Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Nordic Night At National Sawdust

Nordic Affect performing Point of Departure at National Sawdust

It was unseasonably frigid last Wednesday when I headed to Williamsburg for my first visit to National Sawdust. I've had my eye on this venue when it was just a rumor and I was looking for a new job in development. While I never saw the right job for me on their listings, I was excited when they opened and have been intrigued ever since by the variety and creativity of the offerings I heard about in emails and on Facebook. I despaired as events featuring Talea Ensemble and Helga Davis - two of my favorites - went by with me unable to fit them on my calendar. But then all things converged and I was able to attend when they hosted Nordic Affect's New York City Debut. 

This avant garde chamber ensemble created one of the albums of the year with Raindamage and perhaps they also brought the chill in the air from their native Iceland. But there was a warm welcome at the unassuming door that admitted my wife and I to National Sawdust. The chic black interior was made up of interesting angles with the ticket desk on the right and a bar at the end calling you towards the door of the performance space. There is also a separate sit-down bar with a window on to North 6th Street that looks like a great place to get a drink whether music is on the agenda or not. 

We continued on into the room itself and were stunned to discover one of the most beautiful interiors in the city. It's a work of art with obliquely-angled seemingly symbolic panels covering the walls and ceiling surrounding the high stage. We sat at one of the little round tables, joining someone who was there solo. It would have been a little tight - but do-able - had a fourth person joined us. The menu promised creative cocktails and upscale bar food, which would have been even more intriguing if we weren't stuffed from dinner at Sweet Chick. I'll keep this option in mind for next time - which I hope will be soon!
National Sawdust's stunning interior
With zero fanfare, the four women of Nordic Affect came on stage and performed Clockworking, the title track from their 2015 album, accompanied by eerie footage from a 1966 film called Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison. It was riveting to watch the blown-out black and white forms of the workers moving in rhythm to Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's music. The performance was completely precise but not uptight, with a relaxed joy in making music immediately evident. 

The sound at National Sawdust is so superb that I hardly gave it a thought, the clear acoustic allowing nothing to get between me and the music. This was especially commendable in the pieces that included electronics, like the title track to Raindamage, which they performed later in the evening. But first we had a new work by Hildur Guōnadóttir, Point of Departure, which asks each performer to sing long notes along with their instrument. It's a similar approach that Guōnadóttir took on 2 Circles, a work for violin solo that Nordic Affect's Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir recorded on Clockworking. The results are both meditative and mysterious, with a hint of Medieval plainchant, and a keen observer couldn't help but notice the silent interactions between the players that allowed them to pull it off perfectly. 

Next was Anna Thorvaldsdóttir's Shades of Silence, which also appeared on Clockworking. Before starting it there was a brief pause while Gudrún Óskarsdóttir prepared her harpsichord, placing various items on the strings inside. She also played the sides of the instrument, creating woody thumps, a picked out a sparkling melody from time to time. The performance made the piece seem more approachable somehow, maybe because you could observe how the various parts fit together. 

This was also true of Raindamage and Þýð, which were both performed as a trio by Stefánsdóttir along with Gudrún Hrund Hardardóttir (viola) and Hanna Loftsdóttir (cello). Stefánsdóttir explained that the latter piece, composed by Úlfur Hansson, was built up out of so many layers in the studio that there would be no way to replicate it in concert without a little help - from the audience. So she divided the room into thirds and asked us to hum along with the instrument in our section. She also asked us to stand and reminded us to breathe. I don't think I was on key the entire time but when I crossed into harmony with her violin there was a sensation of belonging and inclusion. Whether being asked to help or not, the audience is part of every concert. It was also a good reminder at how much concentration it can take to play this demanding music, even as they performed it with apparent ease. 

The final work included the full quartet and another projection. Called Loom and composed by Sigfúsdóttir with visuals by Dodda Maggy, this new piece had only been performed once before, earlier in Nordic Affect's American tour. The film consists of hypnotic circular patterns, which were echoed in the music, creating a perfect bookend for the concert. It was easy to become hypnotized there in the dark as the music drew you further into the colorful animations. 

While Loom was conceived to include the film I think the music will stand on its own should Nordic Affect decide to include it on their next album, which is sure to be spectacularly fascinating either way. As I've written over their years, for a tiny country, Iceland is producing a high volume of excellent music. Rather than finding this baffling, I simply listen in wonder. I recommend you try it and see if you find yourself doing the same. 

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Best Of 15: Classical & Composed

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wordless Music Plays Barry Lyndon

 
For years, I've been getting intriguing emails from Wordless Music detailing their different projects, which always include a few concerts where they accompany a film screening with a live performance of the soundtrack. This has become a popular sideline for the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras as well, creating a new (read: younger) audience for some graying institutions. 

I was there back in 1981 when Abel Gance's monumental silent film Napoleon was restored and shown at Radio City Music Hall with a live score composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola. It was shattering and intense experience, and set a very high bar for this sort of thing. More recently, when we went to see Frankenstein at the United Palace Theater with an improvised soundtrack played by guitarist Gary Lucas, an event that was suboptimal in nearly every way, making me a little gun shy. Partly for that reason, while I'm often attracted to Wordless Music's concepts they tend to hover just below the line where interest becomes commitment. 

But when they announced Barry Lyndon with a live score, there was no question we would have to go. I was lucky enough to see Stanley Kubrick's masterful period piece when it opened (yes, again at Radio City Music Hall) and I was immediately enraptured. Since I was only 10 or 11, there were certainly nuances I missed, but I was enthralled by Kubrick's evocation of a slightly alien past filled with all-too-human characters. Years later, I showed it to my wife and her reaction was identical. We also became obsessed with the music, some of which I tracked down piecemeal, as the Oscar-winning soundtrack was out of print at the dawn of the CD era (it is once again, but you can listen on YouTube or buy a used copy). I finally found it on vinyl and we were able to enjoy all the music as it was assembled by Leonard Rosenman for the film. It became a soundtrack to our own lives for a while.

As this was our first Wordless Music experience, we were confronted by sticker shock: they charge top dollar ($70 - $100) for tickets. Nevertheless, we took the plunge and reserved seats. Saturday night found us driving out to Flatbush where the beautifully restored King's Theater is located. We were coming from a family gathering on Long Island, which is why we used our car for what was literally a trip down memory lane. We found Flatbush to be the same riotous neighborhood it was when we lived there over 20 years ago, still pulsing to the beat of blaring dancehall reggae and busy with street vendors, and we felt at home even though it had been a long time. 

The municipal parking lot described in the email from Wordless Music was either closed or beyond my ken, but we lucked into a space on the street. While circling we had noticed an IHOP, which suited our mood more than the jerk chicken or Dominican cuisine that can be found on every corner. The cavernous and seemingly brand new restaurant was nearly empty so service was fast and breakfast for dinner was as delicious as ever. 

As instructed, we got to the King's Theater nearly an hour early. There was a line down the block - but that was for ticket pickup and I had ours on my iPhone so we went right in (it's like EZ Pass: why doesn't everyone do it?). The website having prepared us for a security checkpoint of nearly airport-level stringency, we emptied our pockets and walked through the scanner before taking in the stunning scale and detail of the restored theater. 


There was an excited hum in the lobby as people availed themselves of the many bars scattered around, which sold not only top-shelf liquor but candy and high-end snacks, including wrap sandwiches that would have been handy if we hadn't had time for dinner. We made our way to our seats, assisted by the helpful ushers, and sat down. The theater space was exactly what the lobby promised, with whimsical caryatids and elaborate gilded decor. 


The little program book was well printed and designed, with gorgeous stills from the movie and some background information. I noted many familiar names in the orchestra and realized that Wordless was working with some of the best musicians in the city. I read the whole thing cover to cover while my wife Googled historical information on the theater, which originally opened in 1929. Before we knew it, it was 8:30 and the film hadn't started yet. The natives were getting restless, clapping in their seats, until there was an announcement around 8:45 that went something like this: "Welcome to the historic King's Theater. Due to unprecedented demand at the box office, we have to delay the start of our show as everyone gets to their seats. Please be patient." I will be more respectful of your time and say no more - except to call "bullshit" and note that the movie started a over an hour late, which is a little cruel considering it's three and a half hours long. 

As soon as Ryan McAdams, the conductor, raised his baton, I blew any annoyance away and let myself luxuriate in Kubrick's exquisite vision of Thackeray's novel. Hearing the opening chords of Handel's Saraband helped, of course, as did seeing the spectacular digital projection of the remastered film. Seeing Barry Lyndon this far removed from when it was made brought home the remarkable restraint practiced by Kubrick and his production designer Ken Adam, which kept them from making a movie that just looked like the 1970's. The candle-lit cinematography by John Alcott is second-to-none and adds intimacy to even the grandest interior shots. Ulla-Britt Soderlund and Milena Canonero, the costumers, are also to be commended for not going all Yves St. Laurent on the 18th century. They got a hearty round of applause at the end but I was the only person who clapped for Ken Adam - like any James Bond fan, I know that he was one of the best ever at his craft. Alcott, Adam, Soderlund and Canonero all won Oscars for their incredible work.

The performance of the music was similarly flawless and perfectly cued to the projection (the dialogue, however, was only 99.5% in sync - another minor quibble). While Rosenman's work on the soundtrack was remarkable, I would venture to say that 40 years of evolution in the performance style of 18th century music was only to the benefit of Kubrick's conception, with a dryer, less ornamental approach enhancing Thackeray's gimlet-eyed but compassionate view of Redmond Barry's triumphs and travails. The piano trio (Timo Andres, Pauline Kim Harris, and Clarice Jensen) deserves special mention - I would love to hear them perform all of Schubert's Opus 100. The Irish folk musicians jumped into the traditional music, originally played by The Chieftains, fearlessly and with both feet, and tenor Nils Neubert's vocal turn in Paisello's Cavatina was a small wonder. 

The event further proved that Barry Lyndon is one of the greatest films of all time. It is the platonic ideal for how to adapt a novel with a strong narrative voice, an Olympus that is seldom scaled and never summited, and, even with the slight mishaps, Wordless Music did it proud service. I really can't say enough good things about it - it must be seen to be believed, preferably on a big screen. So, I will gladly remain on Wordless Music's mailing list and hope that next time the whole experience is as finely calibrated as the magnificent musical performance. 


"It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now."
-William Makepeace Thackeray

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

Boogarins Live: Parallel Play


I like to listen to music while skiing (big surprise, right?) and have found that live recordings add a wonderful extra energy as I carve my way down the slope. So the other day I was listening to Led Zeppelin play Orlando in 1971 and after a pummeling opening set they transitioned to an acoustic interlude. The taper began fumbling with the mics, probably in a effort to better capture the suddenly delicate sounds coming from the group.

Instead of being annoyed at the breaking of Zep's magical spell, I found myself connecting directly to the bootlegger's excitement and the powerful compulsion to record rock concerts that arose in the late 60's. While some tapers might have been driven by commercial concerns, I believe more of them were inspired by the idea that what happens here tonight might never happen again. 

The industry eventually recognized what was going on (and the loss of potential income) and ramped up the production of live albums, a genre which had its heyday in the great lives and double-lives of the 70's (sample an idiosyncratic selection here). There's probably a lot more that could be said about the decline of the live album since those hairy days, which is one reason I'm usually listening to bootlegs while I ski. However, one new recording has been in regular rotation since it was released in February, and it's not hard to imagine the Led Zep taper with his finger on "Record" here as well. 

I speak of Desvio Onirico by Brazilian psych band Boogarins, which may just be the first great live album of the millennium. Consisting of four long tracks recorded in 2016, each in a different location, this "dreamlike detour" demonstrates a huge leap in their approach since the first time I saw them, when, fantastic as they were, they often pushed the needle on volume and power rather than finesse. 

Infinu (Infuse), from their 2013 debut album As Plantas Que Curamopens the album with some subtly altered stage banter. Then they play the song fairly straight for about three minutes, dishing out the splashy call and response riff with aplomb, before one of them takes off on a questing guitar solo that seems to draw from inexhaustible resources of bent notes and flamethrower tonalities. At a climactic moment the song breaks down to the bass player, the crowd cheers, and it appears it might be ending. But the bass gains momentum and gradually pulls everyone back into a wild exploration, each occupying their own space on an interconnected landscape. 

Just when it seems to have nowhere else to go, it comes back to the bass, which keeps riffing as the band says their farewells: "We are Boogarins from Brazil, we hope to be back soon." As bright chords introduce a new motif for an extended coda, it dawns on the listener that the album has started with an ending, perhaps even an encore. No wonder they were in such a zone - they'd likely been playing for at least an hour already! Don't apologize for cheering along.

Tempo, originally on Manual, their second album, and recorded at Rock In Rio Lisboa, begins with an overture of spacious chords and distortion introducing a stop-and-start verse that seems full of questions. The chorus, a repeated muscular phrase played by both guitars, ramps up the tension but the real fireworks begin after the second verse, which includes the sound of a passing jet plane. Things begin to fragment, one guitar producing oscillating feedback and the other picking out notes, while the drums roll and tumble along. The chorus phrase returns, and the tempo starts to heat up. Things get loud and chaotic before a delicate version of the main riff resurfaces and they sing another verse. They play out the song by burning through multiple accelerating iterations of the chorus before coming to a dead stop - done. 

Auchma is also from Manual and "it goes long and crazy live," as they admitted on Facebook. Indeed - most of the eight minutes in this version is taken up by remarkable parallel play, with both guitarists seemingly engaged in their own pursuits but somehow still remaining in the same universe. Your ears can play a game of deciding which is the lead instrument by switching back and forth. And then a synth or maybe just an oscillator comes in like a shortwave radio, all squiggles and bleeps, and Auchma hits a new stride. If this is long and crazy, gimme more. 

The final song is an improvisation named after Manchacha Roadhouse, the club in Austin where they recorded it. Driven by a galloping shuffle on the drums, the song continues the idea of parallel play, with the two guitars and a fat electronic tone each following their own muse. About halfway through, it gets super quiet even as the tempo increases, becoming a propulsive meditation that eventually breaks apart, burning up on reentry. Instead of applauding, I can imagine the audience breathing deeply as one and nodding in the direction of their pilots before exiting into the Texan night. 

It's anybody's guess where Boogarins goes from here but I feel sure their next album will be a doozy. Watch them infuse an Austin studio with magic and and keep your eyes out for a live date near you. 

P.S. Boogarins aren't the only ones on the live album tip in 2017. Sleater Kinney fans rejoiced at the release of Live in Paris and Hiss Golden Messenger just came out with Parker's Picks Vol. 1: Live at The Parish, Austin, TX 10​/​18​/​2016, an excellent recording from their recent tour. And if you want to relive a recent concert, you may just find it at NYC Taper

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry


Where to start with Chuck Berry, dead today at the age of 90? How about his first record, Maybellene? As he told a Soul Train audience 15 years later, "it was about a car and a girl," which means it was about rock & roll. He was a hard man to love as a person, but his best songs defined the word "infectious," inducing you to move and dropping perfect little lyrical couplets into your head. He was a keen observer, especially in the early days, and wrote songs about what teenagers did and what they wished they could do. Put all the classic songs together and it becomes clear that he created an American iconography as clearly defined as that of Norman Rockwell. 



And then there is the guitar playing, a combination of jump blues and country twang that defined the instrument as THE sound of rock & roll. Each solo is a clinic, linking riffs together in various combinations, always driven by electric energy. Live, he played with casual mastery, tossing his guitar this way and that, indulging in a wild array of entertaining poses and creating another iconography, this one of movement, like the famous duck walk.

Sounds, words, sights - Berry was the full package. As John Lennon said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'." If you still house physical product in a collection, then your shelves are not complete without a copy of The Great Twenty-Eight, which features most of the classic songs from his early years.


While the really creative part of his career ended in around 1965, when he adapted the Liverpool sound for I Want To Be Your Driver, his last great single on Chess Records, he continued to be a live draw for nearly the rest of his life. There is the matter of My Ding-A-Ling, a puerile song that caught people's fancy at the dawn of the rock & roll revival in 1972, becoming Berry's only number one hit. It was an artistic injustice but commerce and art don't always get along, even when you're getting paid in cash. Despite the renewed interest, his tours were often slapdash affairs, with pick up bands, no rehearsals, and rote performances. His last album, 1979's Rock It, wasn't terrible - just indifferent, which may be worse.




We have Keith Richards to thank for convincing Berry to try a little harder, leading to the 1987 film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. While there are some unnecessary guests, it's filled with wonderful performances of some of Berry's greatest songs, putting a fine cap on the legend's indomitable legacy. While the arguments with Richards got a lot of attention, one of my favorite Berry moments comes at the end of the movie. While the credits roll, we see him alone in his nightclub, playing the loneliest sounds known to man on a pedal steel guitar. Was this a glimpse of his heart? As the great man himself once sang, you never can tell.

 

Postscript: In 2016, on his 90th birthday, Berry announced a new album called Chuck, to be released in 2017. According to his son, Charles Berry, Jr., "These songs cover the spectrum from hard driving rockers to soulful thought provoking time capsules of a life's work." Whatever it turns out to be, Chuck Berry will always have a place in the firmament of American music.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Velvet Underground & Nico at 50

Beyond the banana: The inner gatefold of The Velvet Underground & Nico
There was a time in the late 1970's when the first album by The Velvet Underground seemed to be more talked and read about than listened to. The radio only played Sweet Jane and Rock And Roll from their last album, Loaded, which was the easiest of their albums to find - and the most conventional. When discussing The Velvet Underground & Nico, their first album, the most common words were along the lines of "dark," "gritty," "uncompromising," even "scary." So for those of us who were freighted with all this baggage when finally dropping the needle on side one, the initial shock was how unexpectedly gentle it was.

The first song, Sunday Morning, starts with a childlike glockenspiel melody straight out of Buddy Holly's Everyday, accompanied by a sliding bass line soon joined by a viola drone and drums that were more of a hint than a rhythm track. Lou Reed enters, practically whispering: "Sunday morning/Brings the dawn in/It's just a restless feeling/By my side." THIS was the fearsome VU, this was Lou Reed, who taught us to walk on the wild side? Sunday Morning is an absolutely gorgeous study in optimistic melancholy - and love at first listen for me - but clearly, this legendary record was more complicated than we had been led to believe.

Musical pioneer and producer extraordinaire Brian Eno famously said that almost no one bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, but that everyone who did formed their own band. This is partly why the album sounded so different than expected - after living with its influence for 15 years, with some of the resulting music pushing the envelope even further in terms noise and volume, the incredibly nuanced original was bound to take some getting used to.

Now, the second song, I'm Waiting For The Man, was more as advertised. Over a pounding two chord vamp, in an unmistakeable New York accent, Lou speak-sings a tale of meeting a drug connection on "Lexington, 125." This was a level of cool that is still, even at this late date, mostly only being attempted and approximated. In March 1967, when the album was released (on the heels of The Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single), it must have sounded utterly bizarre. I grew up less than two miles away but Reed might has well have been singing about another planet. Besides Dylan, whose producer Tom Wilson worked on this album (and the follow-up, White Light/White Heat), perhaps the only preparation for what was going on here came from The Doors debut, which had come out about six months earlier, and which drew on some similar strains of dark poetry, but with a more radio-friendly sound and image.

Also like The Doors, The Velvets never turned their back entirely on the blues, which is how Jimmy Page was able to fit I'm Waiting For The Man in to the set list of The Yardbirds in their final days. Another early adopter was David Bowie, whose manager had brought a test pressing of the album back from New York. While the gestation was long, Bowie's love of the VU came out in Queen Bitch from Hunky Dory in 1972, and in the many performances of I'm Waiting For The Man (and White Light/White Heat) in the Ziggy Stardust era. The circle was finally complete when Reed joined Bowie to perform both songs at Madison Square Garden in 1997.

One thing that makes the Velvet Underground & Nico so astonishing is that the entire album was in the can and ready to go in April 1966, before The Doors album even came out. Release was delayed for nearly a year by their label, Verve Records, which was more familiar with marketing jazz and was also caught up in putting out the first album by Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention. It's a compelling mind game to imagine the album coming out in an even more innocent context. Maybe it would have made a bigger splash, like a hand grenade in a Disney film, but it's just as possible that it would have been actively suppressed rather than benignly neglected. One thing that is unquestionable, that the VU were consciously going head to head against the Summer of Love ethos. "We were pretty much appalled by what was going on on the West Coast," John Cale has said. "The hippie scene was not for us. They were scruffy, dirty people."

So how did The Velvet Underground come together to create such a unique and prescient sound? The core of the band was made up of Long Islanders Lou Reed (guitar, vocals, lyrics) and Sterling Morrison (rhythm guitar, bass, backing vocals), who had met and played music together at Syracuse University in the 1950's. Out of college and trying to make it in music as a staff songwriter and session player at Pickwick Records, Lou met Welsh violist John Cale (also bass, keyboards, backing vocals) at a recording session and they hit it off. Cale was classically trained, had written symphonies now lost to time, and had washed up in NYC after a scholarship at Tanglewood Music Center brought him to the States. When original drummer Angus Maclise quit on the eve of their first live performance, Maureen Tucker, also from Long Island and the sister of one of Morrison's roommates, was brought in on drums.

That first gig was not a success - they only performed three songs before being given the hook - but they persisted and landed a residency at a Greenwich Village club. The night they were fired from there was also the night Andy Warhol was in the audience and they were soon under his wing and providing a soundtrack to his performance art piece, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol is credited with producing the album, which seemed to consist mainly of insisting the engineers not clean anything up. After Warhol died, Reed and Cale reunited to record Songs For Drella, a richly emotional exploration of their time with the pop art master, which also illuminated his involvement in the VU's early days. It seems that, besides providing the instantly iconic album cover, the other important thing Warhol did for the nascent band was model an incredible work ethic and indomitable self-belief. His example forced them to sharpen their craft and push their art further, so by the time they were in the studio their material was honed to a fine point. There is nothing on The Velvet Underground & Nico that is not meticulously planned and prepared; even the exploratory freak-outs had a roadmap.

The other element Warhol brought to the band was German "It Girl" Nico, essentially untrained as a singer (her credit on the album is "Chanteuse," which is somehow perfect), but with a spectacular look and natural charisma. Lou wrote three classic songs for her that provide crucial variety to the album and in their sensitivity belie his reputation for misogyny. Femme Fatale comes third on the album and demonstrates Reed's complete absorption of 1950's ballad style, down to the backing vocals on the chorus. Of course, in the 1950's there were no songs sung by a Teutonic ice-princess about a rapacious woman's sexual conquests - maybe Kurt Weill comes close.

The title of Femme Fatale also hints at the roots of Reeds lyrical interests - hard-boiled American literature by the likes of Raymond Chandler, William S. Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr. Incorporating their dark themes of transgression, obsession and betrayal into a rock and roll context is perhaps Reed's greatest inspiration and most revolutionary act. He has often said that he wanted to write the great American novel as an album and, besides Bob Dylan, no one else did as much to singlehandedly expand the vocabulary of rock music than Lou Reed.

The fourth song on the album is a perfect example. Venus In Furs was based on the 19th century novella of the same name by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (from whose name the word "masochism" is derived), which explored themes of sexual dominance and submission. Surely, Reed must have thought, nearly 100 years after Venus In Furs was published, the world of rock and roll was ready for lyrics like "Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather/Shiny leather in the dark/Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you/Strike dear mistress, and cure his heart." Not quite ready, Lou, but thank you for forcing the issue!

Run Run Run, which follows, is blues-based bit of Dylanesque rock, mainly distinguished by Reed's distortion drenched six string shamanism, which, like Roger McGuinn's work on Eight Miles High (1966), was likely based on John Coltrane's "sheets of sound" sax solos. All Tomorrow's Parties comes next, a spooky and hypnotic vehicle for Nico, which presages post-punk explorations by Siouxsie & The Banshees and Nick Cave's first band, The Birthday Party.

As great as the album is up to this point, it can seem like mere preamble when it comes to the next song, Heroin, which starts side two. This novelistic look into the mechanism of addiction, and the mindset of an addict, doesn't just realize Reed's literary ambitions - it propels him into the company of his heroes. The fact that it's set to mesmerizing and (yes) melodic music only makes the band's achievement here more impressive. Such is the power of Heroin that not only were other musicians absorbing its lessons, but authors, too - like Denis Johnson, who titled his breakout book Jesus' Son (1992) after a line from the song.

Sequencing There She Goes Again after Heroin was a wise choice. It's a charming, if somewhat slight song that's probably the closest thing to an actual pop song on the album, and it gives listeners a chance to catch their breath. The final Nico song, I'll Be Your Mirror, is the first of Reed's indelible ballads, and one of the most poetic love songs ever written. So much of Reed's achievement over the years is based in acceptance and compassion, so neatly embodied in the lyrics to this song. For example: "When you think the night has seen your mind/That inside you're twisted and unkind/Let me stand to show that you are blind/Please put down your hands/Cause I see you." Nico's restrained delivery is perfect, and, matched by the band's delicate accompaniment of guitars, bass and tambourine, demonstrates what can be accomplished when convention is set aside to pursue artistic truth.

The last two songs, Black Angel's Death Song and European Son, are examples of the VU at their most avant garde, with the former being the reason for their dismissal from the club after the concert Warhol witnessed. Lou's delivery and stream of consciousness lyrics are direct descendants of Dylan's work, but he goes a little further, spouting nonsense syllables for part of the song. European Son is truly psychedelic music, an attempt to alter consciousness rather than describing a state of altered consciousness, as most psychedelic songs do. The full band receives songwriting credit and it is a bit freeform but moves along and doesn't overstay its welcome. Its complete title is European Son to Delmore Schwartz, name-checking another hero, the poet who wrote "In dreams begin responsibilities" and mentored Reed in college. When European Son ends in a nasty haze of amplifier noise, there is a distinct sense that something has happened, which could be said for the whole experience of listening to the album.

If The Velvet Underground & Nico had been the only album they recorded, The Velvet Underground's place in the music firmament would have been entirely secure. It is hard indeed to imagine how bands and performers like The Stooges (Cale produced their first album), Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith, Suicide, Television, The Ramones, Joy Division, The Feelies, The Pixies, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, and many others would have even existed, much less gone on to influence so many others on their own, without the example The Velvet Underground provided on this record, which is well worth celebrating 50 years later.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage


There's something about this album, the second by the Icelandic chamber ensemble Nordic Affect, that made me collapse a little, a kind of swoon almost, even into that word: raindamage. It evoked for me not something that would lead to a call to your insurance company, but the image of a leaf, bedraggled by rain drops but still clinging to a branch, the last one there. Or pounding sheets of winter rain seen through a picture window, moving across a field, one stalk of growth bent double and vibrating from the impact, the rest standing tall. A childhood memory from the Pyrénées also comes to mind, of watching a massive storm cover the valley below, lightning doubling itself in huge solar reflectors. It's that kind of record, one to send you spinning within yourself.

Raindamage is also the first piece on the album, a composition by Valgeir Siguròsson for violin, viola, cello and electronics, which perfectly combines the physicality of the plucked and bowed strings with the abstraction of the synthesized sounds. It's brief but epic, which can also be said of the other Siguròsson piece, Antigravity, which is solely electronic and descends into a space most wondrous dark.

Two other composers are included, Ùlfur Hansson and Hlynur Aòils Vilmarsson, and in each case they've composed one work for chamber instruments and one for electronics. The combinations of sounds in all cases evoke the interaction between nature's creations and those assembled by man, a gnarled vine ensnaring a power cable. [:n:] by Vilmarsson features the full complement of Nordics - the three strings and harpsichord - and seems to ask a series of unanswered questions, limning them with shimmering harmonics. Vilmarsson's electronic piece, NOA::EMS, hearkens back to the test lab sounds of pioneers like Manny Ghent and Ilhan Mimaroglu, without seeming at all experimental. It's a portrait of sound, in sound.

Hansson, who also created the wonderful White Mountain album in 2013, adds voices to his acoustic composition, Þýð, to spine-tingling effect. He also gets even more physical with the string instruments, gathering them all up into violent skirls of sound - you can feel the horsehair bow catching on the strings. Remember to breathe while listening. The playing by Halla Steinunn Stefásdóttir (violin), Gudrún Hrund Hardadóttir (viola), and Hanna Loftsdóttir, is almost frighteningly assured here, as it is throughout. Harpischordist Gudrún Óskarsdóttir is also excellent. Skin Continuum, Hansson's electronic work, folds an Uchwa Daiko drum into its soundscape, ratcheting up the simmering tension. Then it ends, as all pieces of music must, but it will last in your memory.

You will be left wanting more in any case, so head back to their gorgeous 2015 release, Clockworking, or catch them on their first U.S. tour. Maybe I'll see you at National Sawdust on April 19th!

Note: The word "raindamage" apparently comes from a "poetic fantasia" by Angela Rawlings called A Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists - worth investigating!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Michael Chapman: 75 Into 50


The road goes on forever, Gregg Allman sang in Midnight Rider, and that's the feeling I get from listening to Michael Chapman's glorious new night drive of an album. Called 50 in celebration of that many years of professional music-making, it feels like every lived minute is somehow contained in its 10 songs, including the one questing instrumental. Chapman's voice is a bit shot, all husky burr and weary bite, but he's been mastering its unconventional qualities since his first album and is completely in control of its contours here.

About half of these songs are remakes from earlier Chapman albums, but that hardly matters if you are a new listener - and I expect he'll get more than a few of those with 50. Some of them will be drawn by American guitar maven Steve Gunn, who produced the album and assembled the expert and empathic crew of players who surround Chapman with airy but sturdy skeins of acoustic and electric stringed instruments and keyboards. Chapman's longtime collaborator Bridget St. John, a British folk luminary herself, is also here, limning his dry voice with her burnished gold on several tracks.

The old and new songs combine to timeless effect, many of them lyrically reminiscent of Bob Dylan in apocalyptic mode: "And the preacher comes in from the cold, his wisdom to disperse. I listen to his sermon, but he's making matters worse" (The Prospector). Or "Trees caught fire, sky turned red, fish in the river turned up dead" (Sometimes You Just Drive).

Chapman also has a nice sideline as a poet of failure. One of his greatest songs is called It Didn't Work Out, and another classic tune turns it's title, It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, into a wry sing-along. We get some of that here, too, in That Time Of Night: "When nothing seems to turn out right, and dreams can drift right out of sight, because it's that time of night." And the failures are not only personal. Chapman has called this his "American album," and I think that is not only a reference to the provenance of his fellow musicians or where it was recorded.

Though of English origin himself, that the 75-year-old Chapman is a keen observer of life on this side of the pond becomes very clear on songs like Memphis in Winter: "They say that Jesus saves, but I see none of that down here. I just see people with the hunger, I see people with the fear. And I can see the jungle growing, hobos huddled in the steam. Are they just some hungry mouths to feed or the bitter end of the dream?"

Or I could just be projecting my own current perspective on some of these songs - perhaps in 10 years it will all sound very different, just good poetryt instead of feeling ripped from the headlines. 50 is an album for the ages in any case, and I am sure I will still be listening further down the road in my own journey.

You May Also Enjoy:
Out Of The Past 2013: Reissues, Etc.
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Out Of The Past
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past

P.S. Read my post-Grammy thoughts in Mass Appeal: Beyoncé, The Grammys And The Guitar Myth

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

How To Survive 2017


With music, of course! Even activists need a soundtrack, after all. Here are some things to look forward to - and some ways you can keep up with what I'm tracking in all genres.

1. The Return Of Fleet Foxes Over the traditional holiday Chinese dinner, I asked the assembled if they had something positive they anticipating in 2017. My nephew spoke first, and without hesitation: "New music from Fleet Foxes." Yes, many of us said, nodding, and I don't remember what anybody else said. While there are few exact details, Robin Pecknold has indicated that something new will be coming out under the Fleet Foxes name in 2017, presumably including some of the new songs he's played on tour opening for Joanna Newsom. There will also be U.S. concert dates, the first of which has been announced: Opening day at the Newport Folk Festival. Nothing fancy - and already sold out. Maybe I'll build a raft and listen from the bay.

2. Father John Misty's Next Sermon The sage of Laurel Canyon has already announced his third album, Pure Comedy, and released three songs. Jonathan Wilson was once again in the producer's chair and probably played most of the instruments. Preorder here for delivery right around April Fool's Day. And it will be good. The only mystery is who will be taking his place as the drummer in Fleet Foxes.

3. The Beck Comeback? Beck has been promising a follow-up to 2014's Morning Phase at least since that brilliant album won Album Of The Year at the Grammys. Based on Dreams and Wow, his last two singles, this will be the fun side of Mr. Hansen. Don't mark your calendar but do sign up for updates so you don't miss a lick.

4. Spoon Get Hot Pretty much anything Britt Daniel touches turns to gold in my book so I'm eagerly awaiting the release of Spoon's Hot Thoughts, their ninth album, due March 17.

5. ACME Reach For The Peak The American Contemporary Music Ensemble seems to be cooking something very special up for their debut on the excellent Sono Luminus label. Called Thrive On Routine, it promises to be anything but. Catch a preview by listening to In A Treeless Place, Only Snow, a magical piece by John Luther Adams. Coming on February 24th - preorder here.

6. Pusha T's Game Of Thrones King Push, the follow up to My Name Is My Name, has been promised since 2014. So far we've just gotten Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, which was supposedly songs that didn't fit on King Push. Many of those were fantastic, only whetting my appetite further. The master rapper has been busy mastering the boardroom while running Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music label, which might account for the delay. If the one new song Push put out in 2016 is any indication, expect more fire.

7. Goldfrapp's Sound Of Silver I've missed the whomp of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory's hyper-melodic electro-glam for a while now - even on their last album. However, based on their new single, Anymore, they may be bringing back the sound that once rocked stadiums (at least in the U.K.). We'll find out soon enough when Silver Eye is released on March 31st. 

8. Noveller's Next Chapter Video clips from the studio show Sarah Lipstate, a wizard of guitar looping and layering,  honing her style to a fine point. Such refinement will surely be reflected on her third album, A Pink Sunset For No One, out this Friday, February 10th. 

9. Leon Parker's Stealthy Return One of the finest jazz percussionists alive, Parker has been mainly active in France in recent years and hasn't put out an album since 2001. Once or twice a year I Google around, looking for news, and this year (on the third page of search results!) I found it: Parker will be playing in pianist Aaron Goldberg's trio at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola on March 15th and 16th. I'll be there and if we're lucky we'll get treated to an original from one of his terrific albums - Belief is my favorite. Here's one reason why

10. Oh, Jenny O. In 2013, Jenny O. released Automechanic, a gem of an album featuring indelible songs, great vocals, and Jonathan Wilson's highly detailed production. It was my number three album of the year so naturally I'm majorly jazzed to hear that Jenny and Jonny (along with engineer Bryce Gonzalez) are back at it for Peace & Information. The release date is up to YOU as she is self-financing the release on Kickstarter - be a backer today. I'm still hoping to see her perform with a full band, so that's another thing to look forward to in 2017!

FOLLOWING FRENZY

Every year, I dump anything in which I'm vaguely interested into an Of Note playlist on Spotify so I can keep track. But it finally dawned on me that having a 27 hour multi-genre playlist (as 2016's edition was by the end of the year) was not very good customer service. What if you hate avant garde classical music? What if all you want to hear is hip hop? Why was I making everyone wade through my schizophonic obsessions??

No more. This year, I have started sorting by genre right from the beginning and have so far established the five specific playlists listed below. Other ones may pop up if it becomes a very strong year in another genre, such as reggae or jazz. I hope this makes it easier follow only what grabs you. As for anything not on Spotify, I'll be spreading links to sounds on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, YouTube, etc., on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, so make sure to connect with me on those platforms. As always, keep me in the loop on what I'm missing!



Saturday, January 28, 2017

Best Of 2016: Reissues


While 2016 had few precious moments of downtime between great new records, there were still a few reissues and other sounds of the past that forced their way into my listening. The jury is still out on Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, however. Thirty-six discs of concerts from that earth-shattering year might just be overkill even for a massive Dylan fan like me. Granted, it's a bargain at less than $3/disc, but what I'v heard so far was not as strong as Bob Dylan Live 1966, which was released nearly 20 years ago. Let me know if you plow through all of it and feel differently. There's also the matter of The Beatles Live At The Hollywood Bowl - while I'm still desperate to see the movie, I'll stick with Atlanta 1965 when I want a blast of the Fabs at their best. From performance, to sequencing, to over-done remixing, Hollywood Bowl is a highly compromised document.

The Big Boxes

Erik Satie & Friends - Original Albums Collection Like the Dylan live box, this is also a bargain, 13 discs for about $30, and it's filled with wonderful music. First of all, you get several different recordings of Satie's best-known piano pieces by under-recognized artists like William Masselos and Daniel Varsano. Second, you get many rarities, like Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhome en bois (Sketches and Enticements of a Fat Wooden Man), a three-movement suite for piano. You also get valuable context, with compositions by mentors, colleagues, and proteges like Debussy, Milahud, Ravel, and Poulenc. With recordings spanning 1930 - 1979 you can compare and contrast performance styles over the decades. The packaging is also great, made up delightful miniatures of the original albums. Squint your eyes and read some of the liner notes to marvel at the fact that once a case had to made for Satie's value as a composer. That he was far ahead of his time is not in doubt. As Jean Cocteau said "Satie teaches the greatest audacity of our epoch - that of being simple," which is one reason he resonates so much with the great popular music of our epoch.

Pink Floyd - The Early Years 1965-1972 Nothing simple about this massive undertaking, which includes 11 CDs, 8 Blu-ray Discs, 9 DVDs, 5 seven-inch vinyl singles, and over 40 items of memorabilia. All of this material gives ample opportunity to focus on both the achievement of Syd Barrett but also Pink Floyd's least understood period, the time between their debut album and Dark Side of the Moon. The new remastering I've heard is fantastic, sharpening up the sound, but also making it somehow more accessible. The live and alternate takes seem to have been chosen with care, and even with all the bootlegs I have, there is plenty that I've never heard before. The set also contains the first ever official audio only release of Live At Pompeii, which is a beautifully recorded snapshot of their performance style on the eve of DSOTM. Here's hoping the next set is as generous with the amazing concerts where they road-tested that album months before it came out.


Cluster - 1971-1981 Although they never crossed over into popular success like Kraftwerk, Cluster was certainly one of the most important German bands of the "Krautrock" movement. This crucial nine disc set puts all of their marvels in one place and allows one to trace their evolution from Art Gallery experimentalists to creators of music of great beauty and wit. One can even hear echoes of Satie in the limpid piano playing of Hans-Joachim Roedelius. The glossy surface of Cluster & Eno, the first of two albums they made with that avatar of ambient, is still stunning after all these years, and the second, After The Heat, contains Eno songs as good as on Before And After Science. The final disc of the set contains two previously unreleased live recordings, from 1972 and 1977, which proves how closely they clung to first principles throughout their career, even as the albums embraced more rock elements. The liner notes by Asmus Tietchens are also a treat. For example, discussing 1979's Grosses Wasser,  he writes: "Whilst nothing is left to chance, each of the six Cluster pieces effervesces with a certain joie de vivre, providing ample scope for artistic spontaneity. Above all, one can hear that, as the saying goes, less is more." When you consider that Roedelius and his partner Dieter Moebius were also mainly responsible for the output of Harmonia, which had an enormous influence on David Bowie, it becomes ever more obvious how important they were. Kudos to bureau b for this landmark collection.

Rock & Pop

Led Zeppelin - Complete BBC Sessions It's hard to imagine anything improving this set, which lived on my iPod for years in its original two-disc incarnation. But if you haven't heard it yet this new three-disc version is a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with some of the most seismic music ever. OK, Jimmy, how about some 1975 concerts now? Or new music??


Big Star - Complete Third Take the full ride to the creation of one of the great almost-was albums of the 70's. I've heard the packaging is less than stellar but the liner notes are well worth your time.

Arthur Lee & Love - Coming Through To You: The Live Recordings 1970-2004 I always say if you're a fan, you can add one star. I'm a huge fan of Love so I would give this uneven set four stars if I used them - but I would hardly recommend a new listener start here. Lee is one of the most contradictory figures in rock, mainly because he seemed to turn his back on the delicate chamber psych of Forever Changes to embrace a harder-edged sound heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix. The fact is that if you look at his career as a whole, it's Forever Changes that is the anomaly, but one he returned to in the 2000's, performing it with expert replicators Baby Lemonade and a chamber orchestra. That's on disc three and some of it is quite good. Vocal inconsistencies mar some of the songs but he seems to be enjoying the adulation for his lost masterpiece, without any of the contempt I've noticed on other concerts from this period. Disc one is my favorite, though, focusing on the vital period following the release of Four Sail, which I hold in as high a regard as Forever Changes. If you're a lover of Love this is essential, just be prepared for some patchy sound quality and shaky performances throughout. 

Elliott Smith - Heaven Adores You (Soundtrack) It's hard to listen to any Elliott Smith without retroactive foreshadowing of his tragic early death, but that's even more true of this sensitively compiled album of fragments, demos, and live recordings. I still need to see the movie but this collection serves as a good reminder that there was always more to him than the mopey troubadour. Like Kurt Cobain, the angst wouldn't have meant much without an astonishing gift for melody. 

Gary Wright's Wonderwheel - Ring Of Changes Don't laugh - I still rock Love Is Alive on a party mix and Dreamweaver is deathless AM radio psychedelia and proto synth-pop. This previously unreleased album is from a few years before those 70's juggernauts and finds Wright and future-Foreigner Mick Jones pursuing an almost cookie-cutter classic rock sound, only the format hadn't been invented yet. This is in no way unfinished, but is rather a fully polished production with layers of keyboards, guitars, and backing vocals. Based on the sound alone, I would say it's nearly as much Jones's album as Wright's. If I were going to put on my A&R hat I might say I don't hear the killer single, but Goodbye Sunday is filled with yearning and has some tasty George Harrison slide guitar, almost sounding like a more polished Big Star, and Creation is a mini-epic with some great harmonies, a soaring chorus, and guitar riffs galore. Take a great trip to a past that never quite existed. 

The Clientele - A Sense Of Falling: Strange Geometry Outtakes When one of your favorite bands goes quiet, you depend on little bonuses like this. Featuring five unreleased songs and an instrumental version of Losing Haringey, this is about as exquisite a 22 minutes of music as you will find. Standouts are When We Last Spoke, which has that wonderful conversational style Alasdair MacLean perfected, and Spanish Night, an intensely delicate skein of acoustic guitars. Come back, Alasdair!

Various Artists - New York Noise: Dance Music From The New York Underground 1977-1982 Sometime in the early 80's, Mike Diamond and I worked our connections to gain entrance to the apartment of rock critic Chip Stern. We heard he was selling promo copies for cheap - and it was true. I remember scoring a white-label advance copy of Remain In Light and Soapsuds, Soapsuds by Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden (you gotta hear their take on the Mary Hartman theme!) but Mike was quick on the draw and grabbed up No New York, a landmark collection of punk funk produced by Brian Eno. I was jealous at the time but this is even better - one song each from DNA, Material, The Bush Tetras, The Contortions, Mars, and more - practically everyone who made the Mudd Club great. This is also James Murphy's Rosetta Stone and, because it's on Soul Jazz, I'm sure the book is filled with great pictures and liner notes that make all the right connections. 

Soul, Funk, Gospel

Betty Harris - The Lost Queen Of New Orleans Soul Think Lee Dorsey's sister and you'll get some idea of the quality of this welcome collection, especially the first half. Dorsey might have gotten the more indelible material but that just means Harris has to work harder and she sings the hell out of the first six tracks. Also, she still has producer-songwriter Allen Toussaint on her side, which is almost always a can't-lose proposition - ditto for house band The Meters. The killer opening cut, There's A Break In The Road, is a case in point. It features some ill feedback and is practically a concerto for drummer Zigaboo Modaliste - it must be heard to be believed. Harris also goes head to head with Dorsey on Ride Your Pony and it's a photo finish. She gets softer - even maternal - on the latter half of the compilation but does nothing to belie its title. Another Soul Jazz special.

Betty Davis - The Columbia Years While this unfinished material doesn't come up to the quality of Betty Davis or They Say I'm Different, it's a fascinating, fun, and funky window into her development as an artist. We also get a taste of her then-husband Miles Davis's style as a producer: "Sing it just like that, with the gum in your mouth and all," he rasps before Politician Man kicks off. This may be for fans only, but if you've heard those other records, there's a good chance you are a fan. 

Johnnie Frierson - Have You Been Good To Yourself Frierson was a minor player at Stax Records who was taken out of the game by military service. In the 90's he recorded these songs in his living room and distributed them himself on cassette. Now, these rough-hewn and committed performances are getting a well-deserved shot at a wider audience. The propulsive title track is the star, an empathetic self-help treatise in song ("Have you been getting eight hours?"), but there are no false notes on this brief collection of spirited gospel. Be good to your ears and give this a listen. 

Reggae & International Sounds

Various Artists - Tape Rolling! Featuring productions by Bunny Lee from 1971-74 this is a typically great Pressure Sounds collection of roots reggae. There are a couple of familiar tunes (Man Next Door, Cherry Oh Baby) but most of it is off the beaten path - and just as good as those classics. They even managed to find three Cornell Campbell songs that aren't on the spectacular two-disc Natty Dread anthology, which is now sadly out of print. Prepare to be transported. 

The Wailers - The Wailing Wailers These early cuts by Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley have been reissued many, many times in various forms and varying sound quality. So it's nice to have their first album in the original sequence with the original cover and in smashing sound. Simmer Down never sounded spicier. 

Bob Marley & The Wailers - The Legend Live Flash forward to 1979 and you have Marley in his world-beating years, recorded at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. This is a valuable release as it contains more material from Survival, a slightly overlooked album, than any other official live album. However, I'm not sure it's as sharp as performances from Minneapolis, Wisconsin, or Boston from the same tour - do a little digging a see what you think. The show was professionally filmed - and quite well, too - and a DVD is included. Caveat Emptor: The set list on the CD is missing two songs - but you can hear it all on Spotify

Various Artists - Power To The People! A Survey of Zimbabwe's 70's Revolutionary Rock Scene It's become clearer over their years that rock & roll was international from its very beginning. This intriguing collection from Now-Again Records also further proves that where stakes are high the music thrives. All the bands here are tight, anthemic and just slightly off-kilter. Like reggae, which had some of its roots in sounds that blew in on the trade winds from New Orleans, much of the interest lies in how they get it "wrong," sometimes by being unable to avoid the influence of their own traditions. So let Wells Fargo, Stars Of Liberty, et al, school you with unique take on 70's sounds on this brief sampler, which is fortunately a harbinger of more extensive work by Now-Again Records to come in this area. If you're impatient for more, check out the first-ever release of the debut from Wells Fargo, available at Rappcats or by joining Vinyl Me Please

Odion Iruoje - Down To Earth This one and only album by the self-proclaimed Sound President is getting a much-deserved re-airing by Soundway Records after an extremely limited release in 1983. An accomplished Nigerian producer who had worked with Fela in the early 70's, among many others, Iruoje tackles everything from updated Afrobeat to Juju to disco on the six tracks. The first track also features a rapper (perhaps Tunji Oyelana?) who is surprisingly facile by the standards of the day. Too bad Sylvia Robinson didn't get the message (pun intended) at Sugar Hill Records! It's also too bad that Iruoje didn't make more albums. 

José Mauro - Obnoxius Brazil is almost as bottomless a source of great musical discoveries as Africa and Jamaica. This full-fledged Tropicalia masterpiece from 1970, features production that is sometimes lush and sometimes wacky - often at the same time. There's nothing obnoxious about Mauro's suave tenor, though, even when he seems terminally amused by whatever he's singing about. The songs are often like little suites, moving from section to section in a series of left turns that always come full-circle. My Portuguese is non-existent but in titles like Talisma, Apocalipse, and Exaltação e Lamento do Ultimo Rei, I detect religious themes. No girls from Ipanema in sight, but don't shy away as this lost classic occupies a nice middle ground between Jobim and Os Mutantes. 

Soundtracks & Soundscapes

Ryuichi Sakamoto - Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence Unlike that other David Bowie movie whose soundtrack went unreleased until 2016, this one was obviously an instant classic from first hearing. For years we had to be satisfied with the beautiful suite Sakamoto arranged for his Playing The Orchestra album. Now we have every theme from Nagisa Oshima's brilliant film, each little minimalist piece incrementally drawing you into the psychological warfare at the heart of the film. Some of the synth tones are a bit of their time (1983) but it's a worthwhile journey nonetheless. A nice bonus is Forbidden Colors, the vocal version of the theme featuring the dulcet tones of David Sylvian.

Tod Dockstader - From The Archives This is truly a labor of love for Thomas Steenland, who founded Starkland Records in the 90's to give proper release to the music of electronic pioneer Dockstader. This album consists of 15 never-before-heard tracks, the cream of thousands of pieces left behind when Dockstader died in 2015. He was a master of texture, combining bell-like sounds with serrated patterns, for example, and creating as distinctive a sound as greats like Brian Eno and Laurie Spiegel. Each short piece asks you to confront the emotional complexities of sheer sound: this piece is unsettling, you might note - but why? Where does abstraction connect with cultural mores and biographical experience to create moods and initiate narratives? In this way, Dockstader's elemental work is much like abstract paintings, for example by Rothko or Rinehart. This fascinating album is a tribute to Dockstader's memory and a great opportunity to reengage with an artist who was uncompromising toward the end. We owe Steenland and Starkland a true debt of gratitude - start paying it back by making a little room in your life for this music.

Listen to a track from each album below or in this playlist. There are also more things to discover in the complete Of Note In 2016 (Reissues) playlist. What music shouldered its way out of the past and into your life this year?


You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Best Of 2016: Classical
Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.

This post is my last retrospective look at 2016. Coming soon: a rundown of some upcoming releases and a guide to getting AnEarful of the music you need in 2017.



Sunday, January 15, 2017

Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.


I like to think that besides being adventurous I'm also a loyal listener, willing to follow people down whatever winding streets and (sometimes blind) alleys they travel. But I also have to go with my gut when something is not up to the standards musicians have set for themselves, which happened a number of times this year.

Albums by Wilco, Hamilton Leithauser, Sean Lennon, Sam Beam, Paul Westerberg, and Metallica all disappointed me this year, much as I tried to like them. There were a few good songs among them and none were cynical failures, but I do think it's notable that all except Wilco and Metallica were collaborations, wherein may lie some of the roots of my dislike. Artists like Rostam Batmanglij, Les Claypool, Jesca Hoop, and Juliana Hatfield seemed to bring out something close to the worst in Leithauser, Lennon, Beam, and Westerberg respectively. Here's hoping they follow their own muses next time around.

Even though these were all past Top 20 artists, I didn't despair. The universe will provide, I thought, and it did: new favorites like Benji Hughes and Warhaus, among others, made astonishing records that fed my soul and delighted my mind. And there were the fantastic albums, EP's, and singles that I never had a chance to feature (aside from a tweet or three), which is what the rest of this post will be about. Some of these were new to me entirely, others are people I've had an eye on for a while, and two are legends in late career. Good listening guaranteed...

ALBUMS

Morgan Delt - Phase Zero Two years on from his debut, Delt refined his take on psychedelia with addictive songs that have a way of seeming to alter the space you're in, both mentally and physically. Rather than sounding like a band, all the sounds interlock, with multiple guitars creating polyrhythmic meshes that the drums merely reinforce. Delt's singing sometimes seems like an interior monologue further making this multicolored gem a great headphone trip.

Richard James - All The New Highways Not to be confused with Richard D. James, also known as Aphex Twin, this guy is also a veteran player, having been a founder of Welsh psychedelic folk rock maestros Gorky's Zygotic Mynci back in 1991. On Highways, his fourth album since Gorky's broke up in 2006, he avoids some of the slightly forced playfulness they often pursued, preferring a more naturalistic approach. Think more Led Zeppelin III, Side Two, than Kevin Ayers. There's a lovely woodiness throughout, even when the rhythms tend towards the hypnotic drive of Krautrock. Some of the songs are instrumentals but James's lived-in burr of a voice is always welcome, as is this album - it may be the finest work of a long career. 

Lost Animal - You Yang Many is the time when I'll read a friend's best-of list and know every album but one. That can be a golden opportunity to find something great but it's just as often a dead end. This time it was the former, I'm happy to report, as You Yang is a consistently inspired album, with Jarrod Quarrell (who effectively is Lost Animal) laying his Dylanesque drawl over keyboards, drum machines and sharply plucked bass. He explories many interstices in his quirky sound, adding sax and melodica for color, and employing backup singers to keep things from getting too insular. There might be as much synthesized sound as some of the entries on my Electronic list but the attitude is all rock and it's no surprise when things get a little noisy in Message For The Future. Quarrell released his first Lost Animal in 2013, which means I have some catching up to do - now you do, too. 

Savoy Motel If it's rock attitude you want, these glammed up guys and gals have it to spare. Their self-titled debut has riffs galore, overdriven lead guitar licks (is that a Les Paul through a Marshall stack?), a funky beat that actually swings, and catchy songs. Savoy Motel are often lumped in with the Lemon Twigs, for whom they are opening on tour, but the latter's overstuffed and mannered tunes can't hold a candle to what's going on here. At its best, this is just plain fun stuff and a little bit raw. My only advice is, being that they're from Nashville, they might want to focus to what that town is known for - songwriting - because there are only five good songs (out of eight) on the album. The last third sinks as they get lost in aimless jamming. Including the sly 2015 single Cool Air would have improved things immeasurably. If they keep it short, tight, and groovy throughout their next album, it will (to quote their press release) "completely dominate the music world of tomorrow!"

Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression "Way better than I expected" is a pretty shaky scaffold on which to build a critical response.  Also, since Iggy hasn't made an album I felt compelled to listen to more than once since New Values in 1979 (OK, maybe Soldier in 1980, but I don't sing any of those songs in the shower), my expectations were pretty low in the first place. But I was willing to give this the benefit of the doubt, partly because he claims this is his finale, and partly because he has made five albums that are part of my lifeblood: Funhouse, Raw Power, Kill City, The Idiot, and Lust For Life. In the end, while this is his best album in decades, it's not quite a return to form. Producer/Guitarist Josh Homme and Iggy's other collaborators create some interesting and varied backdrops for his baritone musings, but too often those musings devolve into first-draft doggerel by the second verse, if they haven't already started there. Iggy's energy here has neither the snarl of The Stooges era nor the grandeur of the Bowie years - he's just sort of there, perfectly adequate but not riveting. Still, if this is truly his last album, it's more than respectable, and based on the recent live album, he's still acquitting himself nicely on stage. 

Julia Jacklin - Don't Let The Kids Win Like Angel Olsen, Jacklin trusts the verities of the great songwriters of the past, tapping into classic 50's and early 60's folk-based rock & roll. There's also a sense of decorum that is most welcome in these clickbait-dominated days. In opener Pool Party when she sings "I want to give you all of my love," it sounds she's talking real commitment, not a Tinder quickie. She's versatile, too, driving the band home on the rocked-up Coming Of Age and also remaining completely compelling on Elizabeth, a gorgeous acoustic ballad. This consistently great album is one of the debuts of the year. I don't know about "the kids" but I sure want Jacklin to win, however she may define the term. She's leaving Australia and touring America with Andy Shauf in the spring - maybe I'll see you at Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 17th. 

C. Duncan - Midnight Sun Duncan came to my attention when he was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2015 for his album, Architect. More than one friend for whom I played it remarked that they were reminded of Fleet Foxes, but without the clunky pandering of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. While the focus on Midnight Sun is still Duncan's beautiful high tenor, the sound is quite different, filled as it is with ethereal keyboards and songs that seem barely tethered to the earth. It's very seductive and works best when Duncan gets a little splashy,  like on Other Side, which draws on some of the drama generated by fellow Scots Simple Minds. I could've used more of that. Still, Duncan is a melodically sophisticated songwriter and growing as a sonic explorer. I plan to stay in touch with his next move.

Yorkston/Thorne/Khan - Everything Sacred There's also a Scottish tinge to this multicultural trio, as it features James Yorkston, a folkie of some renown from there, along with Suhail Yusuf Khan from New Delhi, and Jon Thorne, double-bassist who's known mostly for his live work with the electronic duo Lamb. Khan is kind of the star of the show for me, with his lovely voice and the haunting sounds of his sarangi, an Indian instrument that sounds a little like a bowed sitar. Start with Knochentanz, the expansive and astonishing opening track and you'll be hooked. Save for the cover of Ivor Cutler's Little Black Button, which is a misfire, the whole album is a gem. One reason I love this record is that it hearkens back to the the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking, which featured a divine mixture of folk and Qawwali performed by Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (it's the only time Eddie Vedder got my money - and it was worth every penny). Everything Sacred doesn't cut quite as deep as Dead Man Walking but it's one of the year's most beautifully contemplative records.


Sophie Cooper - Our Aquarius, Etc. If you loved Everything Sacred and are now craving more droning sounds, look no further than Sophie Cooper. She creates pure hypnotism every time she sings and with everything she plays, including trombone. She's also prolific - if you put Our Aquarius together with the other music she released last year into a playlist, you get nearly 90 minutes of fascination. Many is the Monday that I eased into the week in just such a fashion. She's a special talent who's not afraid to be very diffuse and interior, although the rewards are many if you reach out to meet her. You'll have more opportunities to do just that in 2017 - apparently a new album is in the works.

Mavis Staples - Livin' On A High Note While this isn't as inspired as Your Good Fortune, her EP from 2015, the legend is in fine voice throughout and the vibe is relaxed and upbeat. I don't want to be mean, but if I needed any more proof that folks like Merrill Garbus (Action) and Neko Case (History Now) are not world-class songwriters, their contributions here leave no doubt. Fortunately, the last two songs, Jesus Lay Down Beside Me by Nick Cave, and MLK Song, a setting of one of King's speeches by producer M. Ward, end the album on the promised high note.

EP'S

Ocean Music - Wake: Three Songs The evolution of Richard Aufrichtig's art continues, as he puts his expansive, emotional songs in the context of an absorbing and sometimes intense indie rock sound. See them live to achieve liftoff and keep your fingers crossed for an album in 2017.


Ann Driscoll - Pushpins Although this five-song EP has a cover only Pinhead could like, this multi-instrumentalist from Ohio knows how to deliver songs loaded with charms. Her lyrics are clever and she's already mastered electro-pop and indie rock - no limits to what she can do in the future.


Nine Inch Nails - Not The Actual Events This teaser for the next NIN album got a little lost in the year-end shuffle. I was pleasantly surprised, even if it wasn't as "impenetrable" as Trent Reznor promised. But She's Gone Away had some good creep factor and The Idea Of You reminded me a little of 2wo, Reznor's 90's project with Rob Halford of Judas Priest. In my world that's a good thing!

Acid Dad - Let's Plan A Robbery I should have included this riff-tastic garage rock (or "NYC Psych Punk," as they would have it) in my Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc., but I'm only human. I suspect things might get a little wilder on stage, which is why I've been trying to see them forever - maybe in April when they hit Le Poisson Rouge. Take a look to see if they're coming to a town near you first.

Pussy Riot - XXX I'm slightly taken aback that Make America Great Again, a slinky, earworm of a protest song with a great video, didn't blow up bigger. Maybe it's that name, but with certain quotes being repeated on the news ad infinitum, it really shouldn't matter. The fact that the other two songs aren't as compelling is no strike against these committed artists. Considering the fact that they are more of a performance art political activist collective than a band in the conventional sense makes MAGA even more impressive.

Remy Shand - Archives Vol. 2: California Instrumentals Singer, songwriter, producer, player of many instruments, this Canadian R&B master sold hundreds of thousands of records for Motown back in 2002, earning a Juno and several Grammy noms in the process. For a minute, it seemed as if he could do no wrong. He's also somewhat of an enigma, having basically disappeared after his one and only album. He's been slowly leaking out singles and EP's over the last few years, with varying results, and this is one of the most interesting. Jazzy, yes, but also touches on easy listening and ambient music. Get reacquainted with a unique talent.

SINGLES

Courtney Barnett - Three Packs A Day She knows we want more and managed to eke out this breezy gem while touring the world.


Father John Misty - Real Love Baby Like Barnett, demand far outstrips supply where the good Father is concerned. Drenched in vocal harmonies and echo, this is even more redolent of the 70's than usual, with a chorus that is pure "soft rock," i.e. perfect.

Drugdealer - Suddenly (feat. Weyes Blood) I don't know about drugs but I would definitely buy a slightly used Badfinger or Carol King song from this guy. His loopy, stapled together lite rock was a bit much over the course of an album, but this single is pure mellow gold. Tip of the hat to Lyle Preslar and Jim Shearer from The Week In Music for this recommendation.

Tammy - Hated It (With You)
 This witty duo (consisting of Aaron Mendelsohn from Isadora and a singer who just goes by "Brooke") has a lovely sweet'n'sour chemistry on this country-pop breakup song. There's more on their album, released late last year, but I haven't absorbed it all yet.


Mark Eitzel - The Last Ten Years The former American Music Club maven is in fine, windswept form on the lead single from Mr. Ferryman, which will be released in later in 2017. Pairing the introspective Eitzel with Bernard Butler (formerly of sleek rockers Suede) was a canny choice and could lead to Eitzel's strongest album in decades.

Warbly Jets - Alive These future L.A. icons deliver a polished monolith in their first official single. Julien O'Neill, ex-Napoleon, mashes the keyboards as stylishly as he used to play guitar. World domination to come - stay informed.


Beck - Wow I just keep playing it over and over again...more please, Mr. Hansen.

Nicole Atkins - A Little Crazy I think the world of this oh-so-tough South Jersey siren. Her last album, Slow Phaser, was one of the best of 2014 so naturally I pre-ordered the new one. This epic 60's ballad has me willing to double my order!

Holly Miranda - Hold On, We're Going Home -  One of two new songs on a revised version of her covers EP, Party Trick. Leave it to this genius to make a song by Drake seem significant. The other new song, Love Came Here, is a devastating tribute to the late Lhasa de Sela, who wrote and sang the original. Any year with new music from Holly is a good year (there was also a fun Christmas album with Ambrosia Parsley and Chris Maxwell) so this improves your karma, 2016. Don't forget us in 2017, Holly!

Listen to a sample from all the albums described above in this playlist or dive deep into the full 10 hours of everything rock-ish that was at least vaguely interesting in 2016.

ICYMI

I also covered valuable new releases from Cory Taylor Cox, Bob Dylan, Max Jury, Sonya Kitchell, and Chris Maxwell in Record Roundup: American Tunes back in June and excellent albums by Field Music, TV Girl, and Wire were featured in Best of 2016 (So Far), Part 1 and Part 2, back in July. In October I published the aforementioned Record Roundup: Guitars, Guitars, Etc., which shouted out killer albums from Exmagician, Journalism, Pale Dian, The Stargazer Lilies, Nap Eyes, Frankie Cosmos, Tacocat, Feral Conservatives, Self Defense Family, Scott & Charlene's Wedding, Parquet Courts, Omni, Big Thief, The Amazing, Ryley Walker, Lucinda Williams, and Dinosaur, Jr. It's no knock on any of these that they weren't ultimately in the Top 20 - just yet another testament to the extraordinary music of the year just past.


Coming soon: Best Of 2016: Out Of The Past, featuring reissues and old recordings newly released. And that will be IT for 2016!


You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop & R&B
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Best Of 2016: Classical