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. 

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