Friday, October 26, 2018

Record Roundup: Forms Of Escape

Here are five recent albums from a variety of geographic and generic origins that all have the uncanny ability to transform a hostile or indifferent reality into an oasis for my mind. In these times of daily outrage, I’ve been especially grateful to their creators for the opportunity to escape these musical gifts have provided. 

Domenico Lancellotti - The Good Is A Big God At least since the emergence of bossa nova in the early 60s, Brazil has had a well-earned reputation for delivering musical escapism. One feature many forms of Brazilian music have in common is “saudade,” a Portuguese word with no English equivalent that has been described as “the presence of absence,” a deep melancholy for lost happiness, but one which finds pleasure in the memories nonetheless. Lancellotti, whose last album, the excellent Cine Priv√©, was released solely under his first name in 2012, is an expert in saudade, bringing a wistful sweetness to all of his songs. 

Cine Priv√© was notable for combining that Brazilian sensibility with an indie-rock feel, assisted by American musicians like Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. On The Good Is A Big God Lancellotti puts his deep engagement with 60 years of Brazilian music on display, assaying styles from samba to bossa to tropicalia, the late-60’s movement that added a witty psychedelia into the mix. But there’s nothing self-consciously retro going on here as everything from the charming flutes on A Alma Do Vento (The Soul Of The wind) to the squealing synths of Aracne feels as natural as breathing. Lancellotti and his producer Sean O'Hagen also know how effective simplicity can be, as on Logo, which for most of its length is just him and 12-string acoustic guitar, gently adding a drum machine and a burbling keyboard as it goes on. 

The last song, Terra, is an instrumental showcasing some gorgeous harp playing, the perfect way to reflect on what’s come before. You may find yourself sighing deeply, reveling in the saudade, the bittersweet absence of all the beautiful sounds on this glorious record. The best part? If you find the darkness returning too quickly, you can just play it again. 

Dubstar - One This band, now a duo of Sarah Blackwood (vocals) and Chris Wilkie (guitar), specializes in a very British, very refined version of saudade, where regrets, missed connections and the experience of lost love fuel their best songs. On One, their first album in 18 years, they manage to almost hit the heights of their first two, Disgraceful (1995) and Goodbye (1997), with instantly memorable pop tunes led by Blackwood’s diamond-cut soprano. Produced by Youth, who’s having a banner year between this, his work on Hollie Cook’s Vessel Of Love, and Killing Joke’s 40th Anniversary tour, the sound is crisp and clean, keeping the focus on the songs. The occasional grit of Wilkie’s guitar adds some welcome imperfections to the glossy surface. 

Besides the occasional clunky lyric, Dubstar only really stumbles when they aim for unalloyed happiness, as on I Hold Your Heart, which sounds cheap and tinny, like the theme for a failed sitcom. But on songs like Love Comes Late, Love Gathers, You Were Never In Love, et al, they manage to breathe life into the hoariest of forms, the melancholy love song. John Dowland, who basically invented the form during the English Renaissance, would surely give a nod of approval, as will fans of The Clientele, Saint Etienne and Belle & Sebastian. Even those who settle for the committee-constructed fripperies of today’s Top 40 will find a more nourishing, yet no less lighthearted, brand of escapism here. It would be disgraceful if you didn’t give Dubstar a try. 

Mutual Benefit - Thunder Follows The Light It suddenly occurred to me while listening to this, Jordan Lee’s richest, most musically accomplished album yet, that his vision of Americana - and perhaps America - is so pure and warmly emotive that it enters the realm of immersive fantasy. You almost expect to hear the prairie sound effects of the Westward Expansion underlying the sparkling naturalism of the instrumentation. That doesn’t mean there is anything insincere about what he’s doing - the exact opposite, in fact. Lee is a believer, like Aaron Copland was a believer. 

Song titles like New History, No Dominion, and Waves, Breaking even seem to hint at the making of this great country, conveying a sense of optimism that is remarkable considering our current predicament. The images of nature that thread through the lyrics (From Shedding Skin:“Diamond scales upon a rotted log/Cicadas singing from a mountaintop//Blossoms growing on a dogwood tree/Leave behind what you used to be”) might lull you into thinking this is not a political album - and you don’t have to experience it as such - but Lee is definitely concerned about the extremities climate change may force us to undergo. 

By providing such a powerful vision of what we had, what we have, and what we can lose, Lee’s statement is far more powerful than any harangue. Most importantly, the musical experience of listening to Thunder Follows The Light is both lovely and substantive enough to be one you will want to repeat often and share with others. Could there be any better way of spreading your message?

P.S. Seeing Mutual Benefit live is a singular experience - catch them at the Park Church Co-Op on December 8th. I already have my tickets.

Arp - Zebra Music is really the only drug I have used consistently over my whole life, and for adolescent anxiety after the social tumult of a day in high school there was no better prescription than In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. Eno albums like Fourth World Vol. 1 with Jon Hassell or Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror with Harold Budd worked as well. Zebra, Arp’s fifth full-length is one of the few records since then to hit those same calming, meditative zones, where everything seems to fall in place around you. 

The vocabulary Alexis Georgopoulos, who records and performs as Arp, employs on Zebra seems customized for my own bliss: lazy vibraphones, fat analog synths, laconic drums, warm double bass, sparkling Fender Rhodes...sheer heaven. Try Nzuku, in which synths talk in delightful fragments over a vibe pattern, soon joined by an hypnotic bass line and drums that almost subliminally nudge things along. A squirrelly synth takes a brief solo, hinting at dominance before falling back into the opiated surroundings. This is music with umami and you will want to savor every sonic morsel, turning them over in your auditory cortex for maximum flavor. I’ve had my eye on Arp for a while and he’s always been at least interesting. But it’s on Zebra - insert hoofbeats joke  here - where he delivers on his promise. 

Gecko Turner - Soniquete: The Sensational Sound Of Gecko Turner If you’re a regular reader of AnEarful I would hope that the name Gecko Turner is at least familiar if not a regular part of your musical diet. His combination of seemingly every rhythm from funk, reggae, and all forms of Latin music added to sweet and sad songs has made him one of the most reliable purveyors of pleasure in the 21st Century. In case you’re new here, however, this is the perfect time to catch up with Turner thanks to this career retrospective featuring one new song and a selection from his four prior albums. 

The new cut, Cortando Bajito (Cutting Short), is a Clavinet-driven workout that may have you thinking of Superstition but it’s really just a distant cousin. Most importantly, it’s a jam and a half, furiously danceable, and Turner’s understated vocal is like the breeze you need to stay cool enough to keep moving. As for the rest of the collection, you could literally pick 13 songs at random from his catalog and come up with a similarly enjoyable selection since he’s never released a bad song. 

That said, I was certainly happy to see some of my personal favorites making the cut, like Monosabio Blues, its insinuating stutter-step rhythm still driving me wild after hundreds of listens. So simple, so perfect, and played with the kind of insouciance most musicians only achieve in their dreams. Turner’s versatility is also on full display, from the catchy pop of Here Comes Friday to the groovy social commentary of 45.000$ - Guapapasea, which transforms the calls of male hustlers in his native Spain into an hypnotic call and response. Had it been my job to assemble Soniquete, the only thing I might have made room for is one of the fabulous remixes of Turner’s songs that have come out over the years, like Boozoo Bajou’s spacious take on Dizzie. But once you are in with Gecko Turner I think you will be all in and will dig up and discover those for yourself. 

What transporting sounds have been helping you get away from it all lately?

You might also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: Electronic
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 1
Gecko's Pleasure Principle
Best Of Ten

1 comment:

  1. Really nice list Jeremy and a compelling call to action. I'll be checking out a bunch of things. And I did love Dubstar on the first go around. They were in heavy rotation on WFMU.