Sunday, August 07, 2016

BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed

That there is a pipeline from indie rock to modern classical has been firmly established. What is less clear is the ultimate value of the music emitting from that spigot. My suspicion is that, as time tells its tale, the pieces produced by what might be called "rock informed" composers (Missy Mazzoli, Daniel Wohl) will prove more lasting than what those rockers have created for the concert hall. Or it may just be that if I don't like your band, I'm also not going to like your string quartet.

There is an interesting tangent to this rock-classical dialogue, represented by works like the trio version of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, or symphonic takes extrapolated from The Beatles' Revolution #9 or Brian Eno's Music For Airports, the last of which sucked us north up Route 8 from Stockbridge, MA to North Adams a few weeks ago. North Adams is a classic plot of small-town New England whose faded industry bequeathed us Mass MOCA, one of the most vibrant modern art venues in the northeast. 

Mass MOCA also hosts two major annual music festivals, Wilco's Solid Sound and Bang On A Can's Summer Music Festival. Wilco's event is always scheduled around the last day of school in NYC, a less than auspicious time for us to get out of town. Our reasons for missing the BOAC event are less clear-cut but let's just say that the words "Eno" and "live" in an email had my wife excited enough for her to insist I make a plan this year. It was even on my honey-do list. So I got it done, honey. 

Just to keep things simple, we treated ourselves and our daughter to dinner at Gramercy Bistro, the white-tablecloth restaurant that is right in the Mass MOCA complex. It was utterly worth it, with clever cocktails, sushi-grade tuna, and outrageous desserts providing a delicious prelude to what lay ahead. After dinner we ambled down to the building that holds the exhibition spaces, the excellent gift shop, and the performance hall, a large space ideal for any number of live events. 

Soon after we sat down, six members of the All-Stars came on stage for the first half of the show, which consisted of four pieces from their Field Recordings project, some of which were released last year on a collection of the same name. The first, by Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw is brand new, however. Called Really Craft When You, the field recording element came from interviews with quilters Shaw found in the Library of Congress archives, which she set to a fascinatingly fractured impression of jazz, featuring stellar work by drummer David Cossin, cellist Ashley Bathgate, and guitarist Mark Stewart. While she would occasionally repeat a phrase from the interview, there wasn't any Scott Johnson-style melodicism going on, more of a sense of weaving/overlay between words and music. Quilting, if you will. It was a deeply engrossing, and fully successful, piece, which I hope they record soon. Until then, you can hear its world premiere here.

Even with the mandate of the field recordings project, any composer would be up against it incorporating bird song into their music, what with classic works of musical ornithology like Cantus Arcticus by the (sadly newly late) Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara or works by Olivier Messiaen, many of which are inspired by bird song, and which are among the greatest music ever written. Considering all that, Gabriella Smith did an admirable job with Panitao, which was pleasant enough but lacked staying power for me. That I forgot it almost as soon at it finished may also have something to do with what came next. 

The third piece was Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's lapidary Hz, which used beautiful black and white footage and sounds of a hydroelectric plant as its pre-recorded element. It wasn't surprising that Johannsson included inspiration from the visual realm when you consider his recent sideline composing excellent soundtracks like the gloriously doomy Sicario. Hz is like time suspended, a sound that seemed to hover at the nexus of the performers, turning this way and that for our observation, almost a drone but with more dimension. Fortunately it's included on the album because I was ready to hear it again as soon as possible. 

Would that the intermission came next. Instead we were subjected to Rene Lussier's so-not-funny Nocturne, with a field recording of his wife snoring. Not for me, but fortunately not too long, either. 

The intermission was infinitely more entertaining, as I listened in on some music students chatting in the row behind me. I held my tongue until one of them said: "I just don't know about minimalism. I love Steve Reich but Philip Glass?" I had to weigh in: "Reich beats Glass every time!" They were amused and essentially in agreement. Since music is not a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, if I had wanted to say more I might have talked up Glass's film scores for Koyaanisqatsi and Mishima, or mentioned that I've never seen Einstein on the Beach, which is apparently an essential experience. It also occurred to me later that Reich is a composer who uses minimalist techniques. Glass is simply a minimalist. Somewhere in there lies the difference. 

This discussion was an interesting thing to have inform BOAC's performance of Music For Airports, which they launched into after the stage was filled to capacity with musicians and singers. There was also a brief intro by Mark Stewart, which let us know that Eno approved of their rework but had little to do with its creation, and that because of the structure of the music we should feel free to let our minds drift more than we would if we were listening to, say, Schubert.

As soon as the music started I fell in love again with Eno's drifting soundscape, with its Satie-esque melodies that crop up now and again and overall mood of intelligent melancholy. Also, BOAC's adaptation of his electronic textures sounded uncannily right without being mere mimicry. It could be the intermission discussion influencing me, but listening to Music For Airports in this way made me recognize anew the minimalist principles behind Eno's conception. 

Naturally there is repetition as the piece was assembled from tape loops. There are even repeating cells, just as Reich might use, it's just that Eno's are so long and slow that it takes a while to see them as such. This made the music completely riveting for me as I thirsted for this arpeggio or that trill to recur. Barring a performance of Winterreise, my mind would probably drift more during a Schubert concert! Besides minimalism, Eno's ambient recordings also brush up against New Age, a relationship that came a little too close during one of the noodly clarinet interludes Evan Ziporyn composed for the last section, beautifully played here by Ken Thomson. It was only a brief lapse, however, and without lasting effect.

I can't speak for the rest of the audience, but as someone whose foundational music is rock, I'm primed to take Eno's music seriously. Even so, I'm skeptical enough of these kinds of transformations that I was holding what I heard at Mass MOCA to a very high standard. I'm happy to report that Music For Airports can withstand any scrutiny as a magnificent work of art. Is it "classical music" of even a contemporary stripe? I think the answer is somewhere between "Why not?" and "Who cares?" 

While I would love to hear how Arthur C. Danto would break down the aesthetic philosophy behind what happens when you take an artwork completely out of the context in which it was conceived, in this case a recorded work never intended for the concert hall, and rebuild it elsewhere, I think listening to the sheer beauty we heard that night is enough of a justification for BOAC's project. I would also say that while their recording of Music For Airports is lovely, it's not as essential as seeing them do it live. Get there next time and don't miss your flight. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

College Tour = Record Store, Pt. 1

So the time has come for one of my children to start looking for a college. This means lots of traveling around to visit schools and, as we all know, any college town worth its salt is going to have a record store or two. In the spirit of carpe diem, I will do my best whenever possible to incorporate a pilgrimage to a music den on these treks. So far, so good, as we did our first tour today, at the most excellent Williams College, and I was able to include a visit to Toonerville Trolley Records after lunch (and ice cream from Lickity Split, of course!).

Toonerville is a lived-in store, packed with more vinyl and CD's than could easily be reviewed in one visit. Most everything is priced between $8 and $15, with several sale sections that are cheaper and some unusual finds that are pricier. Their personal taste was evident from the get-go, with sections for Progressive Rock, Space Rock, and "Unclassifiable" right up front. The free jazz blaring from the great sound system was also a clue. 

I wandered around a little to get the feel of the place, flipping here and there, seeing what would pull me in. I eventually was moved to search very comprehensively through the jazz section, hoping at the very least to find a copy of El Chico by Chico Hamilton, which is much desired by my Off Your Radar colleague Davy Jones. No luck, Davy, but I did manage to score a very nice original pressing of John McLaughlin's Devotion. Who knew Alan Douglas had his own label? This is from 1970, when McLaughlin had just left Miles Davis but hadn't formed yet Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was a transitional, but still fiery, time for him and I'm eager to hear what he cooked up with Larry Young (organ), Buddy Miles (drums), and Billy Rich (bass). 

I made my way around the store, finally ending back up front to investigate that progressive rock section. Even though it was small, there were some very intriguing items in there, including Univers-Zero's UZED from 1984, which I've actually never seen in physical form before. It was $50 but taking a picture was free - as is listening on Spotify. The same cannot be said for what I found next, a pristine copy of Listen Now!! by Phil Manzanera/801. As its from the peak of British art rock (1975-77) and Eno is on it, my hopes are high. The proprietor was surprised to see it, too - he had just sold a copy the other day and hadn't realized there was another one in stock. 

Even if you don't have college-age children there are many reasons to visit Williamstown, such as The Clark, the college's own art museum and the Theater Festival. If you have an interest in the outré - or jazz and R&B, for that matter - make sure you stop your trolley at Toonerville next time you're there.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Record Roundup: Classical Composure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 08, 2016

Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's been making your year?

You may also enjoy:

Sunday, July 03, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Record Roundup: American Tunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 10, 2016

Space, Time, Guitar: Rupert Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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