Saturday, August 11, 2018

Record Roundup: Avant Chamber and Orchestral, Pt. 1

These recent albums all celebrate the vitality of old instruments and even musical forms and the way they are constantly renewed through adventurous composers and novel approaches. 

Duo Noire - Night Triptych This brilliant album is a sparkling rejoinder to all who would respond to calls to diversify classical music with an “Of course - but quality is all that really matters!” So, here you have two African-American guitarists - the first two to ever graduate from Yale - playing music commissioned by them from female composers. Duo Noire checks so many boxes here that they’re almost in competition with Sacha Baron Cohen’s new character, that dolphin-loving liberal Dr. Nira Cain N’Degeocello, who takes PC to new heights of absurdity.

In a way the fictional interlocutor invoked above is right - quality IS all that matters. But good work is also where you find it and nothing will change in classical music unless people make the same kind of effort Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett have made here. They’ve obviously done their homework, tapping an international array of young composers (none were born before 1978) to expand the repertoire for two guitars in marvelous ways. Often using extended techniques and electronics, the works both transcend and exemplify the characteristics of the instruments. A perfect example is Byblos by Mary Kouyoumdjian, the second work here, which puts the guitars against a starlit electronic backdrop, allowing their tense arpeggios and riffs to bloom and almost become pure sound rather than the familiar acoustic textures. It should go without saying that this wouldn’t work without the Duo’s phenomenal technique. 

The title piece, a three-part invention by Iranian-born Golfam Khayam, draws both on her Persian heritage and her interest in sound-art to arrive at a place of beauty that feels totally natural. Works by Clarice Assad, Courtney Bryan, Gity Razaz, and Gabriella Smith fill out the collection, which is a delight throughout. When ideology intersects with music it only advances the cause of both when the results are as compulsively listenable as what Duo Noire has put forth on Night Triptych. The album, out now on New Focus Recordings, is a complete success on all counts and if you are moved to seek out more music by the composers involved, further rewards will follow. 

Joshua Modney - Engage Modney’s activities in the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble and the International Contemporary Ensemble have kept him busy enough that he can be forgiven for taking this long to release his solo debut, which comes out August 3rd. All that group work seems to have resulted in a build up of both ambition and ideas as, like George Harrison with All Things Must Pass after The Beatles, Modney has given us a triple album. Fortunately, his conceptual abilities equal his playing skills as each program stands alone as a satisfying and adventurous listening experience. 

Disc one’s four pieces cover a lot of ground. Sam Pluta’s Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit (2011) finds common sonic ground between live electronics and the violin at its most squirrelly and scratchy. Like Michael Nicolas’s extraordinary Transitions did for the cello, Pluta’s piece will have you instantly contemplating the violin itself as a piece of technology. As a statement of purpose it couldn’t be more perfect and following it up with Taylor Brook’s Vocalise (2009) was a stroke of genius. Brook took inspiration from Hindustani music and occasionally approaches a sort of desert romanticism that takes advantage of the violin’s liquid tones. Kate Soper’s Cipher (2011) finds Modney and the soprano in pure symbiosis over its four movements, creating a new form of art song. Anthony Braxton’s #222, one of his Ghost Trance Music pieces from 1998, finishes out the set and it’s a woozy delight. 

Bach’s Ciaccona (1720) leads off the second disc in an arrangement by Modney in Just Intonation (JI), which is a more modern conception of tuning than what the composer used. I can imagine Bach being intrigued by some of the theories behind JI but for the listener any intellectual underpinning becomes less relevant once you press play. To my ears, the JI takes away some of the Baroque harmonic mystery, leaving behind a stringent view of the labyrinthine structure and melodic invention. Modney’s technique is as flawless here as in the modern works. Eric Wubbles’s “the children of fire come looking for fire” (2012) features the composer on prepared piano in a 25-minute tour de force of texture and rhythmic drive. It’s another example of how Modney’s direct engagement with composers can bear fascinating fruit. 

Also just like All Things Must Pass, Engage ends with a series of jams in Modney’s own Violin Solos (2017), improvisations which feature the instrument unfettered by electronics or post-production. The five pieces are a remarkable acknowledgement of the endless adaptability and possibility of the violin, with the sounds of today’s world uncannily reflected back by this antique construction of wood, horsehair and gut. Modney has made a commanding statement with Engage and is now, in addition to all his other roles, a solo force to be reckoned with. Engage is also out now on New Focus.

Seattle Symphony - Berio-Boulez-Ravel My admiration for this ensemble and its conductor Ludovic Morlot was solidified by their definitive premiere recording of John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean in 2014. Even so, I can’t be 100 percent sure I’ve kept up with all their recordings since, which is a shame, since this well-conceived and brilliantly executed collection is another reminder that my admiration was in no way misplaced. 

Linking the three 20th Century classics included here is the idea that each composer drew on other, older material to which to apply their transformative art. In the case of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-69), he pulls in texts from a wide array of sources including Claude Lévi-Strauss and Samuel Beckett and musical themes from Debussy, Beethoven, and especially Mahler’s Second Symphony. The second of the five movements, O King, was composed in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and uses only parts of his name, sung mostly sotto voce, in an emotionally piercing tribute. The live recording is wonderfully dynamic, with rich, detailed sonics and a perfect balance between the orchestra and the eight voices of Roomful Of Teeth. The inclusion of the latter ensemble is a coup as it is doubtful that any other modern vocal group could better their work here. This version more than holds its own against others, including the debut recording (of the four-movement version) by the New York Philharmonic with the Swingle Singers conducted by the composer.

Pierre Boulez’s Notations (1978) is next, and, in typical fashion, the scraps for this quilt come from his own work, specifically a piano piece from 1945, also called Notations. In theory, Boulez allows the performers to pick the order of the four movements but, because he is SO not John Cage, suggests the order used here, sequenced for “maximum contrast.” He’s got a point, but however you listen, each movement is a celebration of orchestral color and texture, full of pulse-pounding rhythms and flashes of melodic sparkle. Morlot and the Seattle players sound fully engaged and make a strong case for the piece, of which many recordings, including Daniel Barenboim's under Boulez’s supervision, are sadly out of print.

Maurice Ravel’s La Valse (1920) is also played to a fare-thee-well but cannot escape feeling like a warhorse to these ears. Maybe I just have a block where Ravel is concerned, but if you feel differently you’ll have no issues with this version. A piece by Messiaen would have been my dream pairing for this record; as it stands, the album is just shy of perfection. 

Tracks from the albums reviewed here can be found in this playlist, along with a wealth of other "classical and composed" sounds from 2018.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations
Best Of 2017: Classical
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
The Inspired Viola Of Melia Watras
Immersed In Become Ocean
Multiplicities Of Genius, Part One

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Record Roundup: Out Of The Past

My cup of new music runneth over, but there are also many extraordinary sounds from the past that are making my ears happy in 2018. Here are some quick takes on a few reissues and “lost” albums.

Dennis Coffey - One Night At Morey’s If you’ve been following closely, you know I’m a huge fan of this Detroit legend. While I still hope for new music from him, this trio session from 1968 is, like last year’s Hot Coffey In The D, pure catnip. Coffey and Co. burn their way through covers and originals, taking what were then new classics like Eleanor Rigby and Cissy Strut to new heights of exploration and interaction. Melvin Davis's phenomenal drum solo in Burning Spear and the opening groove of It’s Your Thing - featuring a fuzz tone that would blow Norman Whitfield’s mind - are ripe for sampling. Just make sure you check with Mr. Coffey, first!

Malo - Latin Bugaloo: The Warner Brothers Singles While he never had his “supernatural” moment, Carlos Santana’s brother Jorge was also an excellent guitarist and his band Malo made a lot of great records in the early 70’s. This concise compilation features both sides of seven singles released over a two year period and it’s a blast from end to end, even if it gets occasionally as slick as Chicago on a couple of the later songs. Suavecito is probably the one you remember - and it’s still as good as you thought - but skip ahead to Café for the astonishing twin lead guitars of Santana and Abel Zarate. The ideal place to listen is in the car and the punchy mastering had the busy, detailed arrangements fairly leaping out of my speakers as I drove up the Taconic.

Eula Cooper - Let Our Love Grow Higher The bulk of releases from Numero Groups are compilations featuring obscure labels or regional scenes. So, when they focus on an individual artist, it’s usually something special. Eula Cooper was a southern belle of merely 14 when she waxed her first single for Atlanta’s Tragar Records in 1968, and they gave her the full treatment with strings, horns and a driving rhythm section. Cooper’s winsome ways sometimes bring the great Irma Thomas to mind and if she doesn’t cut as deeply as her (or Martha Reeves, whom she covers), this is still a fine slab of soul that should be more familiar to everyone who loves the music. 

Laraaji - Vision Songs, Vol. 1 Another standout release from Numero Group is this collection of songs by Laraaji recorded in 1984, just a few years after his groundbreaking collaboration with Brian Eno. Intersecting somewhere between New Age, gospel and a cassette sold at the airport, the sense of one man’s true self being revealed is palpable. Casio keyboards, along with his signature zither, provide rhythmic and melodic support for Laraaji’s slightly stilted but warm voice. If you enjoyed his cameo on Jonathan Wilson’s Rare Birds, this album is just what the shaman ordered. All of a sudden, I'm waiting for Vol. 2!

The Choir - Artifact: The Unreleased Album Shortly before making this album, 70’s soft-rocker Eric Carmen auditioned for this Cleveland act, which had made some waves locally opening for the likes of The Who and The Yardbirds. He didn’t make the cut but in an odd reversal, four of The Choir’s members became HIS band, The Raspberries. That left these recordings from 1969 crushed by the wheels of history - until now, thanks to the ministrations of Omnivore Recordings. While their baroque rock sometimes seems in search of a personality, these guys were loaded with instrumental talent and when they pushed themselves, prog rock seemed just around the corner. Check out the slamming breakdown in If These Are Men or the furious organ and guitar explorations of Have I No Love To Offer for a sense of what could have been. Aside from a redundant cover of David Watts by The Kinks, Artifact is an exciting transmission from an alternate past. 

Doug Clifford - Doug “Cosmo” Clifford If you’ve gone deep into the history of Creedence Clearwater Revival, you’ll know ‘twas democracy killed the band, as John Fogerty’s supremacy was challenged by his brother Tom and the rhythm section of bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford. The man who “wrote a song for everyone” was forced to include songs BY everyone on what became CCR’s last album, Mardi Gras. That record was disappointing enough that had I come across this album at a garage sale, I would probably have given it a once over, chuckled, and put it back. In CCR’s heyday Clifford was a groove merchant of the highest order, making their many Top Ten hits dance with gutbucket rhythms and plenty of cowbell. It also turns out Clifford had a bit more to offer as a bandleader than I thought and was smart enough to know his limitations, providing plenty of cover for his laconic vocals on this assortment of covers and originals. Punchy horns (from members of Tower Of Power), organ and twangy guitar all serve as elements to be goaded on by Clifford’s superbly swinging drums, which are locked in tight with Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass. While it doesn’t all work, I found myself nodding along and not thinking too hard while listening to much of this extremely enjoyable coda to the CCR story. 

David Sylvian & Holger Czukay - Plight & Premonition Flux & Mutation Perhaps it’s because he wrote such satisfying synth pop in Japan that critics and fans are often impatient with David Sylvian’s ambient explorations. But I think they’re wonderful, with more of a narrative intrigue than the genre’s godfather, Brian Eno. On these two albums, thankfully returned to the catalog, Sylvian collaborates with Czukay, a founder of German art rock avatars Can, and the results are often sublime. Each album consists of two long tracks that seem like sonic representations of the state of creative flow Sylvian and Czukay were in when working together. Let them inspire your own creativity, even in just letting your mind wander throughout the permutations of keyboards, guitar and the occasional field recording. 

Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton - Music And Poetry of The Kesh Now, this is something I never expected to resurface. Originally released as a cassette packaged with Always Coming Home, Le Guin’s masterpiece of pastoral speculative fiction (I still have my copy), the idea was that this was art made by the Kesh, who were the protagonists of the story. At the time, while it helped create an immersive experience in combination with the book, the cassette also seemed so purpose-built that I didn’t listen to it once I had finished reading. But there's enough actual music here to justify this beautiful edition from RVNG Intl. Heron Dance, River Song and A Music of The Eighth House are the most fully realized compositions and are simply lovely. Some of the instruments were built by Barton under Le Guin's direction and seem to speak of a society deeply in tune with the natural world, a sensation also amplified by the "field recordings" and spoken word pieces on the album, some recorded by a creek near Le Guin's house. While the full credits are slightly mysterious, the pure a capella singing on Dragonfly Song will have you wishing you could track down more by the vocalist. Here's music of an imagined past that is now over 30 years old itself and somehow manages to seem surprisingly relevant to our current times. Or maybe not so surprising when the book is filled with prescient nuggets like this: “In a State, even a democracy, where power is hierarchic, how can you prevent the storage of information from becoming yet another source of power to the powerful—another piston in the great machine?”

John Coltrane - Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album That subtitle is a bit disingenuous because this release, in either standard or deluxe editions, is not as cogent as any of the other albums or live recordings released by the sax legend and his classic quartet. But that to the side, it's hard to imagine not getting extremely excited by 90 minutes of unheard music by one of the true geniuses of American music playing with three of his most sympathetic collaborators. And there is plenty to get excited about here, from Coltrane's flights of fancy to the sparkling interplay between him, McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). Slow Blues is an unexpected magnum opus of a jam session and Untitled Original 11386 has a melodic line with real potential. Take 2 is especially dazzling, with Elvin Jones threatening to take control, pushing Coltrane hard. The day after these sessions, the band was back in Rudy Van Gelder's NJ studio to lay down a few tracks with vocalist Johnny Hartman. You might have heard some of those tunes...all in a day's work!

Miles Davis & John Coltrane - The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 It would be easy to take this release, featuring five European concerts from 1960, for granted. For one thing, some of these have been released before, or bootlegged, and for another, the Miles Davis posthumous release train has been running for a long time. But that would be unwise, as not only does everything sound fantastic in these new masters, crisp and spacious, but the music is just too good. Davis and Coltrane are in top form as are Wyn Kelly (piano), Jimmy Cobb (drums) and especially Paul Chambers (bass), who was nearing the end of his strongest period before heroin became more important to him than swinging like a mutha. He was one of the best bassists in the entire history of jazz and there's plenty of evidence for that here. But the fire and ice counterpoint between Trane and Miles is the set's raison d'etre and you might find yourself jumping out of your chair and applauding from time to time as they go at it.

The Allman Brothers Band - Cream Of The Crop 2003 Speaking of things with a potential to be taken for granted, how about eight concert recordings (excerpted here, but you can also listen to the complete shows) by The Allman Brothers from a period well after the time when their legend was born? But consider the fact that this lineup ran from 2000 to 2014, making it the longest lasting in the group's 45 year history. Also, having fired founding member Dickie Betts a few years earlier,the band had something to prove again and sounded like it. Listen to the fiery funk of Rocking Horse, a now forgotten track from their last studio album, or the way they launch into Statesboro Blues, not sounding remotely like they had played it hundreds of times before. Having both Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks on guitars is certainly a part of why it all works so well, but if Gregg Allman wasn't so into it, ripping off his vocals with an authoritative growl and displaying a complete history of American music on piano and organ, then the whole thing would probably sink under its own weight. I don't suggest listening to all five hours of this compilation in one sitting, but dip in anywhere for all the bluesy and soul-drenched mastery you need.

Horace Andy - Every Day People No reissue roundup would be complete without some reggae, a form of music that's forgotten more than it knows. Featuring excellent production by Lloyd “Bullwackie” Barnes at his studio in The Bronx, this 1987 album found Andy, who has one of the most distinctive voices in reggae, in top form on some new songs and a few recuts, most notably the titanic Girl I Love You, originally made in 1974. It might be this version that gave Massive Attack the idea to take the song even further on Heligoland in 2010. Barnes keeps the digital drums restrained and the bass heavy, which contributes to the timeless feel of this album, not something you can say for some reggae from the 80s. Very nice to see this one back in the fold, liberated from overpriced vinyl copies. If you're unfamiliar with Andy's 80s work, Dance Hall Style (1982) is another essential album and features the original Spying Glass, another tune he remade with Massive Attack.

Find tracks from these albums and many other reissues in this playlist or below. 

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: Out Of The Past
Record Roundup: Spirits Of The Past
Best Of 2016: Reissues
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Out Of The Past

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Best Of 2018 (So Far)

Anyone who is not completely overwhelmed with musical choice in 2018 is either not paying attention, stuck in a rut, or phenomenally lazy. In my Of Note In 2018 playlist, for example, I’m tracking over 400 releases from all genres and the year is just at the halfway point. As a point of comparison, the same playlist in 2017 topped out at just over 500 entries. Unless we’re due for a sonic drought over the next six months, this should be a banner year. Of course music is not a numbers game and when it comes down to what is going to nourish your head, heart and body, there’s always going to be those few that demand compulsive listening and get you through your days. Here are the 25 new albums that are really doing it for me this year.

1. Holly Miranda - Mutual Horse Through the alchemy of her craft, Miranda transmutes difficulties in her life into glorious sonic adventures while never losing touch with the raw emotions behind it all. 

2. Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds Despite a dodgy lyric or two, Wilson’s third album is a passionate masterpiece filled with intricate layers, novel textures, and less fealty to classic rock tropes and traditions. Need convincing? If you’re in NYC on July 29th, let him close the deal at a free concert at the Lincoln Center Out Of Doors festival. 

3. Pusha-T - Daytona Cutting through the noise of Kanye West’s “no apology tour,” this first in a string of spring releases from G.O.O.D. Music’s Wyoming sessions delivered ALL the goods. West’s production is both diamond-sharp and packed with grit, marrying rare soul samples with sleek beats to stunning effect. Even better, it is solely focused on showing off King Push’s precise and passionate flow, dripping with contempt for his inferiors and pride in all he’s accomplished. In addition to his trademark cocaine rap and salvos in an epic beef with Drake, Push takes time out in Santeria to remember his friend and road manager, De’von Pickett, expressing the pain and vulnerability he felt in the wake of his murder: “The Lord is my shepherd, I am not sheep/I am just a short stone's throw from the streets/I bring my offerin', I will not preach/Awaken my demons, you can hear that man screaming/I'm no different than the priest...” At just 27 minutes, Daytona is a heat-seeking missile that wastes no time and hits targets over and over again with devastating accuracy. On his third solo album, Pusha-T has finally matched the consistency and power of his best work with Clipse. The fact that Kanye, whose loyalty to the culture has been in serious question, crafted these perfect beats and bequeathed them to his colleague is a sign that there is still love in the man - and maybe hope for us all. In fact, West might have benefited from a few of the beats here and on Kids See Ghosts, his very good collaboration with Kid Cudi. His own album, despite having its moments, was the weakest of his career.

4. Olivia De Prato - Streya Like Michael Nicolas's cello album Transitions from 2016, De Prato's solo debut is as perfect an exemplar of a modern single-instrument album as you're going to hear. Flawlessly played and curated, Streya is an unforgettable journey through the sonic possibilities of the violin.

5. Hollie Cook - Vessel Of Love Third time and continuing to charm, Cook's delicious update on rocksteady reggae comes with a bittersweet sting that just makes it more addictive. 

6. Natalie Prass - The Future And The Past When I saw Prass back in 2015, she used a customized mix of 90's R&B and hip hop to warm up the crowd before her set. So I was not entirely surprised to find her second album full of intricate and slyly funky grooves. Not only is her versatility on full display here, but so is that of Matthew E. White, once again in the producer's chair, and his stellar band of Richmond, VA musos. While there are still plenty of the intimate relationship songs Prass is known for, like Lost ("I get lost, I get lost, when I'm with you/But at what cost, at what cost, do I let you do what you do"), there are also politically acute numbers like Sisters ("One time for our girls at school/Who can’t get ahead no matter what they do/And when they grow up and they try to work/Oh no, but they ain’t nothing but the shorter skirt, hey") and Ship Goes Down ("And I will never kneel when/Power is in fear/And aimed upon me/Oh no, no, I am never drowning"). One model here is the world-beating songwriting of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic, who always tried to have "big idea" on which to hang their gossamer but deep dance tracks. Part of the disco movement was about solidarity among outsiders, literally expressed on the dance floor. So invite your friends and neighbors over for a Prass party and when the sun comes up call your elected officials and remind them who they work for.

7. Father John Misty - God’s Favorite Customer Mr. Tillman shows no sign of slowing down, following up 2017’s epic Pure Comedy with this relatively stripped-down collection of songs. Featuring both his trademark dark humor and a new sense of vulnerability, even if occasionally cloaked in 70’s soft-rock bathos, Tillman knocks a few new holes in his wheelhouse on his fourth release as FJM. Jonathan Rado’s smart production can also have a rocked-out edge, something that’s been MIA since Fear Fun in 2012

8. Jonny Greenwood - Phantom Thread and You Were Never Really Here OK, I know I'm cheating here, but maybe by the end of 2018 I'll figure out which side of Greenwood I like better: the Bernard Herrmann-esque romantic of Phantom Thread or the chilly dealer in dread of YWNRH. Both are tours de force of cinematic music-making that intrigue and delight whether you've seen the films or not.

9. Palm - Rock Island Shimmering blasts of knotty repetition define the sound of this Philly-based art-rock band, combining the brittle funk of Talking Heads with sunshine-drenched melodies in a single-minded pursuit of cerebral ecstasySee them live if you can!

10. Scott Johnson and Alarm Will Sound - Mind Out Of Matter Johnson is the master of notating speech and composing musical accompaniment, a technique he’s been perfecting since the 1970’s. These settings of the philosophical, theological and scientific musings of Prof. Daniel C. Dennett (based on his book Breaking the Spell (Religion as a Natural Phenomenon)show a new subtlety in Johnson’s approach to language. And the music is so full of sparkle and interest that you will keep listening long after you’ve absorbed all the text. Naturally, the playing by Alarm Will Sound is virtuosic and full of verve, a fitting reminder of the extraordinary legacy of their founder, Matt Marks, who died suddenly earlier this year. Come out to Roulette on Thursday, August 16th as the new music community gathers to remember him with performances and conversation.

11. Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel Smart songwriting, gritty guitars and a tough rhythm section honed from two years of touring add up to Barnett’s most confident album yet, even if one song is called Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Confidence. If we can name our fears, we can conquer them.

12. Andy Jenkins - Sweet Bunch The other great Spacebomb release in 2018, this is a sweet bunch of songs indeed, long on sticky melodies and hooks and full of heartfelt singing and expert playing. At this point Matthew E. White could start his own festival with just the artists he’s produced and it would instantly be one of the best in the land. 

13. Shame - Songs Of Praise Not the second coming, just a damned good rock album steeped in the verities of classic post-punk and filled with energy and invention. Still trying to see them live, hopefully I'll have a chance in the fall

14. Seabuckthorn - A House With Too Much Fire Andy Cartwright uses the organic textures of various guitars layered hypnotically with loops and electronics to create immersive mood exercises perfect for soundtracking your next walking meditation. 

15. Kali Uchis - Isolation After The Storm, one of the singles from this debut showed up in my Discover Weekly playlist (it can work!) and I was immediately in the groove. Having Bootsy Collins guest on bass and vocals didn’t hurt and somehow Tyler The Creator was restrained enough to not overshadow Uchis’s voice, which is both airy and earthy. That doesn’t mean I expected the album to be this strong, however, especially when I got a glimpse of the cheesy cover. But, lo and behold, Uchis has assembled one of the most compelling R&B albums of recent years, with catchy melodies, slinky beats and just enough wit and contemporary edge to keep it from being retro. Get some of these tracks on your BBQ playlist STAT. 

16. Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet - Landfall This elegy for NYC after Hurricane Sandy finds these old school avant gardists meshing seamlessly and producing one of the most soulful albums of their lengthy careers. 

17. Black Milk - FEVER Mainly known for his skills behind the boards, the Detroit-based producer-rapper fully comes into his own as a double threat on this album. Most importantly, his finesse on the mic has freed him up to make the most personal record of his career, full of relatable thoughts and feelings. He’s been on tour with a live band - show up and cheer him on. 

18. Maya Baiser - David Lang: The Day Made up of two lengthy works for cello, electronics and voice, this album sets in stone some of Lang’s finest music, World To Come (2003) and The Day (2016). Seeing Baiser perform them only confirmed how deeply involved she is in this music, playing their commemoration of the post-9/11 landscape with compassionate virtuosity. 

19. David Garland - Verdancy In which the New York radio legend moves to the country, borrows a guitar modified by his son for Sean Lennon, and uses it to explore previously unmapped terrain between folk and contemporary classical music. There’s only one track I don’t care for over four hours of music, so this is definitely verdant territory

20. Wang Lu - Urban Inventory This portrait recording features six of Lu's compositions performed by a starry array of ensembles including Third SoundICEAlarm Will Sound and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Their involvement is a tribute to Lu's dazzling music, which shows a complete  mastery of orchestration and dynamics as well as a polyglot style based on a broad field of influences. Listening is like being in the hands of a great storyteller as each piece pulls you through its narrative in a series of musical page turners. The vignettes of the title piece may be based on Lu's formative experiences in Beijing but her sonic translations are universal enough that any city dweller will feel a burst of recognition. Urban Inventory announces the arrival of an incredible talent whose gifts will likely only continue to grow.

21. Clarice Jensen - From This That Will Be Filled This solo debut from ACME's Artistic Director includes one of the last works by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson alongside a piece by Michael Harrison and a two-part composition by Jensen herself. Jensen's ideas about what the cello can do in various enhanced environments are never less than fascinating and the playing and recording are always sublime.

22. Eddie Dixon - Coinstar On his first album in four years, this master of gnarled and tangled Americana strips down his sound, letting his guitar dole out rock & roll wisdom in between lyrics that limn the realms of the have-nots (“Everything’s a brass ring, everything's a sweepstakes car,” he sings in Coinstar, “If I get to heaven, can I finally see a doctor, please?”) and point out just how much American exceptionalism is based on oppression. This is the perfect companion to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled And Dimed or Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States, but it’s got a beat and you can dance to it. If you feel scarred by Dixon’s scabrous wit, that’s just because we’re all implicated in one way or another.

23. Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino We can all debate whether this is an Alex Turner solo project or a great, lost Last Shadow Puppets album, or we can just listen, floating off in a woozy fantasia of retro sci fi musings that take place in a future that seems strangely familiar. Turner slows down his usually motor-mouthed vocals to a Lennon-esque drawl that weaves its way through spacious arrangements of burbling bass, chamber-pop keyboards and witty drums. The guitars, so central to the Monkeys sound in the past, serve mainly as punctuation, a reflection of the fact that Turner did much of the songwriting on piano, which also expanded his melodic horizons. Kudos also to Turner's compatriots Jamie Cook (guitar, keys), Nick O'Malley (bass) and Matt Helders (drums) for strapping in for this unusual mission. I admire any band that can make a complete u-turn when following up their most successful album, potentially sloughing off legions of fans in the process (check out the Arctics Facebook page - not a comfortable place these days!), but the fact is I would book a long stay at Tranquility Base under any name.

24. Jane Church - Calimocho Molotov! I picked this up on cassette (download code included!) at one of their many gigs and, trust me, it's more fun than a vintage convertible on a sunny day. In wake of their recent signing to Greenway Records it seems the rest of you will have to wait for a more official release in the fall. Matt Stevenson writes and sings songs that stick and the backing by Ali Awan (lead guitar), Turner Stough (bass), and Peter Hilton Jr. (drums) could not be more engaging. Hilton especially deserves credit for the murderous swing of the sound. Pure joy - get on board.

25.  Elsa Hewitt - Quilt Jams Hewitt released three albums of her warm, fuzzy electronic compositions last year so I would not have looked askance if she had taken the year off. Apparently, that's just not in her nature. Not only has she just released this collection of minimalist sketches for guitar and electronics but there's another, livelier album promised for the fall. Quilt Jams does just what it says on the tin, enveloping the listener in a comforting wash of sounds. If you have a tape deck, you can buy it on cassette, which adds to the density of the sound. It also comes with a handmade sleeve - but act fast, there are only three left!

Listen to a sample of most of these albums with this handy playlist:

Keep up with everything I'm tracking with these Of Note In 2018 playlists:

Of Note In 2018 - Includes all the tracks in the genre-specific lists
Of Note In 2018 (Classical)
Of Note In 2018 (Electronic)
Of Note In 2018 (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
Of Note In 2018 (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
Of Note In 2018 (Reissues)

Friday, June 22, 2018

Record Roundup: Rock 100’s

Even if they don't end up on the charts, ruled these days by hip hop and pop from the Swedish-industrial complex, there's still a lot of great albums drawing on the rock tradition. So many, in fact, that I’m going to resort to the Bill Kopp 100-word (or less!) review method to cover as many as possible right here, right now.

Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel The great Aussie hope continues her heat-seeking trajectory with even more assurance and dynamic range than earlier works. Barnett's influences are here to return the favor in the form of Kim and Kelly Deal from The Breeders, but they don't overshadow Barnett's core players: Bones Sloane, Dave Mudie and Dan Luscombe (bass, drums, keys etc., successively), who play as one. While the songs are still deeply personal, there's a sense of the world beyond her garden, making Barnett the rare artist using her success to expand her perspective rather than narrow it. Can't wait to see her in Prospect Park!

Father John Misty - God’s Favorite Customer There's always more to write about the Father, but cruel abundance has me including him here. Suffice it to say, this is the album Josh Tillman needed to make after the searing and sardonic essays in song of Pure Comedy. GFC is sparer in construction and the production has both more edge and more transparency than past works. While not as radically reductive as Plastic Ono Band, Lennon is definitely a touchstone. With producer Jonathan Wilson more of a sideman here, much credit to Jonathan Rado of bedroom pop classicists Foxygen for helping to realize FJM’s vision.

Jane Church - Calimocho Molotov! The project of Jackson Church, who used to be in psych-rockers SpiresJane Church delivers supremely catchy rock songs with tight arrangements, superbly swinging drumming and lyrical smarts. They gig in NYC all the time and are growing fast. Go see them and grab this concise debut on cassette so you can say you knew them when. 

Andy Jenkins - Sweet Bunch According to Matthew E.White, who produced this debut with his killer Spacebomb crew, Jenkins was such a good songwriter in high school that White stopped writing songs for ten years. I believe it: after a couple of listens, I was singing along with his soulful Americana like I’d known these songs forever. Jenkins deploys his warm if modest voice with wise restraint and the musical surroundings go beyond sympathetic to symbiotic. This is kind of album that ever so kindly slips its hooks into you with no intention of letting go - and you won’t want it to. 

Melody Fields - Melody Fields Shamanistic sax, serrated fuzz guitar and 12-string jangle define the sound of these Swedish psychonauts who seem to travel through space and time with equal ease. If that makes them seem like throwbacks, the lack of self-consciousness to their approach and sheer excellence of their songs makes them thoroughly contemporary. And in Rain Man they’ve written a song worthy of their heroes from the original exploratory epoch that inspired them. 

Roaming Herds Of Buffalo - The Bugbears This Seattle band has been at it for the better part of a decade and their latest finds them at a new level of expertise, weaving guitars and keyboards into harsh and hypnotic patterns. If the vocals seem slightly like an afterthought, you won’t care at all when the herd is at full-speed stampede. 

Snail Mail - Lush Lindsey Jordan has the gift of composing songs that breathe in and out and move with the dynamics of life. Her unmannered singing is refreshing even when it slices right to the emotional bone. Besides her guitar playing (she started when she was five), which can go from a strummy jangle to a rowdy squall, the drumming of Ray Brown is the other star here - whether tight or splashy, he always knows when to fill space or create it. Jordan is just 19 and listening to her grow up in public should be a fascinating and illuminating ride. 

Starcrawler - Starcrawler
A lot of so-called garage rock sounds like a put on to me - not these guys. Pure filth, sloppy, grinding, filth, but tuneful. I'm not surprised that they're from L.A., but I am surprised that Ryan Adams produced something with this much personality. With ten songs in 27 minutes, no idea overstays its welcome, even when you want it to, as on the blistering Love’s Gone Again. I don’t think too hard about this addictive stuff, but when my lizard brain tells me to hit “repeat” I do so. 

Wand - Perfume
Also from L.A., Wand seems perpetually on the edge of a breakthrough, both artistically and commercially. Perfume is their most ambitious album yet, and while not all their attempts at expanding their psych-rock sound are 100 percent successful (Pure Romance, for example, is a little dull), when they hit it, they hit it hard. The title track is a case in point, marrying an epic construction and breakneck tempo to guitars that aim for the moon and go soaring past. 

Wooden Shjips - V. After 2011’s titanic Vol. 2, these California psych-rockers took a turn towards slickness, with, like, songs and upfront vocals. What were they thinking? While V. still has less scuzz than Vol. 2, its loose, hypnotic jams and hazy singing represent a return to form. There’s also a new pastoralism to some of the songs and, as the guitar spirals melodically skyward, you could almost be listening to the early Allman Brothers. 

What's been rocking your world?

Friday, June 15, 2018

ACME Honors Jóhann Jóhannsson At LPR

The subterranean performance space at (Le) Poisson Rouge quickly grew silent when the six musicians of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble filed on the stage last Sunday night. They took their seats and began to play an overview of the music of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died earlier this year at the age of 48. The most recent work included was bc, a gorgeous elegy for cello and electronics co-composed with ACME’s cellist and Artistic Director, Clarice Jensen and recently released on her debut solo album. bc found Jóhannsson honing many of the ideas about repetition, texture and emotional impact that he had been working on since at least 2009 when ACME put on the first concert of his music in New York on this very same stage. 

Selections from that concert were also played, which could lead to the temptation to see this show as the completion of a circle. But, as Jensen pointed out in her brief remarks, Jóhannsson’s music will live on in the many films he scored, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and Arrival, and the Golden Globe-winning The Theory Of Everything. As one of the leading cinematic composers of our time, Jóhannsson’s influence will also continue to be felt in theaters for years to come. Jensen also expressed her wish that his music live on in the concert hall as well. “There’s a big hole on stage,” she remarked, “but there’s a lot left, too.”

Taken as a whole, the concert was as strong an argument for Jóhannsson’s ongoing presence in our musical lives as can be imagined. The performances were superb, exquisitely emotional but also precisely controlled, with all of the players deserving special mention: Ben Russell and Laura Lutzke, violins; Caleb Burhans, viola; Paul Wiancko, cello; and Grey McMurray, piano, guitar and electronics. Each musician became a stand-in for the many facets of our grief about Johansson’s death, their faces expressing emotions ranging from stoicism, deep sorrow and calm acceptance.

The program, which can be found in this playlist, was also well-sequenced, beginning with selections from Jóhannsson’s first album, 2002’s Englabörn, and then traversing his career outside of film. Corpus Camera, a work for string quartet, was played, along with an excerpt from Fordlandia and a piece from IBM 1401 A User’s Manual. bc was the penultimate work before the ensemble ended with Flight From The City from Jóhannsson’s last album, Orphée. For this, one of his signature pieces, Jensen joined McMurray on the piano bench and played the piano part while he handled the electronics. It was somehow deeply satisfying to watch her fill the space between iterations of that beautiful phrase with a movement, a gathering of breath, that might have seemed exaggerated if not for the heavy emotional freight of the moment. And it is a marvelous phrase, seeming to embody reflection, memory, sorrow and regret, while maintaining an optimistic forward motion. When the piece ended, it was our turn to take in a breath, leading to a brief pause before a rapturous standing ovation.

We applauded ACME for the care and love they had shown to Jóhannsson and his music throughout the night, and indeed over the last decade. We applauded the members of his family who were present, letting them know they were not alone in their loss. And we applauded Jóhannsson’s music and all he had accomplished in his too short life. “It was like witnessing a resurrection,” my friend said after we had gathered our thoughts for a few minutes, which was true as Jóhannsson had seemed so present for an hour. But while he may be at rest now, the music must continue to be a part of our lives. Besides ACME’s playlist, I also recommend this episode of David Garland’s Spinning On Air podcast where he revisits another LPR concert from 2010 and his interview with Jóhannsson from the same year.

There is also new music to discover, such as the soundtrack to The Mercy, which came out just days before his death. This music for the story of failed circumnavigator Donald Crowhurst finds Jóhannsson in top form and is filled with detailed electro-acoustic vignettes. Just listening tells a story, from the bright, busy Boating For Beginners, like sunlight dancing on water, to the uncertainty of The Doldrums, when things are going wrong. I also imagine it captures all the feelings and images of the film with perfect acuity. While Jóhannsson repurposed some tracks from his earlier score for Free The Mind, The Mercy represents a significant addition to his legacy. There’s also his score for Mary Magdalene, which I haven’t heard yet but can see it being a perfect fit with the hymnal elements in Jóhansson’s music.

Finally, there’s the reissue of that debut, now called Englabörne & Variations, which Jóhannsson was working on when he died. Besides the original album there’s a second disc of remixes and reimaginings by his collaborators, contemporaries and influences, including Hildur Guðnadóttir, A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Although it wasn’t conceived as a tribute album, it does the job handsomely and points out the rich tapestry of relationships and resonances Jóhannsson wove in his career. I hope there will be more projects like that, and performances such as we heard at LPR. As Jóhannsson told Garland in the interview linked above, “I think it’s probably something quite visceral which I’m after, something very down in the stomach, in the blood — with the emotions. That’s where the music comes from in a way, and that’s where great music hits me.” I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Jóhannsson’s music hits me there, too, so let’s keep it circulating.

Note: ACME will be performing Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass in Athens, Greece on June 18th. Keep an eye on their website for future performances.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 15: Classical & Composed
Best Of The Rest Of 12: Composed & Contemporary

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Paul Maroon Resurfaces

After The Walkmen went on “extreme hiatus” I realized that, next to Hamilton Leithausers’s otherworldly crooning, Paul Maroon’s incandescent guitar was my favorite part of the band. So it definitely softened the blow of their dissolution when Maroon’s playing was a defining feature of Black Hours, Leithauser’s first solo album from 2014. I thought these two men were like brothers and even without a band they would continue to work together forever, or at least close to it. 

This was reinforced when Dear God, a vinyl-only release credited to both to them, came out about a year later. It was typically brilliant, even when Maroon dedicated himself to keyboards instead of guitars on a few songs. They were all good songs and all was right in my little corner of indie world. 

But then Leithauser’s next album came out and it was a collaboration with Rostam Batmanglij, late of Vampire Weekend, and Maroon was out of the picture. I never liked Vampire Weekend but thought the two songs Rostam contributed to Black Hours were pretty good and so listened to I Had a Dream That You Were Mine with an open mind. It didn’t work for me. I wanted Maroon back. Where was Maroon? I googled Maroon and found only old posts about Dear God. I even asked Twitter where he was and was told to seek out this great album called Dear God. I replied that not only did I have the album, but it had been delivered to me personally by Leithauser. That was old news. 

Maroon then became one of my little projects, like that wonderful band Hospitality, someone I would Google now and again to see if they had resurfaced. The trail was cold and I began to worry about his health. As it happened, I should have been worrying about Stewart Lupton, his former colleague from Jonathan Fire*Eater, the band that preceded The Walkmen. When Lupton died last month - far too young at 43 - I decided to check into Maroon again. My dedication paid off! There were new hits! Maroon was back!

The first thing that came up was a new column he’s writing for the AV Club, Ask An Indie Rock Veteran, where he dispenses erudite answers to questions like Do indie-rockers ever get indie-stalkers? or Is recording with a metronome or click track a must? His 30-year career has given him in-depth knowledge about music, production, touring and every other aspect of being a professional musician and he is generous with his wisdom and a damned good writer. I was enjoying reading the column but it was when I got to the end that I got really excited, for there at the bottom of a request for more questions was this line: In the meantime, come listen to my scoring work at

I clicked and found an elegant website representing Maroon’s collaboration with Morgan Henderson, the multi-instrumentalist from Fleet Foxes, whose bass playing was also all over Black Hours. Apparently they struck up a friendship during a legendary (to me) tour that had The Walkmen co-headlining with Fleet Foxes. I saw one of the shows, on the Williamsburg Waterfront with the sunset at our back, and it’s all too easy to imagine collaborations and friendships arising out of the camaraderie we witnessed on stage. 

The website features some beautiful samples of their work, showing off their versatility for potential clients. I especially love the one called Field Recordings, which is a dramatic and highly distinctive vignette that seems to tell its own story even without any visuals. There’s also the happy news that Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, which was scored by Maroon, won the 2018 Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. That should lead to more of those potential clients! 

Does this recent activity mean that I won’t jump for joy if Maroon and Leithauser work together again? Certainly not, but it does my heart good to see a great musician I admire finding fulfillment and showing the world a new aspect of his talent. Long may Maroon’s flag wave! Now, if I could just find out what Amber Papini and Nathan Michel of Hospitality are up to. I hope they’re OK...

You may also enjoy:
New Americana Pt. 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon
Best Of 14 (Part 2)
Make Time For Black Hours
A Chilly Welcome From Hospitality

Friday, May 25, 2018

Outliers, Part 2: Seabuckthorn, David Garland

In Part 1, I covered two albums, one inspired by Greek Tragedy and the other by music history. The two records discussed below have more diffuse antecedents but no less musical impact.

A House With Too Much Fire - Seabuckthorn How vast is the world of music that an artist with this much talent and originality could have flown under my radar for so long? For this is the ninth release by Andy Cartwright under the name Seabuckthorn, which, as I have now learned, is a common shrub known for its nutrient-rich berries. Cartwright’s main instrument is the guitar and he usually plays 12-string acoustic or resonator guitars, often applying a violin bow to create drones. On A House... he has added banjo, clarinet, synthesizer and percussion to the sonic landscape, all of which he deploys with restraint and to great atmospheric effect. I have a lot of catching up to do but as far as I can tell, this is his most sophisticated and varied album thus far.

While there are still echoes of the American Primitive school of guitar, Cartwright is more interested in texture now. He rarely calls attention to his virtuosity in these 10 tracks, which are built up from layers of improvised parts and loops. Submerged Past, for example, starts with a finger-picked pattern that’s soon joined by spidery chords left hanging in the background before morphing into a stately ostinato, around which Cartwright develops more layers of picked and strummed elements with occasional strikes on the bell of a cymbal for emphasis. Gorgeous stuff. The spookier side of Daniel Lanois might be a touchpoint here, along with Ennio Morricone, Popol Vuh and even Tuareg desert blues. But Seabuckthorn really sounds like no one else and I hope this album draws more attention to his rich, organic sound world. A House With Too Much Fire comes out on June 1st - preorder it here. Cartwright lives in the Southern Alps but there is the possibility of New York City performance in the near future. Based on this video from March, I want to be there - how about you?

Verdancy - David Garland Starting in 1987, David Garland hosted Spinning On Air as a radio show on WNYC, quickly becoming a fixture on the airwaves and in the culture of New York City. His eclecticism, depth of knowledge and sheer love of music and creativity made it a must listen and often an unforgettable one. While WNYC cancelled the show in 2015, I'm delighted to report that Garland has revived it as a podcast and, based on the episodes I've heard, he has lost none of his curiosity or eloquence - subscribe here.

Over the years Garland has also been putting out his own music, featuring his wry vocals and sounds as much influenced by folk and rock as by classical music of all centuries. Verdancy,  which came out in March, is his first release in four years and may be his most ambitious project yet. It's essentially four albums worth of music, much of it performed by Garland alone on a daunting number of instruments. There are some intriguing collaborators including Iva Bittová (vocals, violin), Kyle Gann (piano), and Yoko Ono. Garland also handled all the technical aspects of recording, production, mixing and mastering. The artwork is his as well, with design by his wife, Anne Garland. Even if the music wasn't as wonderful as it is, Verdancy would be a landmark effort and an inspiration to independent creative people everywhere.

A central feature of the sound across the 27 tracks is an acoustic guitar modified with electronics by Garland's son Kenji. Apparently Sean Lennon is a fan as Garland borrowed one from him to record Verdancy. The hybrid instrument is "genuinely electro-acoustic" and provides washes of tonally rich chords for Garland to build on with the other instruments, often clarinet, which he plays beautifully. Part of the emotional well Garland draws on here is his move a few years ago out of NYC to the Hudson Valley, giving him an opportunity to commune with the natural world. Many of the songs do have an organic feel, seeming to grow from a kernel of an idea into something elaborate and deeply involving.

There are many highlights throughout the four albums, two of which arose out of collaborations across time. Color Piece, the first song, uses words from a 1964 poem by Ono, which Garland sings over a stately melody in a warmly meditative introduction to the world of Verdancy. Later on, there's Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa (The Nymph's Lament), based on a 15th century madrigal, which adapts surprisingly well to Garland's approach. Traveling Doors, a lovely piece for piano, clarinet and electronics, is another perfect point of entry. I could describe more of the beauties that await you but prefer you to discover them for yourself. I will say that out of all the songs here, Dear Golden Deer is the only one I would rather not revisit, as it pushes my personal tolerance for slide whistle past the breaking point. It might be your favorite track - don't let me stop you.

I can't encourage you enough to add David Garland's many virtues to your listening repertoire, whether through the riches of Verdancy or the ongoing inquiry of Spinning On Air. I would suggest both!

You may also enjoy:
Outliers, Part 1: Oracle Hysterical, Thomas Bartlett-Nico Muhly
Words + Music, Part 2: Scott Johnson And Alarm Will Sound
Words + Music, Part 1: Laurie Anderson And Kronos Quartet
Record Roundup: Eclectic Electronics
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge