experiences, you'll be completely disinterested when yet another Hall Of Fame act goes on their umpteenth retirement tour. You'll be living in the now.
The benefits to giving this a try are enormous, both for young artists and for your own listening life. The worst that can happen is that a band gets huge and you find yourself priced out (or sold out) of their next concert. But then you’ll be able to say you knew them when, which is always fun. Let me know how it goes!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Record Roundup: Hip Hop Hors d’Oeuvres

It’s just past the first quarter of 2018 and it feels like hip hop is in a fragmented place, with tons of variety but a lack of centralized power. It makes perfect sense that one of the most important albums in the genre this year, namely Black Panther: The Album, overseen by the mighty Kendrick Lamar, is a various-artists collection. But that just means that our table is set with a kaleidoscopic array of tasty bites. Here are some others that have me going back for seconds. 

Invasion Of Privacy - Cardi B. I have no problem admitting I was wrong when I called Cardi B. a flash in the pan. I thought the phenomenon of Bodak Yellow would lead to an over-wrought, overlong mess, a naked attempt for streaming dominance with no concern for musical quality (it’s happened before, right Fetty?). Instead what we have here is a concise, heat-seeking album that mostly shows her surprising versatility while not straying too far from her strengths. The opening cut, Get Up 10 is a perfect origin story with a brittle beat that’s supremely catchy. Next, she holds her own with Migos on Drip, injecting some welcome color into their trademark sound. Be Careful is another highlight, marrying her tough rhymes to a slinky groove that finds her comfortable enough to sing a little. 

Chance The Rapper threatens to take over Best Life with his sheer skill and exuberance but Cardi claws back her territory. Whether or not they were actually in the studio together, they make a great team, with his natural sunniness contrasting with her biting flow. I Like It adds some trap to familiar boogaloo for a killer party cut with a great guest spot from Bad Bunny, rapping in Spanish. This is the only explicit, if glancing, nod to part of her heritage (her father is Dominican, her mother is from Trinidad) but her inflections will be familiar to anyone who as spent time in one of NYC’s diverse neighborhoods. 

Further collaborations with Kehlani, YG and SZA could have led to an overload but they all feel in support of her rather than an attempt at propping up a limited talent. Besides the fact that Money Bag is a retread, my only real complaint about this impressive debut is including Bodak Yellow and Bartier Cardi, both old songs with multi-millions of streams, which smacks of either laziness or music-biz chicanery. It interrupts the listening experience to have these overly familiar singles in the track list. Take’em out and you still have a 40 minute album that makes this outsized personality the unlikely queen of hip hop. Well done. 

Fuerza Arara’ - Telmary If Cardi B. has a true affinity for Hispanic rap, she should invite this Cuban legend on her next project. Telmary Diaz has been pursuing her vision of Latin hip hop since the 90’s and shows no sign of losing her flair or intensity on this album. The grooves, drawing on a wealth of Afro-Caribbean and Yoruban flavors, are rich and beautifully produced, with the tuba-driven Como se Pone la Habana and the reggaefied Ibeyis being standouts. But really, the only knock on Fuerza Arara’ is that, at just over 30 minutes, it’s way too short. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a perfect place to start, however, and I envy you the journey through her past. Read up on some other exciting things happening in Cuban hip hip in this in-depth article from Topic.

Fever - Black Milk This Detroit-based producer and rapper, born Curtis Eugene Cross, has also been honing his craft for a while, gaining most of his reputation as a top-flight J Dilla disciple behind the boards. Through his own albums and many collaborations he’s continued to develop his rapping to the point where he’s now a true double-threat. Besides his conversational flow one thing that distinguishes him is his focus on storytelling and descriptions of an emotional landscape with a refreshing lack of braggadocio. Standout track Laugh Now, Cry Later (an inversion of Grace Jones’ advice) is a great place to start, but there’s not a bad track here. “They told me keep it pure, caught up in the allure, but, see, that’s not what I was looking for, wasn’t sure, I wanted more,” Black Milk raps on True Lies and throughout Fever he demonstrates the allure of keeping it pure. Catch it -and check him out live in the studio at New Sounds

The Brown Tape - Ghostface Killah & Apollo Brown One of the minor tragedies of our sensationalist moment is that Martin Shkreli’s adventure with that million-dollar Wu-Tang Clan album got way more attention than Ghostface’s last album. Sour Soul, from 2015, was an album length collaboration with Toronto-based jazz insurrectionaries Bad Bad Not Good - and it sounded like a million bucks, landing on my Top 20 for that year. Now that Shkreli is behind bars I hope people don’t make the same mistake and miss out on this latest from the greatest living Wu Tang rapper. The album is named after producer Brown, another luminary straight outta Michigan, like Black Milk, but might also refer to the thick, crackle-infused beats he’s cooked up here. It’s almost as if Ghostface challenged him to use the most unplayable vinyl in his crates to build the tracks. However it went down, it sounds fantastic. 

The Killah himself is in fine form, whether spitting furiously on Blood On The Cobblestones or waxing autobiographical on Rise Of The Ghostface Killah, which features his Clan brother RZA, who was probably looking greedily at Brown’s vinyl while recording his bars. Like Sour Soul, The Brown Tape is a short, sharp and shocking reminder of the strengths of one of the most venerable rappers still in the game, as well as a calling card for Brown’s grimy production skills. Don’t let pharma-bro Shkreli hog the spotlight again. 

Golden Chariots - Joey Gallo, Cole Hicks and J Clyde Full disclosure: Producer J Clyde is one of my fellow writers for Off Your Radar, the weekly newsletter covering forgotten or overlooked albums. But it's through that relationship that I've come to admire his deep musical knowledge, and not just about hip hop, but all things musical. While I've checked out and enjoyed some of his own stuff in the past, this collaboration with two Virginia-based rappers has a new sense of assurance and command. His use of samples is always on point and the rhythms are funky and unpretentious. Gallo has the smooth flow of a veteran and Cole (short for Nicole) contrasts nicely whether rapping or singing. This EP is a great introduction to three talents - hope to hear more soon. 

Catch up with everything I’m tracking in this realm with thisplaylist: Of Note In 2018 (Hip Hop, R&B, and Reggae). What morsels am I missing?

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Friday, April 06, 2018

Jonathan Wilson Takes Flight

The last time I saw Jonathan Wilson he was hundreds of feet away from me, across the Barclay’s Center, playing the role of the “Resident Hippie” in Roger Waters’s band on a night of his excellent Us + Them tour. Now, he was close enough to touch on the stage of Music Hall Of Williamsburg, leading his own band in a rendition of Trafalgar Square, the lead track from his new album, Rare Birds. Mere seconds into the mini-epic, the blowing snow and howling winds outside felt like a distant memory, as did the Pink Floyd jukebox in which he so expertly participated last November. Well, not entirely, as there’s a touch of Floyd in Wilson’s new music, along with bits of Beatles, country rock, Avalon-era Roxy Music and even New Age textures. But it’s all turned to his own ends in what is his most personal and original collection to date.
Dan Horne, Wilson, Josh Adams and Jason Roberts
His all-new band could not have been more perfect both visually and musically. There was Dan Horne, the bassist, a refugee from The Stooges in denim and a graphic Tee, holding down the bottom with weighty finesse. Jason Roberts, the guitarist, stylish in a buttoned-up jacket, doing the George Harrison shuffle as he levitated the room with his precise and passionate lead and rhythm work. The drummer, Josh Adams, was equally at home in spirited dialogue with Wilson in an explosive version of Dear Friend from the last album, or keeping metronomic time on a drum pad for Over The Midnight from the new one. Brooding and bearded, keyboard player Peter Remm added sweep and scope with synthetic sounds or more naturalistic organ and piano. All of them were brave even to audition for this gig as Wilson can play circles around most professionals on all of their chosen instruments. The fact that they made it is further testament to their prowess.

Roberts sharing a moment with Peter Remm
At the center of it all was Wilson himself, who owned the room whether on guitar or piano, his confident presence a world away from the first time I saw him on an even smaller stage, the Mercury Lounge, back in 2012. A contributing factor to his increased assurance may be his voice, which has become more flexible and expressive since the slightly tentative vocals on 2011’s Gentle Spirit. That his songwriting has also grown was illustrated when he swung into Desert Raven from that album, so satisfying with that twin-lead riff, but also checking the “classic rock” boxes with high fidelity. New songs like Me or Sunset Blvd mix things up in ways that take more chances, confusing some of his fans who reject his turn toward a more richly textured sonic palette, with swaths of electronics and tracks deeply stacked with collage-like touches that only an intuitive genius would even think to add. 

Laraaji and Wilson entering a new age
One brilliant leap he makes on Rare Birds is the aforementioned embrace of new age textures and attitudes, picking up threads from collections like Light In The Attic’s I Am The Center and (The Microcosm), along with reissues of albums by StairwayAlice Coltrane and Laraaji. The latter is one of the most prominent guests on the album, lending his warm yet rough-hewn vocals and hypnotic zither to Loving You. Laraaji was a special guest at MHOW, too, and one of the reasons I trekked out in the nor’easter to see the show, having missed the last time they performed together in 2014. He took the stage almost as if he were on his way somewhere else - and maybe he was - wearing an orange jumpsuit and carrying a matching shoulder bag along with his zither. Taking a seat at stage right, he and Wilson exchanged a brief glance before starting the song.

Laraaji’s calm, centered presence lent a sense of occasion to the performance and harmonized with the loopy Eighties-digital ashram feeling of the rear-screen projections perhaps better than anything else. As mesmerized as I was by Laraaji, I was also left baffled by an electronic instrument Roberts played on Loving You, a small board with a zigzag of caution tape on the side facing us. I imagine the other side had some kind of touchpad, as he was using his thumbs to cause a wondrous array of squirrelly and squelchy sounds to emit from his amp. He never let us see that side, however, and was careful to carry the thing offstage with him at the end of the night. On his set list he notated “T” or “J” for the Fender Telecaster Deluxe or Jazzmaster guitars he used on most songs; for Loving You it was just an inscrutable “I.” Feel free to weigh in if you know what the heck that thing was!

Roberts with the mystery instrument
 In the case of the title track from Rare Birds, however, the concert rendition was like an X-Ray of the song, with Roberts breaking down the multiple guitar parts into a series of statements, using a multitude of pedals with precision to create the necessary sounds, from pretty, chorused strumming to ripping, distorted lead lines. It was his (and, presumably Wilson’s) ingenuity that solved the guitar part, but it was his wicked joy in playing it that gave it life. When I listen to the song now, one of my pleasures is peeling part the mix in my mind to appreciate those guitar parts again. 

Roberts, playing all his parts with precision (on a Jazzmaster)
Wilson has always been unafraid to go to some odd places lyrically, putting over lines like “Wait, can we really party today?” with a glazed sincerity that makes them work. On Rare Birds, maybe due to the influence of longtime collaborator Father John Misty, he takes even more chances than usual, with varying results. 49 Hairflips, for example, runs the gamut from the bonkers to the sublime. The opening lines had me questioning my sanity slightly and certainly qualify as the weirdest Bob Marley reference ever: “We were burning, we were looting, we were learning one or two things about life/We should fuck right in front of them, just to show them our light/We’ll be fucking, we’ll be sucking, while the rest of them are posting their lives/Ah, these kids will never rock again/Sign of the times.” Er, ok. The chorus is equally wacky: “49 hairflips! 49 hairflips on DayQuil” - say what, now? But then he gets to this devastating couplet: “I’m not leaving these walls without the prettiest song I can find/Miss your laugh most of all, really miss it tonight.” 

His delivery makes it go down easy, though, and turns the opening lines of Sunset Blvd into a true tour de force: “There’s a cherry on top tonight/For men who look like Jesus tonight/If you play your cards right/You can be the son of god, tonight.” The way he swallows the last repetition of the word “tonight” tells an entire story in novelistic detail through sheer emotion. Moments like that make it very easy to forgive any poetic infelicities that may crop up. And when he's direct and to the point, as on the ecstatic There Is A Light, the results are truly glorious. Having Lucius sing backing vocals on the album version doesn't hurt, either!

In any case, Wilson has always been about the full package of composing, playing, and production and on Rare Birds he has advanced by leaps and bounds across all metrics, delivering that elusive thrill of hearing an artist not only meet their potential but exceed it by a wide margin. And onstage at MHOW last month he proved that he could be generous enough to share his expanded vision with the other musicians and the audience to deliver a storming and dynamic show that defines what a rock concert can be in 2018. Miss him at your own risk.
Snapshots of The Shacks
Up-and-coming New York band The Shacks opened the show, presenting a polished set of their 60’s-psych and 70’s-R&B infused songs. The main drivers of their sound are Shannon Wise’s wispy, yet rhythmically acute vocals and Max Shrager’s sharp guitar, which can veer from psych solos to Nile Rodgers rhythms. They reminded me a little of The Clientele in their single-mindedness and there was a touch of Saint Etienne in the canny critique embedded in their pop art. If I didn’t hear that one killer song yet, there are more tunes to choose from on their debut album, Haze, which just came out. Between Wise’s star power (she was already in an Apple ad) and their assured sound, however, I would say they are well on their way. 

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bon Iver’s Dance Music

When the email came from Mass MoCA advertising a work in progress by TU Dance and Bon Iver, I bought tickets instantly. I knew they would sell out quickly so a glance at the calendar to see that it was possible for us to get there was all it took for me to click through and seal the deal. I was right about it selling out and I was also right that my wife and daughter would be thrilled when I gave them the tickets as part of their holiday gifts last December.

In the ensuing months, I wondered what, exactly, Justin Vernon’s role would be in the performance. Would he be behind the scenes, triggering and tweaking an electronic score from a laptop? Or onstage, with a guitar and keyboards behind that podium he sometimes uses in concert? Or would he be front of house, at the mixing board, just observing how the dancers interacted with his music and making notes for further improvements? Would it be new music or repurposed tracks from the three Bon Iver albums? Mass MoCA’s marketing led me to believe that he would be active but in my mind I wasn’t expecting a traditional concert. We’re big enough fans that any of the above possibilities would have been satisfying - or at least interesting!

I didn’t take much time to research TU Dance but noted that they're an acclaimed company from Minnesota that seems to have done a great job involving the community in their work. Also, we’ve made many visits to Mass MoCA, including for an excellent Bang On A Can concert, and found their standards to be uniformly high and their vision always forward-thinking. So, I went into the show with both an open mind and high expectations.

The platform for the band before the show.
One question was solved as soon as we entered the theater to take our seat: Bon Iver would be performing live. At the rear of the stage was a raised platform with enough gear on it to make some serious noise. The program also revealed that the band realizing Vernon's music would consist of three other musicians: BJ Burton (electronics), Michael Lewis (bass, keyboards) and JT Bates (drums). As soon as they crossed the stage and began climbing the stairs to their platform, the applause was rapturous. While I could be wrong, it felt like the majority of the audience had been drawn there by the prospect of hearing something new from Bon Iver rather than a native interest in TU Dance or dance in general. As soon as the music started, an electric charge went through the room and my mind raced to catch up with the song, a powerful blast of electronics, slamming drums and throbbing bass lines supporting Vernon's heavenly voice, which has only grown more fascinating over time.

The view from our seats; dancers in white.
The projections were flashing on the wall behind the stage, combining type and imagery, and the dancers came running out, loose limbed, gesturing dramatically, exuding energy and using a series of movements that seemed inspired by vernacular (street?) dance. Their costumes were pretty cool, with plenty of extra fabric to emphasize their moves while not obscuring their toned physiques. But as the night continued, it was clear that that was pretty much all TU Dance had to offer. For this piece at least, choreographer Uri Sands seemed to run out of steam fairly quickly, only giving us variations on the same basic themes using larger and smaller groups of dancers. I couldn't avoid the fear that the Thriller dance might break out at any moment. There was one notable solo, with a dancer who seemed to exist within the rhythms of the music without explicitly following them. At times she seemed to be floating in a cocoon of fluttering fabric for an arresting effect. I don't want to belittle the hard work of the company, but I have to be honest and say that I often forgot to watch the dance, focusing on what was going on with the band on the platform, my eyes naturally drawn by the people producing the music.  

And what music! I felt pinned to my seat by the sheer passion of Vernon’s sound and songs, none of which sounded like a work in progress. The first five songs were especially cohesive and I found myself thinking, if that’s the first half of the next Bon Iver album, it may well be he best thing he’s ever done. The boldness of his most recent album, 22, A Million, was still there but wedded to a more direct rhythmic conception drawing on reggae, funk, R&B and hip hop, (likely a result of collaborating with dancers, so I’ll give them that!) and sounding even more explosive. 

After that opening salvo, Vernon mixed things up a bit. There was one song that started with an almost painfully serrated synth sound before developing into an absorbing collage, and another that was almost purely percussive, with a touch of Afrobeat via Talking Heads. An a cappella gospel number was stunning, putting the grit and unique timbre of Vernon’s voice on display for a jaw dropping performance that almost made me think I was seeing things: how can he just stand there and sing like THAT? Late in the set was an exquisite cover of Leon Russell’s A Song For You that brought the 40-year old tune right up to date and put Vernon in the realm of our finest interpreters like Thom Yorke or Holly Miranda. 

The fact is that there was nothing I didn’t want to hear again, except for a piece near the end with a narration about Jim Crow. To me, Bon Iver’s music is at heart about intimate interpersonal experiences, writ large and turned into universal (and sometimes oblique) epics. If Come Through was supposed to be about politics or racism, this interjection was both heavy-handed and too little, too late. Not all art needs to be woke, even in 2018. 

There was ecstatic applause after every song - at first I wasn’t even sure we were supposed to clap, but quickly didn’t care - and a standing ovation when the band took their bows. As the crowd moved out of the room mostly in stunned silence, a guy asked me what I thought. “This may be some of the best Bon Iver music yet,” I told him and he nodded vigorously. “So you’ve liked their other records?” I affirmed that I had been on board since the beginning, yet had only seen one prior concert, in 2011. That was also an incredible show, I told him, but with a much larger band. One marvel of the music in Come Through is how Vernon managed to simultaneously strip his sound down and beef it up. He agreed with that as well, before expressing doubts about the dance - then it was my turn to agree with him. 

I only took a snippet of video because I wanted to stay in the moment, but you can make up your own mind about the lopsided nature of this collaboration when the finished version of the collaboration is performed in St. Paul in April and Los Angeles in August - if you can scrape up a ticket! Bon Iver is also on tour, and I’ll be curious to see if any of this new music makes it into those shows. I just hope Vernon releases some or all of it soon.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations

Here are three tantalizing albums that include compositions combining acoustic instruments with electronics, two of which are also solo debuts by a couple of the finest musicians on the new music scene.

Streya - Olivia De Prato I’ve seen Olivia De Prato perform with Missy Mazzoli and she’s the kind of player that stands out in a crowd, dazzling with her utter command of even the most demanding techniques and the sheer expressive verve she puts into the music. Her work with the adventurous Mivos Quartet, which she founded, has also been exemplary. So, I was delighted when word of this solo debut came over the transom and even happier when I saw it was mostly world-premiere recordings of works written in the last decade. 

The opening piece, Ageha.Tokyo, written by Samson Young, could hardly be more spectacular if fireworks shot out of my earbuds while it played. Starting with some tactile, serrated sounds, De Prato enters with defiant notes which gain momentum and then start to soar as the electronics begin rounding out and growing more melodic. The verse of My Favorite Things threatens to burst out but Young keeps it at bay and things are soon back on the aggressive side. Young named the work after one of the largest gay nightclubs in Tokyo and it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine a beat-driven remix lighting up their dance floor. Young, based in Hong Kong, has a number of intriguing irons in the fire of electronic music and performance art and I’m grateful for this introduction to his world. 

Streya by Victor Lowrie, who plays viola in the Mivos, finds us in more familiar terrain, with De Prato in an angular duet with herself. Circular phrases spin into the ether, replaced by harmonic whistles or sharp strums, as the piece moves toward the anguished romanticism of early Schoenberg. Percorso Insolito is described by Ned Rothenberg as “an adventure in rhythm, space and color,” and it also has a nice meandering, interior quality, like a train of thought that never quite resolves. I know Rothenberg’s work mainly via his earthy sax playing so this was a valuable glimpse of his other interests. 

Taylor Brook’s Wane takes a smart idea - five multi-tracked violins, each in a slightly different tuning - and uses it to spin a kaleidoscopic tale in sound that has as many twists and turns as a good mystery. Rather than a bang-up finish where all is revealed, Brook prefers to leave questions unanswered with a woozy ending that shuffles uncertainly into silence. For more Brook check out the last Mivos album or the TAK Ensemble's Ecstatic Music, which focuses solely on his work. Tanz. Tanz by Reiko Füting is also based on an intellectual construct, in this case a study of the Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita, but maybe only a musicologist would know that from listening. I hear a tightly constricted approach, both in the palette of notes and in the length of the lines, that intrigues due to all it leaves out. The premiere recording of Tanz. Tanz was by Miranda Cuckson on an album of Füting's work released in 2015 called namesErased, which I'm looking forward to investigating.

Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers For Violin closes the album and will undoubtedly leave you wanting more. A distant cousin of her stunning Vespers For A New Dark Age, it has Mazzoli’s characteristically assured electronic textures combined with an incantatory violin part that De Prato brings to life with, as everything here, her wondrous playing and total commitment to the visions of her collaborators. Streya is not only a fantastic debut for De Prato but also an object lesson in how to put together a solo violin record in 2018, from the selection of pieces, to the recording, and even to the artwork - kudos!

For This From That Will Be Filled - Clarice Jensen Like De Prato, cellist Clarice Jensen is known for her role in a group, in her case the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, of which she is also Artistic Director. Somehow in the midst of all the ACME activity, Jensen has managed to assemble this meditative collection, which was originally conceived as an audio-visual performance with artist Jonathan Turner. The album features three works for cello enhanced by effects pedals, other electronics and production, and Turner-produced videos are on the way to add back the visual elements

The first piece, bc, was a collaboration with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, one of the finest film composers of our time who died suddenly last month at the age of 48. Slow, mysterious, almost in the realm of ambient music, bc is a deeply immersive piece that now provides a fitting receptacle for thinking about Jóhannsson's life and work, so unceremoniously cut short. Michael Harrison, whose last works for cello were written for Maya Beiser, contributes Cello Constellations here, a creation for solo cello, 14 pre-recorded cellos and sine tones. There's a lot of math, science and technology behind the 15-minute composition, but as a listening experience it is captivating, with the background of cellos a lush bed for the sparkling sine tones, which light up the mind like the artificial stars in a planetarium show. While there is no reason to make "use" of this music, it is hard to imagine close listening not leading to a sense of calm, at least until the last three minutes, when Harrison allows tension to mount before a slow fade.

The album ends with the title track, composed by Jensen and taking place over two parts. The first is short and darkly elegant, with multiple droning lines and swirling ostinato phrases. It has a structural thread, almost a narrative thrust that pulls you though. The second part is much longer, over 18 minutes, and has a glacial drama to it, with deep organ-like tones and a gradual sense of opening up. By the last third we are adjacent to Romantic and even Baroque territory, with burnished melodies for solo cello. A tape loop of what may be found sound appears in the background, once again lending a sense of story to the sounds. It seems to end in mid-sentence, only adding to the intrigue. But there is nothing unfinished about Jensen's album, which will be released on April 6th. For This From That Will Be Filled is a clear statement of purpose of what the cello can do in several enhanced environments, with a conception that is never less than fascinating and playing and recording that are always sublime.  

John Cage: Electronic Music For Piano - Tania Chen It's hard to imagine a more Cage-ian approach to this monumental half-century-old work. In typical fashion, Cage's "score" leaves a lot up to the performers but it's still rare for musicians to really take the ball and run with it as Chen and her collaborators have done here. Chen, a pianist and improviser, has made Cage a specialty of hers and has assembled the ideal group of collaborators in guitarist Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), multi-instrumentalist and author David Toop (known for being in the Flying Lizards and working with Brian Eno, etc.), and electronic musician Jon Leidecker (Negativeland, among other things). But all of these people never worked together. Instead, Chen recorded three versions of the piece as duos with each of them and then, working with producer Gino Robair, "played the duos simultaneously and, using a chance-based system, selected which sound sources were heard over time." Or not heard: this being Cage, leaving silences - sometimes as long as three minutes - is also part of the landscape.

And how does this all add up for the listener in the final result, which is over an hour long? Like a funhouse, but somehow serious, with tones and textures leaping up out of nowhere, sometimes just raw piano, more often heavily treated or combined instruments, guitar feedback or oscilloscope-derived notes. The stop-start-stop arrangement means that it's never an entirely comfortable experience, even after several listens, but who says art should make you comfortable? Occasionally, there will be a section (from 53:15 - 53:47, for example) that is so satisfying on its own that you will wish it went on for longer. Anyone for a remix album? Or should I fire up Garageband and try some cutting and pasting? I have a feeling that Cage, not to mention Chen and her posse, would actually enjoy the idea of this groundbreaking recording becoming further fodder for yet another creative process. Thanks to Chen, we have one more reminder of what a fertile field Cage's mind was and how its fruits can continue instructing us on what music is and how it can be made. For this, if nothing else, we owe Chen a large debt of gratitude.

For more electro-acoustic experiences, check out this nifty playlist put together by New Sounds.

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Missy Mazzoli: Lush Rigor

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Holly Miranda's Exquisite Mutual Horse

Mutual Horse - Holly Miranda How much of yourself do you reveal to others? If you’re an artist, for example, where does the persona that you present in your creations overlap with your innermost self, and how much do you keep hidden? And, does the level of craft you attain over time make it easier to unleash the full breadth of yourself in your music? Holly Miranda’s third album has me contemplating these deep thoughts - and in her case the answer to that last question seems to be an emphatic YES. On her last, self-titled, record (from 2015 and my number one album from that year) I was astonished at the leap her songwriting had taken. While she was always good, I felt she had finally created a set of songs fully equal to her interpretive gifts as a singer.

It’s not that I thought she would never make a better album, it just that I couldn’t imagine what that would sound like. Well, now I know: Mutual Horse represents a coming together of songwriting, arranging, production and, above all, singing, that puts Miranda at the pinnacle of both her art and the art form she operates within. Even my wife, who has always liked Holly without quite being a believer, starting saying things like “Dusty Springfield. Lucinda Williams. Holly Miranda” - and that was just during her first listen. 

Mutual Horse starts out modestly, with a simple melody played on bells over which Miranda sings “I was asleep/I don’t know how long I’d been out,” - giving that last word an edge, just a hint of what’s to come. After a full verse over the bells, she makes good on that promise, dropping the hammer with a huge descending chorus. Then, just as the last echo of Wherever You Are is still resonating, some disconnected sounds arise out of the void, soon exploding into the roadhouse stomp of Golden Spiral, a great showcase for longtime collaborator Maria Eisen’s baritone sax. It absolutely slew the crowd when Miranda opened with it at Union Pool last summer, and while the studio version adds a kaleidoscope of details and dub techniques it does so without sacrificing any of the song's elemental power. 

That one-two punch that opens the album is a good microcosm of the methods behind Mutual Horse, which finds Miranda and producer Florent Barbier crafting widely varied settings for each track, serving the songs with exquisite sensitivity to all their nuances. The results lead to sonic worlds unlike anything we’ve heard from Holly previously. Towers, for example, sounds like a transmission from a dead city radio, with Holly’s distorted vocal murmurs accompanied by Jonathan Ullman’s ticky-tack drumsticks and a drone from Eisen’s sax. Then there’s Mr. Fong's, a glammed-out fantasia that starts with some dark Duane Eddy guitar twang over which Holly sings a line both threatening and absurd: “Thinking of starting a war/Hiding receipts in the underwear drawer,” before sheepishly admitting she’s been “spending too much time at Mr. Fongs.” The chorus, when it eventually comes, is fantastic: a choir of voices (including Shara Nova, AKA My Brightest Diamond) singing “I dream in full color/ But your daylight moves me sideways,” in gloriously odd harmonies. If you follow Miranda’s Instagram, you know she has a wicked sense of humor - it’s wonderful to hear her letting some of that into her music. 

Having doses of surrealism like Mr. Fongs or Golden Spiral, with its donkey parked outside a 7-11, leavens the overall mood of the album, which has plenty of direct hits of emotion in songs like To Be Loved (“Only wanted to love and to be loved” - life goals), All Of The Way, Do You Recall, Let Her Go, which is at least partially informed by the death of her mother in 2018, just a month before the album came out, and others. There are also moments of pure love, like Exquisite, a tribute to her friendship with Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio, which he co-wrote and to which he also lends his quavery tenor. The level of craft displayed by everyone involved keeps all the naked emotions from feeling like oversharing, which should be instructive for some less-skilled artists whose songs feel like Snapchat posts that should have remained private and then allowed to disappear. 

Miranda’s genius with the songs of others is also featured here in the rescue operation she performs on Neil Young’s When Your Lonely Heart Breaks, from his mostly forgotten 1987 album Life. Over a percussion arrangement that's a cross between a samba and a marching band, Miranda delivers Young’s lyrics like an incantation, as if singing them was an act of self-care, willing herself - and us - to survive devastation. The only equivalent I can think of is Gavin Friday’s resurrection of Dylan’s Death Is Not The End, which was buried on Down In The Groove. Making a version of a song that's already beloved is the easy way out; true artists like Friday and Miranda have a different radar when it comes to finding songs to sing.

Finally, a note about Miranda’s singing. It seems like nearly every other song on Mutual Horse has her finding new places in her voice, like the liquid falsetto of On The Radio, or the sheer power of the opening track. But she’s not learning while doing; all of these expressive tools are wielded with command and confidence, allowing the listener to access the feelings behind them without being overwhelmed. Themes of sleep and dreaming have always been present in her music so it might be overly glib to say Holly Miranda seems more fully awake on Mutual Horse than on previous albums. But until her next release, that's what I'm going with. As Lou Reed said in What's Good: "Life's like forever becoming," and Mutual Horse is a magnificent manifestation of Holly Miranda's becoming.

Join me at Park Church Co-Op on March 22nd to celebrate the release of this wonderful album and wish her well before she leaves on a month-long European tour.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Words + Music, Part 2: Scott Johnson And Alarm Will Sound

In Part 1 of this mini-series, I looked at Landfall by Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, which sprinkled her wry and poetic storytelling amongst gorgeously dark strings and electronics. Here we have something quite different from a former collaborator with Anderson that also puts words and music together in intriguing ways.

Mind Out Of Matter - Scott Johnson and Alarm Will Sound Scott Johnson dropped two bombshell albums in the 80’s that have been in my musical DNA ever since. The first was John Somebody (1986), which I read about in the New York Times and bought without hearing a note. More than three decades later its introduction of Johnson’s brilliant method of turning speech into music has not lost its capacity to startle and delight. What he does is meticulously notate the intrinsic melodies in natural speech, and then use those melodic fragments as the seeds of wild fantasias incorporating the instrumentation and techniques of both rock and classical music, with a focus on his proggy and dense guitar chords and arpeggios. 

That description doesn’t do justice how John Somebody turns a banal party conversation (“You know who’s in New York? You remember that guy - the - he was sort of a, sort of a...) into sheer wonder, a feat repeated on the other pieces on the album, including one which uses laughter as its inspiration. Perhaps even more surprising was that Johnson was able to adapt his methods to create the soundtrack for Patty Hearst (1988), Paul Schrader’s spooky evocation of the newspaper heiress’s forced adventure with the Symbionese Liberation Army. The theme took the late Natasha Richardson’s voice from the film, as she (as Hearst) calls for her parents from the closet in which the SLA has confined her: “Mom? Dad?” It’s as haunting and indelible as those “la la la’s” from Rosemary’s Baby. 

Both records were in high rotation and I was even lucky enough to see Johnson perform John Somebody at Lincoln Center, which included probably the most six-string shredding that august institution had ever experienced to that point. After Patty Hearst, however, I lost touch with Johnson’s work, partly due to things happening in my own life and to the sporadic nature of his output. That’s why I missed a step in the evolution of his approach, namely the idea that he could use his speech-to-music method to deliver content as well as melodic inventions. If this description sounds slightly dry, that’s a reflection the one early example I found, How It Happens, which is a multi-movement work for string quartet and the voice of I.F. Stone, the legendary journalist. Even with Kronos Quartet sawing away dutifully and Stone spouting some interesting notions, it’s a lackluster affair. Maybe that’s why Kronos chose to sprinkle it among a few albums rather than devoting a whole release to it. Americans, from 2010, is far more successful, a dense and angry treatise on stereotyping and prejudice. I highly recommend one of our major ensembles revive this important work, so relevant to our times.

Mind Out Of Matter, based on a lecture by Tufts professor Daniel C. Dennett, is however a further evolutionary step, a leap even, in Johnson's craft. First there’s the music, performed with both precision and sparkle by the virtuosi of Alarm Will Sound, one of the finest new music ensembles around. While Johnson in his liner notes repeats his mission statement of combining both the instruments and traditions of rock and classical music, I hear an alternate lineage to the sound world of MOOM, namely that of composed jazz. This was the short-lived movement that grew out of the sessions by Miles Davis and Gil Evan that became The Birth Of The Cool. The main protagonists were people like Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, and even my old favorite Kenyon Hopkins. They took the sound and instrumentation of jazz and used it to create through-composed pieces devoid of significant improvisation. Check out Giuffre’s The Train And The River or Hopkins’s ballet score Rooms for some notable examples. 

So, while there is some of Johnson’s trademark guitar (played here by Caleb Burhans), alternately snarling, twanging or suspending chords like Pete Townshend, the woodwinds and brass dominate the overall texture. There’s also marimba and piano, percussion and a drum kit, and the rhythms are firmly in a jazz mode, never getting into a 4/4 rock groove, although there are touches of Latin-tinged funk. Take the first movement, Cow Design, which kicks off with a brass fanfare that quickly grows knotty, bolstered by the woodwinds and guitar and pushed along by the drums. It’s immediately involving and then there’s a hard stop to allow Dennett to enter with his first line: “Who designed this cow?” 

Chuckle if you like, but what follows is no joke as the professor goes on to compare how modern cows evolved from aurochs to the way “Religions started out wild and then were domesticated.” This being Johnson, however, there are strategically repeated lines, melodic development based on those repetitions, counterpoint reacting to those melodies, variations building on those melodies, and almost imperceptible segues to the next nugget of musical and spoken information. When you consider that Dennett, intellectually dynamic as he is, is not an especially melodious speaker, MOOM becomes more and more like a high wire act, and a spectacularly successful one at that. 

You may be excused for wondering if this content-heavy piece bears repeated listening, or if you extract everything of value from it at once, like a tea bag, and subsequent hearings just grow more diluted. MOOM is fundamentally a musical work and I think you would be doing both it and yourself a disservice if you approached from that point of view. I have found it nearly endlessly enjoyable to just let it go by, absorbing soundbites here and there, letting Dennett’s ideas take shape in my mind as if by osmosis. 

And what ideas! This is one of our great minds, synthesizing biology, anthropology, evolution and technology into a wonderfully original theory about the roots of religion, comparing it to everything from memes, to the common cold, and to parasites which hijack ants to colonize large mammals. For example, in the movement Good For Itself he says: “Every human group has religion, so it must be good for something. Every human group that’s ever been studied also has the common cold. What’s that good for? It’s good for itself. The common cold evolved because it can evolve. It’s not good for anything else, it just evolved because it can evolve. And ideas can evolve because they can evolve, too. They don’t have to be good for anything. The fact that they are universal only shows that they do a very good job of living in that particular ecological niche.” Heady stuff, indeed, and rich food for thought. 

You’re probably figuring out by now that Dennett’s view, while clear-eyed and respectful, is ultimately atheistic. This aligns with Johnson’s views (and mine), which he has promulgated in various essays over the years. Suffice to say that if you are not secure enough in your own beliefs to have them challenged, you might find yourself offended by some of what Dennett says. But more likely you will learn something no matter what your level of orthodoxy - and you may even find yourself feeling a bit of anthropocentric pride in the uniquely human development of belief systems. 

The final movement is called Awe, which begins with some ruminative, starlit sounds before Dennett enters: “The traditional accompaniment to awe is a sense of mystery. But we know that there is another kind of awe, which is accompanied not by mystery but dawning understanding.” And: “The idea that if you remove the mystery from the world, you remove the sources of awe, it’s just an obsolete idea. Modern understanding of the world is more awe-inspiring by orders of magnitude than the old mythological, threadbare visions of several thousand years ago.” I couldn’t agree more and my awe is now directed at Alarm Will Sound, conducted by Alan Pierson, for their perfect performance of a difficult work, and at Johnson for his alchemical work of creation, which probably shouldn't work as well as it does. There are some mysteries and miracles left in the world after all.

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