Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Best Of 2018 (So Far)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 22, 2018

Record Roundup: Rock 100’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's been rocking your world?

Friday, June 15, 2018

ACME Honors Jóhann Jóhannsson At LPR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Paul Maroon Resurfaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 25, 2018

Outliers, Part 2: Seabuckthorn, David Garland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tristan Perich’s Divine Violins

A concert doesn’t have to take place in an awe-inspiring setting like the Cathedral Of St. John The Divine to take on a sense of the sacred or ceremonial. But it’s impossible not to feel the weight of occasion when entering one of the world’s largest Gothic churches, even if it remains unfinished 125 years after the first cornerstone was laid. Yet as I walked through the cavernous space on May 9th for the world premiere of Tristan Perich’s Drift Multiply for 50 violins and 50 1-bit speakers I felt sure his work would rise to meet the expectations engendered by the space. 

The concert was part of Red Bull Music Festival, a three-week, city-wide festival of impressive scope. As much as I appreciate what Red Bull is doing, even this lifelong atheist couldn’t help thinking it was slightly incongruous to see coolers of their products for sale in a house of worship. After a moment I decided to embrace the dissonance even if I didn’t want to grab a drink. The last time I was here for a concert was back in 1981, as part of the Kool Jazz Festival - and I don't remember them selling cigarettes! 

The performers back then were jazz drumming legend Max Roach and his percussion ensemble M’Boom, who were joining forces with the World Saxophone Quartet. My recollection is that we were sitting even further from the stage than the anyone would be tonight and that the multiple drums created what felt like enormous cubes of sound that tumbled through the air before hitting the wall behind us and rolling forward again, chased by the white lightning of the four saxophones. It was intense, to say the least. 

Now, the stage was surrounded on three sides by seating and itself covered with the 50 seats needed for Perich’s piece, each with an attendant music stand and another small rod holding a four-inch speaker. Many of the chairs facing the front were taken already so I sat down in the first row at the south side of the stage. I recognized that sitting out of the path of the reverberations would be a different experience, yet still valid or they wouldn’t have put seats there. Perich, known for his One-Bit Symphony and other sonic explorations, is enough of an expert that I felt I would be in good hands no matter what vantage point I had. Also, even 50 violins wouldn’t create the bone-rattling racket of Max Roach & Co., so there would just be less air moving around to begin with. 

Before Perich’s piece was another world premiere by Lesley Flanigan of her own Subtonalities for voice and electronics. She sat at a table with a mic and a few pieces of equipment, which she used to dial in oscillating throbs or to loop her extraordinarily pure soprano - exactly the kind of voice you would expect in this space. I discerned sections - at least four, maybe five - in Subtonalities, a sense of structure that pulled me through. There were echoes of Popol Vuh and Fripp & Eno among the lush textures, her multitracked voice spiraling up towards the ceiling. If the piece felt a little long, that’s most likely due to my anticipation for Perich’s music. I can easily imagine losing myself in Flanigan’s textures in another context without giving a thought to length. I hope I will have that opportunity soon. 

Lesley Flanigan performing Subtonalities
There was a brief intermission and then the 50 violinists took the stage with astonishing ease - they must have practiced! - joined by Doug Perkins, the founder of So Percussion, who would conduct. He raised his baton...and they were off. I was instantly captivated, not only by the sounds, which displayed a high level of invention throughout, but also by observing the cross-section of players arrayed before me. Each one had a slightly different way of holding their instrument and bow and it was also fun to watch what an individual player was doing and try to pick out their contribution to the landscape. There were sections of nearly austere minimalism, with many violinists seeming to play similar figures, while others had an epic sweep, with players making big gestures and the electronics responding with starlit sparkle. 

A fraction of the 50 violinists for Drift Multiply
The entire length of Drift Multiply felt so assured and with frequent moments of sheer wonder that it’s hard to believe this is the first time anyone has ever used this configuration. I’m sure some of that solidity was due to Perkins’s expert time-keeping, a task in which he was aided by digital counters sprinkled through the orchestra. Even though the piece was substantial, I never felt that Perich had used up every last idea. Nor did it ever feel like a stunt. While there is certainly an element of performance or installation art, the whole thing was deeply musical and I hope that logistics don’t get in the way of future performances. There was a video crew and likely audio recording being done as well so I would keep an eye on the Red Bull website to see if they make it available for you to experience at home. Drift Multiply is a triumph of imagination and execution that may just give your living room, or wherever you listen, a touch of the divine. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Outliers, Part 1: Oracle Hysterical, Thomas Bartlett-Nico Muhly

This two-part miniseries will look at four albums that exist within similar Venn diagrams that overlap between contemporary classical, folk, and rock, which is a very interesting neighborhood indeed. 

Hecuba - Oracle Hysterical This group dubs itself “part band, part book club” so you can bet there’s a shelf-load of ideas behind their second album, which is based on the centuries-old Greek tragedy by Euripides. The basic plot, which has Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, descending into murderous madness to avenge the fall of her city and the slaughter of her children, has more than enough story to fill a few albums. This makes the concision of Oracle Hysterical’s nine songs even more impressive. 

The group consists of twin brothers Doug Balliett (double bass, viola da gamba) and Brad Balliett (bassoons), Majel Connery (vocals, keyboards), Elliot Cole (vocals, guitars, keyboards), and Dylan Greene (percussion) and for Hecuba they added Jason Treuting of So Percussion on drum kit. These modest forces are deployed remarkably well, leading to a variety of sounds from art song to folk-rock and from electronica to prog-rock. I even hear a bit of mid-century composed jazz in Bolero and elsewhere, always a welcome sound in my book. Connery wields her operatically-trained voice mostly with restraint so when she really unleashes it’s all the more powerful. Cole’s voice is more limited, almost conversational at times, providing another nice contrast. 

I really hope no one is turned off by the brainy background to Hecuba as the whole album flows and is filled with beauty and adventure. It’s no more challenging a listen than Home At Last, Steely Dan’s glossy take on the Odyssey. There is even a bit of wit, as in the deadpan refrain “Woe is me/woe for my children/Woe for my ancestors,” recited by Cole like a one-man Greek chorus in He Will Close Your Eyes. One analysis of the original by Euripides states that “there is almost no let up in the mood of suffering and anguish” in the play so its probably a good thing that Oracular Hysterical takes a lighter approach to the subject matter. There are certainly moments of darkness, like the spooky way Connery intones the lyrics of Letos Laurel or the fantastical 100 Tongues, which finds her voice chopped up in an aural impression of a shattered psyche. Cole’s mixing and Chris Botta’s electronics and post-production deserve special mention for that and much else on Hecuba. 

Hecuba, a mightily original work that finds Oracle Hysterical hitting their stride at least as much as a band as a book club, comes out on May 11th. Join them to celebrate at National Sawdust on Sunday, May 13th. No need to bear gifts - just buy a ticket

Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music - Thomas Bartlett And Nico Muhly This record also has a rich overlay of ideas that should lead the curious listener in all sorts of fascinating directions. First, there’s the title, which combines the name of one of the 20th century’s greatest vocal artists with a reference to Gamelan music, the Indonesian form that attracted the attention of Pears and his collaborator (and lover) Benjamin Britten. Britten first learned about Gamelan during a fascinating period in the 40’s, when he found himself living in a townhouse on Middagh Street in Brooklyn with the likes of W.H. Auden, Dashiell Hammett and Gypsy Rose Lee. Also in residence was Colin McPhee, a composer and ethnomusicologist who had studied the gamelan extensively while living in Bali. McPhee and Britten recorded his two-piano transcriptions, which made the music accessible to Western ears and performers. Thus Balinese music, which uses an orchestra primarily of bell-like percussion instruments to play repeating clusters of melodic rhythms, became one of the roots of minimalism. 

Whew. We haven’t even listened to the album yet and we’re already deep in the weeds of 20th Century classical music and literature along with one of the central forms of Asian music. But, aside from the three McPhee transcriptions included here this is all just the roadmap Bartlett and Muhly used, not the destination. And who are Bartlett and Muhly? The first, who also operates under the name Doveman, is a pianist, singer and composer who, in addition to his own records, has worked with a wide variety of artists from Sam Amidon and David Byrne to Chocolate Genius and Father John Misty. Muhly studied at Juilliard and worked with Philip Glass and has had a career that can easily be described as meteoric, having already had an opera produced at the Met (with another on the way), among other successes. 

All that doesn’t mean I like everything Bartlett and Muhly have done. Among the tracks I love on the playlist they conveniently assembled of their various activities is plenty of music that strikes me as insular, arch and even smug. But I was too intrigued by the background of Peter Pears to do anything but listen with an open mind. And I’m glad I did, because this is a collection of sounds and songs that envelop the listener in warmth and care, quickly becoming as familiar and comforting as an old blanket or a good friend. 

The McPhee pieces are busier and sharper-edged than the originals, which are gauzy wonders of piano, strings, percussion and electronics over which Bartlett sings in hushed tones lyrics that are full of poetic allusions, aphorisms, and compassionate advice. There is a seamless grace to this music, not doubt enabled by the excellent musicians Muhly and Bartlett have assembled, including Rob Moose and Yuki Numata Resnick (violins), Christina Courtin (viola), Clarice Jensen (cello), Hannah Cohen (harmony vocals), and Chris Thompson (percussion). But the end result is all Bartlett and Muhly, making a case for collaboration being the surest way to bring out individual strengths. By working together and drawing on music and history that fascinates them, they have created something uniquely beautiful that also feels genuinely new. And if this album leads some new listeners back to McPhee and the Gamelan or the marvelous music Britten and Pears created together, so much the better. The album comes out on May 18th and Bartlett and Muhly will be performing it at La Poisson Rouge on May 24th

In Part 2 I’ll be covering two more unique albums. But first, a trip to church with the Red Bull Music Academy. 

Friday, May 04, 2018

MATA's Bad Romance At The Kitchen

This year saw the 20th Anniversary of the MATA Festival, which puts on new music concerts around the city for three weeks every spring. Founded by Philip Glass, Eleanor Sandresky and Lisa Bielawa, Music At The Anthology seeks to promote the work of unaffiliated composers, presenting a highly curated selection drawn from hundreds of entires. Time and circumstance have prevented me from ever attending even one of their shows, although I jealously kept up with reviews and press releases. This year, those same factors made it possible for me to attend one of the concerts at The Kitchen, which had the attention-grabbing name Bad Romance.

It was also my first time at the current location of The  Kitchen, a legendary performance art space last incarnated in SoHo. One of my favorite memories of the astonishing rise of the Beastie Boys was when they played a set there as a hardcore band. Because we were young and snotty, we saw it as a moment of epater le bourgeoisie and we laughed about it for a long time. There was nothing funny about seeing Steve Reich’s Different Trains there, however, although it was equally unforgettable. The new space, a large black box with extremely high ceilings, is certainly flexible enough to put on any show along the continuum mapped by those two concerts. It was also perfect for this MATA concert as several of the pieces we saw had strong theatrical elements.

Piano Six Hands

The first was Aaron Graham’s Old Voltage for piano six hands, which had Miki Sawada and Paul Kerekes on the outside of the bench hammering away like a Conlon Nancarrow piece for player piano while Isabelle O’Connell, sitting in the middle, played lyrical, almost romantic, melodies infused with tango rhythms while delivering a spoken word monologue about "hallucinations, crowds, dances, memories and lovers." The contrast between O'Connell's part and the others was increased by the way Graham has prepared the piano to dull the sound of the upper and lower registers. Beyond the curiosity value, there was power and beauty to spare in the music, which was composed in 2015 and made its American premiere at MATA. 

Jenny Hettne‘s While She Was Dreaming for violin and and tape was also an American premiere. Performed with dazzling confidence by Pauline Kim Harris, its combination of glitchy sonics with a violin part that ranged from dense bursts to folkish simplicity added up to a work I would like to hear again - stat. Hopefully this performance will lead to more of this Swedish composer's work being heard in the city, as it seems to be a fairly rare occurrence. 
Garapic, Rogers & Evans Playing Light-On-Light
Saxophonist Erin Rogers led the performance of her own Light-On-Light, which was a world premiere and commissioned by MATA. It was full of humor and ideas, including the use of saxophones and other items as percussion instruments, gamely played by Matthew Evans and Amy Garapic. Perhaps she was partly inspired by David Van Tieghem, who used his drumsticks to convert literally everything into an instrument. Her own part was full of clicks and breaths, prompting me to ask my friend if he thought anyone else could perform it. He wisely responded that it would depend entirely on the notation, which is true for any set of extended techniques. Either way, it was a wild ride. Rogers's work for guitar and soprano, The Lone Tenement, will be performed twice in New York this month. Make a plan.

Two Pianists Below, Many Samurai Above
The visual element in Chris Perren’s Samurai Loops, conceived as it was for video and two pianos, was among the strongest of the night. The projection took a scene of two friends in mortal combat from Masaki Kobayashi’s 1967 film Samurai Rebellion, at first looping the movements of Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai so they began to resemble dancers instead of warriors. Just as I was settling into that concept, the images exploded into repeating patterns, with dozens of samurai now moving in concert on the screen. Even more dazzling was the rhythmic acuity, as the music matched each clash of the swords. Not so easy, as O'Connell confirmed after the show. While she and Sawada were able to use the electronic sounds to help them stay on track, they couldn't really see the screen while they performed. The music, while adjacent to minimalism, could also be lushly melancholic, with sweeping melodies that interacted well with the macho romance of the imagery. Perren, from Australia, also performs with Nonsemble and Mr. Maps, among other things. Watch Samurai Loops and then explore his world if you're as captivated as I am.

Charlotte Mundy In Basic Black
The second half of the night began with Steven Whiteley’s [      ] [    ] [  ] [ ] [] (yes, that’s the title!) for soprano and electronics. The piece convincingly explored the relationship of syllables and words to gestures and to the sonic environment. Some of the repetitive, quotidian phrases ("Darling you're so...") made me think of Scott Johnson's work using language. It may sound cerebral in a description but this was gripping stuff with a stunning performance by Charlotte Mundy, who embodied her demanding role completely, including some haunting (and virtuoso) laughter. I was already a fan of hers thanks to her great work on Ecstatic Music, the 2016 album by TAK Ensemble so I am glad I had the opportunity to see her on stage. Her website is sorely out of date, but if you follow Ekmeles, the vocal ensemble to which she belongs (or TAK), you're sure to be able to catch her. 

El-Ansary (left) Acknowledges The Applause
The penultimate work was by Bahaa El-Ansary, a young Egyptian composer who has been causing a stir in new music circles. This is not only due to the fact that there are fewer known composers from that region, but also because of the sheer emotional power and command of structure displayed by his work. Nightmare for guitar, violin and viola was a perfect example, with the trio’s forces marshaled with great economy and style. Dan Lippel’s acoustic guitar virtuosity deserves special mention, while Harris on violin and Carrie Frey on viola certainly had no trouble keeping up. As far as I can tell this was the first performance in New York, and only the second in the US, of any work by Al-Ansary. Programmers should explore his website, which is full of striking music, such as Lost, composed for harp and 30 cellos. That's not a combination you see - or hear every day!

Ken Ueno’s ‘Tard, another MATA commission, was wisely placed last on the program. Like Hendrix at Monterey, no one would have wanted to follow it. For this world premiere performance, Ueno was joined by the outgoing Artistic Director of MATA, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun, on vocals, along with Evans and Garapic on percussion. Each of them had an enormous bass drum, which were visual statements in their own right. Ueno and Du were both wearing whimsical garments (pants on the former and a shirt for the latter) made of multicolored puff balls, which were the only hints of levity in this bleak and searing piece. Unless, that is, unless you count the listing on Ueno's website, which credits him as "non-breather" and Du as "screamer." Those descriptions became clear shortly after Ueno took his place at a table set with a glass bowl filled with water and a small towel.

As soon as Evans and Garapic began wailing on their massive drums, creating an equally massive sound, Ueno bent at his waist and put his face in the bowl of water. He remained there for at least two minutes as Yun vocalized in composed agony. She and the drummers continued when Ueno pulled out of the water and stood silently glaring at the audience with what seemed to be barely controlled fury. The only let up in intensity was when Evans and Garapic switched from the drums to striking metal water bottles together, creating a sound not unlike the cloud chamber bowls David Byrne used in parts of his score for the Catherine Wheel. According to the program notes, presented as an email exchange between Ueno and MATA Executive Director Todd Tarantino, the original conception included contact mics on the bowl and a camera under it so the composer’s submerged face could be projected. Intriguing thoughts (“Hmmm” was Tarantino’s entire response) but it’s hard to imagine those bells and whistles making the work substantially more effective. 
Ueno Glaring, Du Screaming
As seen at The Kitchen, ‘Tard is a brilliantly enigmatic piece that asked more questions than it answered. That title, for one. Was it short for the repulsive neologism “libtard”? Or the scarcely less awful “retard”? Nothing good, that seems certain. And was the rage directed at us? Or a reflection of our own anger? Or just good theater? This was par for the course for an evening filled with works that seemed to explore the firewall where intellect and instinct collide. Kudos to MATA for bringing this important music to light. I can only imagine what I missed over the rest of the festival, not to mention the last 20 years!