Saturday, February 03, 2018

Record Roundup: One Day In 2018

Having burrowed deep into the best of 2017 in my recent posts, I now emerge blinking into the light of a new year, which means more music to discover. I wiped the slate clean by archiving all my “Of Note” playlists (see list below), and started filling them up again immediately. Instead of focusing on one area, as I usually do in these roundups, here's what one day of listening to only new releases might look like, one month in to 2018.

The Morning Commute

Jonny Greenwood - Phantom Thread I may be one of the few who does not revere filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, but I have long admired his collaboration with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who has worked on the scores for his last several movies. Starting with There Will Be Blood, this has led to some of the most compelling soundtrack albums of the last decade or so. My favorite might be Inherent Vice, with its fascinating mixture of Greenwood’s Herrmann-esque cues and mostly obscure global pop. With Phantom Thread, Greenwood continues the streak, resulting in another immersive listening experience that stands on its own. 

While some of my impressions may change after seeing the movie (which also includes music by Debussy, etc.), it was only a few minutes into my first listen before I was reveling in Greenwood’s ability to turn the abstractions of melody and orchestration into what felt like a meditation on memory and emotion. Composing mainly for strings, with well-placed harp, piano and percussion, Greenwood has created several themes and variations that feel elementally human, easy to grasp but with depth and nuance. 

For the first ten tracks, it feels like Greenwood (and presumably Anderson) is probing, exploring, drawing outlines and making connections. Then, when he brings the hammer down in Phantom Thread III, its baroque grandeur is shattering. Everything afterwards feels like an uneasy detente. But that’s just a guess at a narrative, letting my mind drift on a crowded A Train on the way to work. Your results may vary, but that you will likely be captivated. The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences certainly was, so I will be rooting for Greenwood to win that elusive Oscar for best soundtrack on March 4th. 

At My Desk: I

Johnny Gandelsman - J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Gandelsman, a member of both Brooklyn Rider and the Silk Road Ensemble, sought out Bach's solo pieces to "focus inward" and find his own voice again after years of collaborations with musicians and composers from around the world. After several concerts he found himself growing into the works in such a way that he felt recording them would allow him to dig deeper into this epochal music. I'm glad he did, as even a brief survey of violin performances did not turn up one that was nearly as satisfying as what Gandelsman has given us here. The first thing I noticed was the rhythmic acuity, with phrases shaped to respect their melodicism but also the dance forms on which many of them are based.

The melodies themselves are presented without frills, giving a sense of the age of the music, which was after all borne out of a mind raised on folk songs and hymns. Everything from tempo to intonation seems dedicated to bringing the music to joyful life, rather than just paying homage to the master. The recording itself is also excellent, close and crisp but not without warmth. The liveliness and forward motion in both the performances and music prove to be a perfect accompaniment to cleaning out my inbox on a Monday morning. After about an hour, however, my inbox is empty and I find myself craving a change. Perfect timing, as the first disc is over - now I have more Bach to look forward to tomorrow.

Further Listening: If wanted a completely different single instrument experience, I might put on Matteo Liberatore's Solos, 12 adventurous, mostly improvised pieces for acoustic guitar. Liberatore's lack of interest in convention has him using everything from alligator clips to a bass drum pedal to elicit a vertiginous variety of sounds out of his instrument. Some songs are more rambling than others, but the tactile quality of the music is never less than fascinating. Try the fractured lyricism of Causeway if you just want to dip a toe. 

At My Desk: II

Hollie Cook - Vessel of Love While it has been nearly four years since Cook's last album, I admit I barely noticed the gap. That's because I never stopped listening to either her heavenly self-titled debut (2011) or the equally addictive follow up, Twice (2014). Both albums featured masterful Jamaican rhythms constructed by Prince Fatty, providing a perfect setting for Cook's high, airy soprano and her tales of loves found and lost and found again. I'm a big enough fan that I was slightly concerned when I heard she had not only switched labels, from world and dance-centric Mr. Bongo to all-American Merge Records, but also changed producers, from Prince Fatty to Youth. Now, Youth has had a fascinating career - bass player for Killing Joke, producer of everyone from Bananarama to Paul McCartney - and also knows his way around reggae and dub, hence the only minor worry.

Fortunately, any trepidation was for naught and I'm happy to report that while Vessel Of Love represents a slight update to Cook's sound, it's still in the same lane as the delightful "tropical pop" for which she is known. That update is mainly reflected in the density of Youth's tracks, with keyboards and horns stacked tall in the grooves, which seem a little less retro than Prince Fatty's approach. Fatty is not totally absent, however, as all the drum tracks were sampled from one of his beat packs. Youth's post-punk past is also reflected in the participation of two original members of Public Image Ltd., Jah Wobble, who plays bass on four songs, and Keith Levene, who plays guitar on one. Wobble is especially titanic on the spacey Lunar Addition, seemingly pulling notes out of deep craters of sound. But most of the playing is by Cook's excellent road band and all is subservient to her vision. Her singing is better than ever, too, richer and more confident. If you're not hooked after listening to the sublime Freefalling or Survive, I can't help you. I know I chugged through nearly an hour of proposal-writing with a lightness of spirit thanks to drinking deeply from Cook's Vessel of Love.

Note: Hollie Cook is on tour, touching down in New York on March 23rd.

Further Listening: If I wanted to continue in the Jamaican groove, Overdubbed by Sly And Robbie Meet Dubmatix would more than do the trick. A series of tracks by one of the ultimate rhythm sections repurposed by a Toronto-based reggae maven, Overdubbed is never less than funky and occasionally whips up a storm of echoes that approaches critical mass. Boom.

Coffee Time

Shame - Songs Of Praise I recently wrote about how some bands influenced by post-punk seem rotely imitative while other take the ball and run with it. Shame is in the latter group, a South London quintet who have done their homework with bands like The Fall (RIP Mark E. Smith!), Wire, Gang Of Four, Killing Joke, etc., and figured out ways to recombine all that wondrous DNA into something fresh. They also cite Eddy Current Suppression Ring, a noisy Aussie band that made a splash about a decade ago but whom you don’t hear much about these days. 

Not only does Shame know their history, but they also grasp the crucial importance of a tight rhythm section, and both bassist and drummer keep it locked while also finding room for creativity and even swing. The guitarists also divvy up responsibilities wisely, spraying off either gritty chords or sparkling melody for a heady blend. Concrete and Friction are two songs that exemplify this approach and the latter has some their most interesting lyrics. “Do you ever help the helpless,” sings Charlie Steen in the first of a series of questions most likely directed at himself. “Do you give them any time? Do you ever bully your conscience and detach from your mind?” The answer seems to be mostly “maybe,” which is fine - the boys in Shame are still young. 

Look, I don’t want to oversell Songs Of Praise. Shame are not the second coming. But this is a damned good rock album, with energy and invention to burn, and the promise of more and even better sounds to come. Just the thing to help me power through the end of the day, when I’m caffeinating and need to clear my head get stuff done before hitting the road home. 

Note: Catch Shame live in their New York debut on March 23 at Market Hotel - yes, the same night as Hollie Cook! - or find a date near you. 

Further Listening: If I needed to keep cranking, I might play Open Here by Field Music or Rock Island by Palm. Both are filled with dense, shiny, optimistic song constructs that will make you sit up in your chair. Further listening is necessary to say much more than that, but it's obvious that these are records that will sustain me throughout the year. Palm's album comes out February 9th - come celebrate that night at Market HotelHolly Miranda also has a new album on the way and Golden Spiral, the latest single, is a glammy stomp with enough brute force to power a semi truck up a steep grade. Pre-order Mutual Horse here or pick up a copy at the release show on March 22nd at Park Church Co-Op

The Evening Commute

Maya Baiser - The Day This new album by “cello goddess” Beiser weds two post-9/11 compositions by David Lang, World To Come (2003) and The Day (2016). The newer piece was conceived by Beiser and Lang as a prequel of sorts, a meditation on the quotidian, all the varieties of experience that could be reflected in the lives of this who died on that tragic day. The Day features a spoken word text based on a Google search Lang did to complete the sentence “I remember the day that I...” The memories ranged from “I got into college,” and “I saw the advertisement” to “I heard he was tragically killed,” and “I realized my children had ruined my dreams,” a truly full range of recollections. Read crisply by actress Kate Valk and arranged alphabetically, the words can recede or come to the foreground depending on your attention. Either way, combined with the dark melodies of Beiser’s multi-tracked cello, it’s haunting and startlingly effective. 

World to Come also includes vocals, Beiser accompanying herself by singing syllables, sometimes just tuned percussive breaths, while playing Lang’s searching, interweaved cello lines. As in the first piece, Beiser’s playing is virtuosic and it is hard to imagine a better, more committed version of either work. In a recent live performance at Paula Cooper Gallery, Beiser’s immersion was obvious and some of the more melodic gestures seemed bigger and more shapely, even romantic. Both Lang and Beiser have stayed connected to the cello’s humanity in these works, making for a richly emotional experience. The use of pre-recorded cello was slightly distracting in the live context, but on the album there’s no reason to even think about the mechanics behind this gorgeous music. There are future performances in the works, some featuring a dance component, so keep an eye on Beiser's calendar. Unless the book I’m reading is totally gripping, I might just let my mind drift with the music as the A train fills up and empties again on its way to the last stop. 

Dinner Time

SiR - November This album is not much longer than SiR’s excellent EP from last year, but it further develops his vision of spare, futurist R&B. There’s a vague theme of space travel - at one point we are informed that there are 33 trillion kilometers left on our journey - but it’s mostly relationship jams, of an either edgy (Something Foreign) or cozy (Something New) variety. It’s a pretty seamless listen, with only I Know marked for deletion due to its irritating hook. SiR also has wit, which makes some of his occasionally retrograde views go down easier. The mostly mellow November provides a fine accompaniment to the clink of knives and forks on China as my wife and I catch up on the events of the day over a meal. 

SiR is part of the TDE crew, along with Kendrick Lamar and SZA, and will join them and others on the Championship Tour, which is sure to be one of the highlights of the spring concert season. Find a date near you

Further Listening: If it's my turn to make dinner, I might throw on #1 by Guy One, the first album this Ghanaian singer and bandleader has made outside of a remote corner of his country. His form of music is called Frafra, but this is "Frafra made in Berlin," where it was produced by Max Weissenfeldt, who's known for his work with everyone from Jimi Tenor (Finland) to Alemayehu Eshete (Ethiopia). This translates into songs that start in a modest, even disjointed, fashion before developing into dense, world-beating grooves that you wish would never end. Everything You Do, You Do For Yourself is the only song with English lyrics, but it’s really about the interaction between Guy and the backing singers, as they find new ways to call and respond while the drums, horns and keyboards combine into a tasty stew. Vortex by Wayne Escoffery is the tenor sax player's most furiously involving album yet, fueled by his rage at the direction of this country after the 2016 election. Backed by a stellar group (David Kikoski - piano, Ugonna Okegwo - bass, and Ralph Peterson, Jr. - drums, plus a few guests) and playing mostly original tunes, Escoffery proves that if you're passionate enough you can create mind-blowing jazz while still firmly in the post-bop mainstream. Who’s cooking now?

After Dinner

Ethan Woods - Mossing Around As I learned at the record release show for this vinyl-only EP, Woods has a bit of a following. I had only known him as someone who sang backup with Ocean Music on occasion, but he filled the room at C'mon Everybody with enthusiastic fans, who snapped up every last copy of the three-song 10 inch. Woods, who also performs as Rokenri, is definitely a singular presence, creating a mood that is alternately wacky and spiritual, spinning tales backed by his guitar, Aaron Smith's laptop, and Alice Tolan-Mee's keyboard and violin. Call it "chamber-freak-folk-tronica," if you must call it something. The EP perfectly replicates the atmosphere as it was all caught live on a field recorder by Richard Aufrichtig, who also put it out on his King Of Truth Records. At the moment, my favorite song on the EP is Alone, with a deeply meditative groove that affects my breathing and slows me down, just the thing for the end of the day. 

We usually catch up on TV after dinner, but Mossing Around is the perfect length for that space where we're finishing up what needs to get done before we crank up Netflix or whatever. I wish you could hear it (maybe I should host a listening party!), but the best thing I can say is to keep an eye on Woods as his next full-length album, entitled Burnout, will be out sometime in 2018 - and presumably with wider availability. Maybe some of these songs will be reprised there, but either way it's bound to be interesting!

How's your 2018 going so far, musically speaking? Let me know what you're listening to and keep up everything I'm paying attention to by following one or all of the playlists below.

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)

The 2017 Archive
2017 Archive (Of Note)
2017 Archive (Classical)
2017 Archive (Electronic)
2017 Archive (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
2017 Archive (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
2017 Archive (Reissues)

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