Saturday, July 13, 2019

Best Of 2019 (So Far)

These lists are hard because I feel that everything I’ve written about this year is among the best music of our times. And there are also some things I’m sure are excellent but haven’t had the chance to really listen to. To all the composers, musicians, bands, ensembles and labels who have shared their creativity I say, paraphrasing Pusha T and Rick Ross: I got you - hold on. Still, it is undeniably interesting to take stock at the year's halfway point and note either what I’ve listened to a lot but haven’t yet covered or to acknowledge a few very recent releases that have quickly muscled their way into being essential. You’ll see some of both below in a list of the 25 albums that have helped get me through 2019 so far. Enough of my yakking - on with the show!

Note: If I’ve covered the album in a previous post, just click the link to read my thoughts. 

I haven’t yet watched the film Yorke made with Paul Thomas Anderson to accompany this album, but such is the intimacy and intrigue of these tracks that I get the sense that Yorke knows the biggest screen of all is on the interior of our foreheads. While using many of the same lushly minimalist textures as his first two solo albums, there is a warmth and emotional generosity to these songs that feels new, even if rooted in the more plain spoken parts of A Moon Shaped Pool. I would hesitate to call any work by this consummate artist “revealing” but I will say that he’s letting us in on another aspect of his talent and that is more than enough. 

Seeing this young Philly band live at Pioneer Works last month only served to solidify my feelings about how great they are. While their music, full of distorted guitars, shiny synths and driving rhythms can be brainy and fractured, witnessing their utter joy as they bounced around the stage was a minor miracle and helped me connect to that lightness of being on the album. While there are no left turns from their previous releases, there’s also a greater focus on craft when it comes both to the song-like parts and the sparkly excursions into ambience. Right here is the sound of a group hitting its potential across all metrics. Grab on to the album and catch them in concert ASAP. 

In which the boys from Brazil go further down the studio rabbit hole, constructing collage-like tracks that go some distance from their jammed out stage show. But the tunes are still there, maybe a bit buried but characteristically sweet. Following the development of this band has been a true delight and I hope to see how they work with this material live when they hit the rooftop at Industry City on September 4th with Mdou Moctar - a killer bill to end the summer!

Gibbs made hay with Madlib on Piñata in 2014 and nothing he’s done since has hit the same heights  - until now. Something about working with one of the great producers of all time brings out the best in Gibbs, who, instead of deferring to a legend tries to meet him halfway. As Gibbs himself noted: "I feel like you gotta bring your 'A’ game to really shine on his beats, or his beat is going to outshine you. It’s definitely a challenge. You can’t just come any kind of way on these beats, you gotta really make a marriage to ‘em and live with 'em." So, instead of coasting on his grittiness, Gibbs dazzles with a flow that hits a variety of tempos and mixes up the content with political observations and street lit. He shines when he gets personal, too, as in Situations: "1989, I seen a ni**a bleed/Uncle stabbed him in the neck and hit his knees/Turned the arcade to a stampede/I was playin' Pac-Man, Centipede/Put me on some shit I never should've seen." He also has the guts to share the mic on Palmolive with Killer Mike and Pusha-T, who both come loaded for bear, making it one of the great posse cuts of recent memory. I don't know the logistics of the hook-up between Gibbs and Madlib, but I sure hope it happens again because Bandana is a classic.

17. Mark de Clive-Lowe - Heritage and Heritage II 
I will admit to following the career of MdCL for years with admiration for his skills as a keyboard player and producer without being entirely sure exactly what he does. Sure, he was always in the hippest place at the hippest time, but who was he? It all comes into focus on these two extraordinary albums of expansive jazz-funk. The “heritage” referred to is MdCL’s Japanese roots, with each track’s title drawn from cultural reference of importance in his life. Hence we get tracks like Memories of Nanzenji, inspired by a 13th Century temple in Kyoto, and Akatombo (Red Dragonfly), based on a popular folk melody his mother used to sing to him. The music is sometimes spacey and drifting, at other times knotty and propulsive, often building up a head of steam after a moody start. The minor key melodies and overall gloss can't help but remind me of Steely Dan, in a welcome if distant echo. Everything is driven by the sensitive and powerful drumming of Brandon Combs, with strong contributions also coming from Josh Johnson (sax/flute), Teodross Avery (sax), Brandon Eugene Owens (bass), and Carlos Nino (percussion). But MdCL is the star, doing stellar work on all manner of keyboards and composing all the tracks, in a triumph of imagination and sheer musicianship. Now I know exactly who he is and what he does and I can't get enough of it.

18. Elsa Hewitt - Citrus Paradisi

19. Baroness - Gold & Gray
In the four years since the release of their last album, Purple, which found the metal band incorporating a new rhythm section after their bus accident, they have had yet more personnel changes. Peter Adams, who had been their lead guitarist since 2008, left to concentrate on his other band Valkyrie (among other things) and was replaced by Gina Gleason. She's had a checkered career, from Cirque du Soleil to bands that covered Metallica (Misstallica!) and King Diamond. As worrisome as that may sound, she has more than enough grit in her glamour to complement the playing of leader John Baizley while engaging in furious interaction with bassist Nick Jost and drummer Sebastian Thomson. She may have also helped push the group to further diversify their already broad palette of sound, adding a cleaner vocal dimension to the harmonies in the process. Whatever the reason, Gold & Gray is the most high-contrast album of their career, with glassy vignettes like Crooked Mile smash-cut into absolutely scorching cuts like Broken Halo. It's a head-spinning journey that feels somehow cleansing, with their most beautiful textures constantly being obliterated by some of their nastiest. While the emotions are always strong, the heart of the album is probably three songs near the middle: Anchor's Lament, Throw Me An Anchor, and I'd Do Anything. Given that the chorus of the last is "I'd do anything to feel alive again," it's obvious the near-death experience of the accident is woven into the core of Baizley's artistic expression forevermore. Whatever he needs to do to work out his grief, he's surrounded by stalwart companions and giving so much of himself to us listeners that it's easy to be humbled and grateful as you stand in awe of Baroness's rock majesty. Long may they reign.

20. Cass McCombs - Tip Of The Sphere

21. Crumb - Jinx
This Brooklyn via Boston band amassed a rabid following (including me) on the basis of two EP's of wobbly psych-funk so anticipation has been running high for their debut album. Jinx continues to deliver on their addictive style; if anything it finds their grooves ever more precise and their melodies more engagingly serpentine, adding up to a series of transporting tunes. At under 30 minutes, the trip may still be too short, but it's one you'll want to take often. Also, they stretch out in concert - catch them for free on August 8th in NYC.

22. Car Seat Headrest - Commit Yourself Completely
I've been yammering on about what a great live band this is since I saw them in 2017 and now here's recorded proof! Even though these nine songs were recorded in seven different spaces, it feels like a coherent document of their dramatically dynamic approach to Will Toledo's conception of post-alternative indie rock. Even the shorter songs are full of epic vibes and their mastery of the slow build only adds to the cathartic feels when they hit full throttle. All of the songs save one come from Teens Of Denial (2016) and Twin Fantasy (2011/2018), which means they're drawn from Toledo's strongest material. One could quibble about the omission of Unforgiving Girl (She's Not An), which was one highlight of the show I saw. The one cover, of Frank Ocean's Ivy, is great but maybe not as revelatory as their take on Bowie's Teenage Wildlife, an interpretation that blew me away in concert. Minor details. This is a fantastic album that will have you jumping up and down as you play it at maximum volume. Your  neighbors might complain - or knock on your door to join you. P.S. Keep an eye out for a tour date near you.

23. C. Duncan - Health

24. Michel Chapman True North

25. Edwyn Collins - Badbea

Listen to a track from all of these albums in this playlist or below. Any of these on your list?

You may also enjoy:
The Best Of 2018 (So Far)
Best Of 2017 (So Far)
Best Of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 1
Best Of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 2
The Best Of 2015 (So Far)
2014: Mid-Year Report
The Best Of 2013 (So Far)

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Record Roundup: Contemporary Classical In Brief

The backlog is real, people, and the torrent of creativity from new music labels, composers, players and ensembles represents one of the most vital forces in culture today. In an attempt to lasso the whirlwind, here are brief reviews of some contemporary classical albums that have kept me coming back time and time again.

Seattle Symphony Orchestra - John Luther Adams: Become Desert This celebration and lamentation (in Adams’ words) is also a meditation. Like Become Ocean before it, this single-movement work is an invitation, in suspended chords and chiming bells, to your own mind. If you wish to contemplate the ecological issues that fuel Adams as he composes, that’s a valid choice as that's something that concerns us all. Or you could just sink into another masterful exploration of texture and structure from one of our finest composers. Of the Seattle Symphony and its conductor, Ludovic Morlot, I’ll only say that their touch is so sure you won’t give them a passing thought, as if the music were pure and unmediated - which may be the highest compliment of all. 

Caleb Burhans - Past Lives Remembering past friends like songwriter Jason Molina and composer (and Alarm Will Sound founder) Matt Marks has put Burhans into an appropriately elegiac mood in these four works for varied ensembles and performers. But there is always light in the darkness with the realization - which seems to dawn as you listen - that they will be known for their works, and works they inspired, long into the future. A Moment For Jason Molina is a perfect example, an essay in shimmering, layered guitar, gorgeously performed by Simon Jermyn, with a sense of constant ascension. The JACK Quartet play the reflective Contritus with what feels like barely held emotions and Burhans himself constructed the brief and mysterious Early Music (For A Saturday) from heavily treated electric bass and violin, further proving his versatility as a composer and performer, which can be said of Past Lives as a whole.

Alex Weiser - And All The Days Were Purple It's a rare thing when you hear new music that sounds both fresh and as if it has always existed. From the deeply felt performance by soprano Eliza Bagg and the sensitive playing of the ensemble to Weiser's deeply involving compositions, there is a palpable sense of stars aligning during this song cycle. The songs are based on Yiddish and English poems, which Weiser discovered in the YIVO archives, connecting with his own past as a child of Yiddish-speaking grandparents. As someone who heard some Yiddish around my house growing up, I was moved right away. Listen to the first track, My Joy, and tell me you're not instantly interested in hearing more. The beautifully recorded album also includes Three Epitaphs, another fine work by Weiser featuring an ancient Greek text alongside poems by William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, and additional evidence that Weiser is a very fine setter of words.

Matt Frey - One-Eleven Heavy Another recent vocal work that also serves as an act of reclamation and homage is Frey's chamber opera, which over its 15-minute length packs an emotional wallop you won't soon forget. Based on the tragedy of Swissair Flight 111, which crashed into the Atlantic in 1998 killing all 229 aboard, Frey incorporates Air Traffic Control recordings into gorgeously mournful vocal parts sung with extraordinary compassion by Jenny Ribeiro and Karim Sulayman. Hotel Elefant, conducted by David Bloom, find the perfect balance between detail and forward motion throughout, in an expertly balanced production. As Frey pointed out at a recent listening party, it's hard to know what the future is for this work, as it's so short and has never been staged. If it provides even a moment of comfort to those who lost loved ones on the flight, that will be even more important than the way it illuminates and humanizes the story for us listeners. His next piece is a musical about Mary Kay Letourneau - he's obviously unafraid of difficult subjects - and there wasn't a hint of exploitation in the excerpts I've heard, which is even more remarkable. Frey is now firmly on my radar and I recommend you keep an eye out for more from him as well.

Caroline Shaw - Orange One of the most astonishing things about this record is that it is the first to solely feature the music of Shaw, who won the Pulitzer-Prize six years ago. At the very least it seems like a marketing opportunity was missed! Over six pieces for string quartet, Shaw takes a number of approaches, all of which are embraced fully by the members of the Attacca Quartet. While she is free to be dissonant and dynamic, there's always a remarkable sense of proportion and balance, a measured sense of restraint and clean architecture. Lyricism abounds as well, as in Punctum's almost folk-like melodies. The recording is light and dry, perfect for her tart (yes, I went there) sound world. While I suspect Haydn (or Bartok) would not be shocked by what they heard here, it's likely they would also approve highly. It also strikes me that even for all of her accolades (not to mention highly visible collaborations with others like Kanye West and The National), I'm still getting her style and personality as a composer in focus. This album helps as will a portrait concert at The Miller Theatre on February 6, 2020 - put it on your calendar!

Siggi String Quartet - South Of The Circle When I expressed surprise at how good this debut album was, my son said, "What, you thought it wouldn't be?" and I realized that I should never have doubted a record featuring Icelandic compositions and released by Sono Luminus, who have brought wonders like Nordic Affect's Raindamage and Daniel Bjarnson's Recurrence to my ears. Bjarnson's own Stillshot (2015) opens the record and you know you're in good hands right away, with playing that's glassy smooth but warmly nuanced. Another familiar name is Valgeir Sigurðsson, who had two pieces on Raindamage, and whose Nebraska (2011) provides a unique perspective on the American landscape. As seems especially common in Icelandic ensembles, one of the players is a composer as well. Violinist Una Sveinbjarnardóttir's Opacity (2014) boldly explores solo lines by each instrument, just another way of developing the language of this fine quartet.

Duo Zuber - Blackbird Redux What a lovely surprise this is: works for flute and marimba, played by two complete experts, and touching on an international array of composers. Consisting of Patricia Wolf Zuber (flute) and Greg Zuber (marimba), both of whom play with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the duo sounds equally comfortable in the gentle kaleidoscope of Gareth Farr's Kembang Suling, in which the New Zealand-based composer transits through Bali, Japan and South India and William Susman's Amores Montuños, here in a world premiere performance and striking a balance between Reichian repetition and the Claude Bolling's sheer charm. Two arrangements by Zuber, of Messiaen and Villa-Lobos, fill out the album marvelously, proving there's little this combination can't approach with absolute confidence.

Rupert Boyd - The Guitar It's just possible that Boyd's technique has only grown more phenomenal since his last solo album, Fantasias - whatever the reason, he absolutely slays me on the opening tracks here, two Jobim pieces that find composer and player at their most expressive. I would not turn my nose up at an album called "Boyd Goes Brazilian," just saying. But he also assays works by Leo Brouwer and Piazzola, as well as transcriptions of Bach and The Beatles, with the latter his own tender adaptation of Julia. There's also a piece by Graham Koehne, an Australian composer who's new to me, and a fascinating nugget from the past, Fernando Sor's Introduction And Variations On A Theme By Mozart. Composed in 1821 partially to show off Sor's own guitar skills, its playful quality goes beyond mere virtuosity. Naturally, Boyd dispatches it like a child's exercise, but with warmth and feeling, which could describe this wonderful album as a whole.

New Thread Quartet - Plastic Facts Sometimes when listening to this record I forget that it's four saxophones producing all these wonderful sonorities, from the most dulcet of tones to wild flights of extended techniques - and I mean that as high praise. While this is their debut album, they have been playing these works for a few years and three of the four were commissioned by them, which may be why it's all presented so perfectly. Also, with Erin Rogers on tenor you know the musicianship will be at the highest level and Geoff Landman (soprano), Kristen McKeon (alto) and Zach Herchen (baritone) don't let the side down. I'm also grateful to NTQ for introducing me to Michael Djupstrom, Marcello Lazcano and Anthony Gatto, composers with whom I was unfamiliar, alongside Richard Carrick, whose Harmonixity (2012) ends the album in fine style.

Splinter Reeds - Hypothetical Islands This reed quintet pushes things even further than NTQ, emitting all kinds of outrageous squeaks and squawks along with glides and swoops right out of Raymond Scott's bag of tricks - but that must just be their taste as several of the composers here employ such noises. Matthew Shlomowitz's Line and Length (2007), for example, kicks off the album in wild fashion and Eric Wubbels' Auditory Scene Analysis II (2016) adds distorted electronics into the mix. Wubbels, known for his work with the Wet Ink Ensemble, produced the album, too, and lends everything a three-dimensional sense of space and detail, so important when some of the sounds could just be clicks and pops. Of the seven pieces here, including other works by Cara Haxo, Theresa Wong, Sky Macklay and Yannis Kyriakides, four were commissioned by the group, which also shows their good judgment. And Kyle Bruckmann (oboe), Bill Kalinkos (clarinet), David Wegehaupt (sax), Jeff Anderle (bass clarinet), and Dana Jessen (bassoon) deserve yet more praise for making everything on this thoroughly modern album sound as natural as a Baroque fantasia. 

Hear tracks from all of these albums (and many more) in this playlist and keep me in the loop if you think I'm missing anything!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2018: Classical
Focus On: Contemporary Classical
Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage
Immersed In Become Ocean

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Ocean Music Surfaces

Ocean Music - Troubadour No. 1 I hate keeping secrets, so the fact that Richard Aufrichtig, the captain of Ocean Music, sent me most of these tracks in 2017 has been a source of tension in my life. It’s not that I have to share music to enjoy it - but it helps. I also understand that releasing art out into the world takes courage, especially if you think it’s not quite ready. No matter how many times I told Richard, “Put this out - it's one of the best albums of the year!” he held firm, guided by an internal compass. I should have trusted him, as its final version is better in ways both subtle and obvious. And it is definitely one of the best albums of the year.

I won’t bore you by comparing Troubador No. 1 with an unmastered album I had on repeat two years ago, but I will say that coming up with Blown Open to start the album is a credit to Aufrichtig’s tenacity. I can now hear that it was the missing piece. Starting with his unaccompanied voice, Blown Open arrests instantly with its imagery: “Cold - grass in the summer/Old - classical music/I - used to belong there/I - used to believe it.” Subliminal picked guitar is joined by clarinets, so unexpected and yet so inevitable. The album’s title falls into place: This is a troubadour, a “poet who sets words to music,” yes, but there’s also a connection to the word’s roots in the Medieval French for “to find.” Aufrichtig is on a journey of self-discovery and we are privileged to be invited along for the ride. 

By the end of the song, there’s a bed of electric guitars and a synth has been introduced and dismissed. Blown Open fades into meditative silence, shortly replaced by the wry flute and gentle disco of Paris, a sublime duet with Holly Miranda. Seeing them perform it live was a dream come true and you should count yourself lucky if you were there. There are witty horns and a wailing harmonica, which contains as much regret as the chorus: “Now, I’m going back to Paris.” Just as we rarely feel just one way about anything - especially if you’ve lived a little - Paris is a hybrid song, and a brilliant one at that. 

The title track also grooves, but hypnotically this time, guitars and sax coexisting peacefully as Aufrichtig casts his thoughts to half-remembered incidents, his voice full of warmth and compassion. Blue October Sky is also a retrospective glance: “I lost you in October, like I lost my minor key/And I wish I could remember all the songs you sang for me.” Somewhere, Leonard Cohen is tipping a stylish fedora in acknowledgment. 

One of the things I love about Ocean Music’s songs is that they take their sweet time. This has led to some clueless reactions from those who would pretend to be gatekeepers, i.e. people with popular playlists. One comment Richard shared still haunts me: “You have a beautiful voice but the song takes too long to develop.” Translation: “I am so uncomfortable with myself that I can’t sit within this gorgeous piece of music without constantly wondering when it will change.” It's like criticizing the weather for not dissolving the clouds quickly enough. Just as the clouds will roll out when they roll out, an Ocean Music song moves at its own pace. 

Take Telephone, the fifth song on the album, which follows its midtempo, strummy groove for a full three minutes before the horns come in. Then, after Richard sings, “You with your arms and your hands and your stories that can make me fly,” his guitar starts to squall in a biting, distorted tone, soon joined by a skronking sax that had me wondering if David Murray was on the track (it's actually Stuart Bogie of Antibalas, etc.). Another guitar joins (perhaps the great Josh Kaufman, who also co-produced the album) and everything begins to soar into consonance over vocal harmonies. It is absolutely glorious. Allow it to thrill you before you assume there’s a construct within which it should have existed. 

An Old Dream goes deeper into the mystic, with Aufrichtig accompanying himself on what sounds like an ancient piano. His steady voice calms the odd harmonies from the ailing instrument as he creates scenes both sensual and serene. He ends the album with another dazzling display of his arranging skills, with the finger-picked acoustic of Watchlight limned by organ and what sounds like a Jew’s harp. It also closes the record on an upbeat note, with the troubadour getting ready the hit the road again, sounding hopeful for what the future may hold: “After the show, we can walk around/Buy our tickets down in Chinatown/And we can leave this town, leave this town, leave this town.” But come back soon, Richard - we need to hear what treasures you find on the next leg of your journey. 

P.S. For another angle on Aufrichtig’s very musical mind, subscribe to Fresh Wind, his wonderful Spotify playlist, which he's updating every Monday. 

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Record Roundup: Electro-Humanism

Early works for prerecorded tape
I can still connect to the feeling of holding the future in my hand when my father handed me a record featuring Helices, a work composed by his old friend Manny Ghent for violin, piano and prerecorded tape. “Of course!" I thought, "Putting acoustic and electronic instruments together is not just for rock music!” Hey, I was young. One thing I didn’t consider, however, was the inequality between instruments that had been developed and perfected over centuries and ones that were only a few decades old.

But I think we can safely say that rapid innovation has fairly well erased any level of sophistication between something made of wood and activated by air or vibration and something that needs software or recorded sound to work. Or at least that’s what these three records would have me believe, all electroacoustic masterpieces that should make a believer out of you as well. 

Rand Steiger/International Contemporary Ensemble - Coalescence Cycle Volume 1: Music for Soloists and Electronics That long title gives you the basics. I could add that there are five pieces here, all except one featuring a single player in combination with audio signal processing. I could throw around terms from Steiger’s liner notes like “virtuosity” and the “intersection of tempered and just intonation,” but in the end, it’s all about sensation and emotion. For the first, there’s the almost tactile nature of the electronic sounds, rich and rounded clouds surrounding clarinet, flute, cello, piano and bassoon, all so perfectly played and recorded that you will feel their physical presence. Miller Puckett, Steiger’s longtime collaborator who writes the software, deserves special mention here, as do the musicians of ICE: Joshua Rubin (clarinet), Claire Chase (flute), Kivie Cahn-Lipman (cello), Jacob Greenberg (piano), and Rebekah Heller (bassoon). 

As for the emotion, Steiger’s command of harmony and melody is so finely calibrated that it seems to have a direct connection to my inner state, allowing me to engage on a visceral level. Translation: these five pieces sound fantastic and make me feel all kinds of ways. Regardless if your experience of processed sound comes from Brian Eno or autotune, I think you will agree. And the best news is that Volume 2, featuring the same techniques applied to larger ensembles, is already in the works. If you can’t wait, make sure to revisit A Menacing Plume, Steiger’s superb album with Talea Ensemble from 2014. 

Daniel Wohl - Etat In 2013, I called Corps Exquis, Wohl’s debut, “jewel-textured and compulsively listenable” while including it in my Top 20. But I was left cold by the follow-up, Holographic, which was accomplished but lacked a certain spark. Not so for Etat, which maybe as close to a pop album as we get from this furiously inventive sonic architect. Y Music and the Calder Quartet are here to expertly actualize the acoustic elements, but Wohl’s most important collaborator this time around might be Ryan Lott, who co-produced Etat with Sae Heum Han, an electronic composer who works under the name mmph. Lott, whose art-rock project, Son Lux, is occasionally radio-adjacent, is wise in the ways of shaping both songs and sounds.

Corps Exquis had already proved that Wohl could combine the organic and synthetic seamlessly, finding a perfect realization for his emotion-laden compositions. Etat finds him delving deeper into modern production techniques and at the same time becoming yet more soulful. Concision is a factor here, too, as each piece is short and self-contained, reminiscent of the classic work of Wohl’s countryman, Erik Satie. There's also some of the epic feel of Vangelis's work for the original Blade Runner - if they make another sequel, Wohl might be the man for the soundtrack. There’s even a "single" in the form of Angel, which features Channy Leaneagh, the vocalist for indie-pop group Poliça. But a track like Melt proves Wohl doesn't need words to get under your skin, which this remarkable album will do immediately when it comes out May 31st. 

Drinker - Fragments The main organic ingredients on this moody song cycle are Aaron Mendelsohn's voice and guitar, which are surrounded by all manner of rich electronic textures, from percussion and handclaps to sleek keyboards and bass. If you've been following closely, you'll note that I've been tracing Mendelsohn's muse since 2013 when I discovered his band Isadora, who were for a time one of NYC's best live bands. While Mendelsohn moved to California after Isadora dissolved, he had already begun collaborating with Ariel Loh, a New York-based electronic composer and producer (Yoke Lore is one of his projects), and they soon formed the group Drinker. Singles have been coming out since 2017, including the excellent Which Way Is South?, but Fragments is their first album.

While California is often associated with sun and sand, Mendelsohn's songwriting is more attuned to its moonlit alter-ego, the LA of Riders On The Storm rather than Good Vibrations. Massive Attack's slightly bruised majesty is also in the mix along with a subtlety that seems drawn from bossa nova. Just watching Mendelsohn's restraint as he sang some of these songs at the album release party a few weeks ago had me thinking of Frank Sinatra's work on the Sinatra/Jobim album, where he had to tone down his brassy quality - and that of the band - in order to find a new mode of expression. Sinatra's imprecations to the trombone player to soften his attack had the musician complaining "If I played any softer, I'd be blowing out the back of my neck." Mendelsohn seems to have achieved that on some of these songs, with Follow, in which he finds new falsetto contours in his voice, a perfect example.

The link between Drinker and Isadora is Mendelsohn's innate melodic talent, an ability to create songs where the music pulls you through the narrative as much as the words. In Loh he has found an ideal collaborator, someone who can push songs into unexpected directions that, after a few listens, seem inevitable. He and Mendelsohn also know when to layer sounds and when to strip everything back to a single instrument, techniques from dub and remix culture that keep the songs feeling fresh even as they become familiar. While Fragments is somewhat austere, it's also suffused with a deep humanity, delivering on electronic pop's promise to combine man (or woman) and machine in a way that adds new dimensions to both. A remarkable debut.

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Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Record Roundup: Poptones

There’s music almost scientifically designed to be popular, with little other reason for being. And then there’s music that uses the techniques of pop music for some form of personal expression. It’s the latter type that moves me and here are three recent albums that exemplify its virtues - and one of them happens to be VERY popular. 

C. Duncan - Health The third album by this Scottish singer-songwriter finds him doubling-down on the more electronic textures of The Midnight Sun, the follow up to Architect, his Mercury Prize nominated debut. While I still love the elegant folk-pop of the first album, which cast an hypnotic spell similar to Fleet Foxes and Radiohead, the gossamer delights of Health are undeniable. While even more synthetic than Architect, the production is richer than Midnight Sun, with a depth and polish to every sound. Plus, the tunes are catchy as heck, with choruses that wend their ways into your life long after the album ends. While Duncan doesn’t employ their lyrical acuity, the intricate bounce of Scritti Politti and the bright swing of Gaucho-era Steely Dan are obvious referents, which only makes me love Health more. This is artful pop music that should be more popular than it is - make it so by listening ASAP. 

Edwyn Collins - Badbea If the words “Scottish singer-songwriter” above didn’t cause the Edwyn Collins synapse to fire in your brain, I recommend a remapping. You could start with Orange Juice, present at the birth of indie with classics like Rip It Up. Or you could fast forward to A Girl Like You, the worldwide smash that has likely kept Collins in a certain comfort, especially after his life and career were interrupted by two nearly fatal strokes in 2005. In the six years since his last album, Collins and his indefatigable wife, Grace Maxwell picked up stakes, moved to the north of Scotland and built a new studio, unearthing some old lyric books in the process. Taking inspiration from his younger self has helped Collins make the most confident and compelling album since his recovery began. Just listen to the wicked fun he has wielding the lowest depths of his baritone during the breakdown of In The Morning, a moody stomper ripe for remixing. Dance music has always been an arrow in his quiver and it’s a delight to hear him employ it again on that song and others, like Glasgow To London, a flashback to the early days of Orange Juice. He also looks back more reflectively in I Guess We Were Young, creating a new folk standard in the process. But in the end, it’s the brash sense of forward motion and sheer gusto makes this album such a joy. If you want some of that in your life, look no further. 

Billie Eilish - When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? As I mentioned in a recent issue of Off Your Radar, the fact that Eilish once appeared on YouTube with a ukulele caused me to put her in the “to be ignored” file. And I was doing a good job of that until the serious hype around this young singer-songwriter turned into a genuine buzz - then I HAD to listen. And I’m glad I did! What we have here is a protean talent who has put together a batch of electronic and hip hop-inflected pop songs for the ages. Her key collaborator is her brother Finneas O’Connell, who produced the album and filled it with all kinds of unique sounds, creating a canny blend of the organic, acoustic and synthetic. He even makes the ukulele work! 

But the songs are the stars. The fact that her mom said some of them remind her of Kurt Weill gives a sense of the home environment that helped nurture Eilish’s musical interests. And mom is right - there’s a sense of Weimar darkness here that suggests someone who has not only played with fire but been burned more than once. Whether you call Eilish an old soul or just a 17-year-old who feels things more acutely, there is real emotional depth here, especially in songs like the post-goth Bury A Friend or the stark introversion of I Love You. She uses her voice in all kinds of quirky ways, but it somehow avoids feeling mannered, and you soon realize what a rich, expressive instrument she has.

Part of her artistry is the way she keeps those emotions brilliantly at bay with lyrics which can graze a sophistication that Cole Porter would recognize, as in Wish You Were Gay: "To spare my pride/To give your lack of interest an explanation/Don't say I'm not your type/Just say that I'm not your preferred sexual orientation." But even before I discerned what she was singing about, the sheer melodic and sonic interest here grabbed me from the start. When was caught by surprise by You Should See Me In A Crown in an episode of Hanna, I was struck by the extent to which Eilish had quickly colonized my brain, the way the best pop music does. While its hard to figure out where she goes from here, with hundreds of millions of Spotify streams and YouTube views (not to mention a rabid Instagram following, but as long as she keeps it personal and lets Finneas do his thing, I think we'll be hearing from Eilish for a good long time. 

Find tracks from these albums and keep up with what's coming next in this playlist.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2018: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Record Roundup: Forms Of Escape

Friday, April 19, 2019

RSD 2019: Bushwick Bound

As my wise friend Alex Smith pointed out last year in Flaming Pablum, his amusing and erudite blog, for the serious music fan, "EVERY DAY is Record Store Day" Or at least it has the potential to be. I know I don't need much of an excuse to visit a music emporium, it's just a matter of finding the time. That said, I do like to hit the streets on this day of worldwide devotion to purchasing music in its physical form, if only to see what other people are doing.

This year, the date of RSD converged not only with a free Saturday, but comes just a few weeks after the opening of a new store in Bushwick, the Brooklyn Record Exchange. I would have been interested in visiting BRE even if hadn’t come with the fine pedigree of Co-Op 87, a fine store in Greenpoint, whose owner Ben Steidl collaborated with the indie label Mexican Summer to make the new spot happen. Also, BRE is located in the same building as Elsewhere, a performance venue I’ve been meaning to get to for some time. Even if I wasn’t going to stay for a show, at least I would lay eyes on the site. 

Another part of my strategy on RSD is to avoid crowds, which I usually do by steering clear of stores that stock the “exclusives” that clog up the pressing plants and later flood eBay with overpriced fetish objects of varying musical interest. Last year, there were more exclusives of interest so I was happy to find a couple at late, lamented Iris in Jersey City. This year, the only thing I was really interested in was Jeff Tweedy's Warmer, a companion to his wonderful 2018 album, Warm. I have a feeling I'll be able to hear it some other way in the near future. Like Iris, BRE opened at noon but would be offering zero exclusives, greatly reducing my chance of encountering throngs of fair-weather vinyl geeks. 
Brooklyn Record Exchange is big, beautiful and perfect for browsing.
My plan worked perfectly. I got to BRE about a half-hour after they opened and ascended the one flight of stairs to find their gorgeous, light-filled space occupied by only a few people - and tons of records along with a shelf or two of videos on DVD, Blu-Ray and VHS. They also had a teeny selection of books and vintage magazines that looked highly curated. After taking in the full layout, I made a beeline for the New Arrivals section, which is where I always go first, especially when I don’t have anything specific in mind. I like the way New Arrivals mixes the genres, starting up an eclectic shuffle play in my mind as I flip through the discs. 

Worth $1.99 a few years ago, it now goes for $30.

My heart sank a little as nearly everything in BRE’s New Arrivals section was $20 or more, with a few at $15 or so. If this was representative of their stock, my budget was going to be put to the test. A copy of The Mack, Willie Hutch's classic Blaxploitation soundtrack, was a perfect illustration of the revaluing of vinyl that's happened over the last decade or so. Over a sticker from Saint Mark's Sounds pricing it at $1.99 there was a new sticker: $30.00. There was also a raft of Iggy Pop/Stooges bootlegs in there, which amused both me and the guy flipping to my right. I said, “Wow, somebody just dumped their whole collection!” “I know,” he said, “It’s wild!” He also agreed when I pointed out that while much of that material is phenomenal, a lot of it has been released many times over so you have to be careful not to buy two of the same concert or studio session. I also spotted a copy of a legit Iggy album, 1979's New Values, which was priced at $20 - I wonder how much my autographed copy would go for? I'm looking forward to revisiting the album for a 40th anniversary write-up for Rock & Roll Globe - coming soon!

The only potential selection I pulled out of New Arrivals was something called The Ornette Coleman Songbook by Jocques & Le Scott on the Theater of the Evolving Arts label. Maybe this one should have evolved a little more as it turned out to be sort of a spoken word album with sparse musical accompaniment, very loosely interpreting some of Coleman's greatest compositions. Not for me - thank goodness for preview turntables! BRE has two of those, by the way, and they're brand new with excellent headphones, always an asset to a store.

Another sign of a good store is staff that's willing to help without judgement, which I observed in action when another shopper approached the counter, holding two albums from the New Arrivals section. One was dubstep classic Untrue by Burial and the other was Halcyon Digest by the long-running indie rock band Deerhunter. I almost couldn't believe my eyes and ears when he held the records high and asked the employee which one he should get. "Yeah, I've literally heard nothing from either of these albums and I'm not sure which one I would like better. Got any advice?" There was a beautiful madness to this approach as sounds from either album are easily accessible on YouTube, Spotify, etc. There was also a turntable mere feet away, so he could've checked them out for himself. Without hesitation, the man from BRE  helped him make up his mind by enquiring about his tastes and giving concise and knowledgeable descriptions of both records. Even though this exchange was incredibly anachronistic, it's also one reason people go to a retailer in the first place.

Suddenly remembered there WAS something specific I was looking for, namely Illusion, the second album by Renaissance, which was also the last one to feature Jim McCarty and Keith Relf of The Yardbirds. I know I could probably find it online, but for now I'm enjoying the chase while I'm still getting to know the first album. No dice at BRE, so I started working my way around the room, going genre by genre, mainly looking in the miscellaneous sections of each letter of the alphabet. I started striking gold in the funk/soul area and pulled out a bunch of records to preview. Fortunately, they were all priced around $5, quelling my earlier fears. I pulled out the one and only album by South Shore Commission since I have a 45 of the "Disco Mix" of their hit Free Man. It's already on Spotify so I slid it back into the rack - but it is a more than solid collection of 70's disco. One I had I high hopes for that didn't make the cut was Deadeye Dick, the 1978 follow-up to CJ & Co.'s killer Devil's Gun album. Like the first, Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore were heavily involved with every aspect from writing to producing, but the magic seemed to have departed, with tempos that were too fast and gimmicky attempts to reproduce their earlier success.

Putting Deadeye Dick back in the reject bin, something another shopper had stuck in there caught my eye. The album cover featured an urban landscape akin to some of my photos (check me out on Instagram) and the title was Surge, a 1977 album by the New York Jazz Quartet. Intrigued, I flipped it over and saw Frank Wess's name, which immediately made my hopes quickly ascend. Ever since I fell in love with Johnny Hartman's version of Jobim's Wave, I've been a huge fan of Wess, especially his flute playing. He's kind of a perpetual underdog as far as the canon goes, which means he has a lot of stuff that's out of print, like Flute Juice, a fantastic 1981 album I picked up last year. The NYJQ album also featured bassist George Mraz and the other players were pianist Roland Hannah, who founded the group, and drummer Richard Pratt. The previews did not steer me wrong - it's an excellent record, with sparkling interplay and two great Wess compositions. The recording is also out of this world, with a sharp, fizzing presence that put the group right in my living room.

The next album I checked was almost surefire: Lee Dorsey's Night People, his last album from 1978. I already knew the almost delicately funky title track and Soul Mine, his canny update of Working In The Coal Mine. All the wax I saw at BRE looked clean so this wasn't so much a condition check but just a chance to confirm my suspicion that with Allen Toussaint behind the boards the rest of the album was at least good. Confirmed! Even though Toussaint occasionally faltered in the 70's, sinking into sappiness, Dorsey always seemed to bring out his best. Further listening has proved Night People to be a great album, a fitting capper to the two-decade career of a unique singer.

Next up was a wild card, something from 1976 called Street People, "a Suite" by The Bob Crewe Generation. I was surprised to see it was on Elektra, as I had known Crewe's disco/funk period from the Hollywood Hot album on 20th Century Records - and Elektra wasn't exactly known for making noise at Studio 54. Turns out Street People grew out of a single by the same name, which came out earlier that year on 20th Century. Whatever the reason for the label switch, Elektra's budget assured that Crewe didn't stint on this orchestral disco album that tells the story of a small town boy who comes to the big city and becomes a target for all kinds of desires. Much of it is mixed by Tom Moulton and the first side goes down so easy that, before I knew it, a BRE employee was tapping me on the shoulder and asking me to free up the turntable for someone else! In the end, while the album does falter a little on Side Two, I can imagine dropping a song like Menage A Trois or the title track at a party and watching people dance like crazy.

Called out of my dance floor reverie, I remembered one other thing I was looking for: Stretch or any of the Scott Walker albums from his "wilderness years." They're going for wildly inflated prices on eBay so I'm hoping to stumble on one here or there. BRE didn't have any of those, but they did have mint condition copies of Tilt and The Drift, going for about $60 each. I picked them up, just to feel the heft of Walker's achievement. Then I put them back and burned my way through BRE's well-stocked Soundtracks section. While I didn't buy the beautiful copy of Route 66 Theme and Other Great TV Themes by Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra, it did remind me of this terrific album, which I have on cassette and look forward to revisiting on Spotify

I cruised through their reggae section, once again reminding myself of the one regret I have in life: that I didn't buy two copies of every Jamaican 12" I could find back in the 70's and 80's. With many of them going for $12 or more, it's a return on investment any hedge fund guru would respect. I found a couple of things to follow up on, mainly Horace Andy and Leroy Sibbles, but nothing that wasn't available to stream.
My three purchases!
I was starting to feel the call of java so I paid for my three albums and headed out, setting the controls for AP Café, which turned out to be a fine coffee destination indeed. Brooklyn Record Exchange has been officially added my mental list of stores to put in rotation and, while it is pretty far on the L train, I could see combining it with a trip to Superior Elevation, another great store. Or maybe the move is to catch a show at Elsewhere and arrive a little early to do some digging. I'm putting Wand's July 5th gig on my calendar - they're playing the Rooftop, which should be a blast!

Bonus Beats
Vintage Vinyl, Fords, NJ - Large? Yes. Legendary? Not so much.

The day after RSD, I found myself on the Rutgers campus (my son was in a Smash Melee tournament - parenting!) so I dialed up nearby stores and ended up at Vintage Vinyl in nearby Fords. It describes itself as "NJ's Legendary Independent Record Store Since 1979," which got me excited. While it is definitely distinguished by its size (massive) I would also say it's a few notches below legendary as a shopping experience. One thing I didn't really appreciate was the sticker on every the sleeve protector of every used record that said something like, "This is near mint. You may inspect at the front counter only." So, no preview turntable, obviously - and they didn't even want to you to look at the record or inner sleeve without adult supervision. One of the perils of their size, I suppose. In the end I almost bought the debut album by The Silkie, a fascinating bit of Liverpool folk-rock, which has The Beatles themselves helping out on a great cover of You've Got To Hide Your Love Away. But at $20 and without a way to try before buying, I slid it back into the rack.

Rare live Scott Walker

Before I was called away by my son who needed a quick pizza infusion, I took a quick look for some Scott Walker and struck gold in the CD's, finding a copy of Live On Air 1968, a fascinating collection of audio from the two pilot episodes of his never-aired BBC-TV show. While the sound is a little rough, it's simply astonishing to hear how incredible his voice sounds live, an endlessly rich baritone that he wielded with complete control over its every nuance. It's also fun to hear his intros, such as when he says: "I'm very pleased to be able to have a gentleman with me tonight that produces all my records, Mr. Johnny Franz. John and I are both sort of musically frustrated people mainly because he's an A&R man at Phillips and he never gets to play piano anymore, and that used to be his living, you see. And I'm extremely lazy so I never work (chuckle). So, it's very frustrating, as you can imagine. On certain nights I go over to his place and we take it out on his poor wife - and it sounds something like this." Then he launches into an immaculate version of I'll Be Around, the Sinatra standard, with sublime piano accompaniment from Franz. Worth the price of admission - and a trip to Vintage Vinyl. 

How has your shopping been going, either on RSD or otherwise?

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#RSD2018: Iris Blooms In Jersey City
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RSD 2014
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Monday, April 15, 2019

Concert Review: Shadows And Hope At Zankel Hall

Programming a concert has many challenges. First of all, it’s commonplace for it to be at least two hours of music, which gives the audience their money’s worth but requires much preparation. If you’re presenting a new piece, that might eat up a disproportionate amount of your rehearsal time. Playing an unfamiliar work might also lead you to want to give the audience some comfort food, in the forms of a warhorse or other frequently performed piece. Fortunately, the American Composers Orchestra did not fall into that trap last Thursday, when they played in Zankel Hall as part of Carnegie Hall’s massive and ambitious festival, Migrations: The Making Of America. But they did struggle a bit to connect works that were musically disparate and resonated with each other only on a strictly cerebral level. But that was the only issue I had with the concert, which was played both immaculately and with a generosity of feeling. 

The first piece was Morton Feldman’s Turfan Fragments (1980) which was inspired by bits of 1,500-year-old knotted carpet from Turkestan and, as such, was designed to be a series of unresolved parts. For a first hearing of this slippery work I was immediately struck by how resolute it was in its very irresolute-ness, as if Feldman was determined that it not come together in a way we expect from an orchestral piece. There were many sonic delights within, however, like the pizzicato section that came about five minutes in. And there may have been no harder working man in New York that night than conductor George Manahan, whose precise baton movements hinted at the challenge Feldman designed for those who dare to assay these “fragments” - a challenge more than met by him and the ACO. 

Next we were treated to a some brief remarks from Gloria Coates, describing how her Symphony No. 1, “Music on Open Strings,” took shape between 1971, when it was commissioned by the Rhinelander Chamber Orchestra, and 1974, when it was completed. She wasn’t able to finish her whole tale of artistic discovery, and it is a gripping story, but it was also well-told by her in the program notes. Coates, who turned 80 last year, was born in Wisconsin but traveled from her home in Germany to witness her piece’s Carnegie Hall debut. It was also my introduction to her work, as she has been in the “I know the name but that’s all” category for some time. Now I'm kicking myself because I know what I've been missing!

I was quickly sucked into the unique sound world she creates, with bows swooping and gliding across strings and sometimes tapping them. Knuckles were also knocked against wood for dramatic effect, just one reason I was on the edge of my seat. Part of the work’s distinctive quality comes from Coates’s idea to have the players re-tune their instruments periodically throughout, which was a great opportunity for the ACO and Manahan to show how well they communicate. A nod of the head from one of the bassists toward the podium was all the conductor needed to know that the musician was ready. Ultimately, the brooding intensity of the piece, which reminded me of Shostakovich at times, was more important than the mechanics of how Coates got there. I’m looking forward to learning more about her catalogue and hope we don’t have to wait for her centenary for it to be celebrated and highlighted in the musical life of NYC. 

Instead of an intermission, there was a panel discussion featuring the collaborators who created the evening’s main event, the New York premiere of Where We Lost Our Shadows (2019). Composer Du Yun was joined by filmmaker Khaled Jarrar, ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel, and vocalist Ali Sethi. Du Yun talked about how she crafted the work with these specific soloists in mind, instead of casting them later. Having already decided that ragas would be incorporated into the piece, Sethi became a real asset as he guided her through 800 years of music from the Indus region. Sethi also demonstrated some of the basic Qawwali forms he would be using, giving the audience a sneak preview of his wondrous voice. Jarrar described his way of embedding himself with immigrant communities, gaining their trust and getting a view of the extremes of their experiences. Author Didier Fassin, whose book, Life: A Critical User's Manual, informed some of the thinking behind the piece, was also on hand to offer some sobering facts about migrant mortality: It has been on the rise worldwide for decades and many deaths go uncounted with even the names of the dead unknown or unrecorded. 

L-R: Didier Fassin, Ali Sethi, Du Yun, Khaled Jarrar & Derek Bermel
Photo by Jennifer Taylor
According to the program notes, “Where We Lost Our Shadows is a piece for orchestra, video, and soloists that focuses on human migration as a question of perpetual movement and exodus that repeats throughout history, passing on collective and individual traumas and rejuvenations from generation to generation.” That measured explanation barely hinted at the deeply emotional combination of sound and vision that transpired over the half hour of the piece, which literally started with a BANG, struck by percussionist Shayna Dunkelman on an enormous side drum. I know Dunkelman as a member of avant-rock band Xiu Xiu but was unaware of the breadth of her musicianship, which became stunningly apparent during the heart-stopping solo that began the work. 

When the orchestra came in, accompanied by what I believe was an electronic tanpura (Sethi seemed to be holding one during the panel discussion), it was almost a relief from the tension built up by the drums. Sethi began singing in his rich, slightly husky voice, seeming to craft his ancient melodies out of the air with his hand gestures. There was a chaotic darkness on the screen, which eventually gave way to an interview on the streets of Turkey with a family overjoyed because they had just gotten their authorization to travel to Europe, where they would find a new home after leaving Syria. They kept smiling even when saying they had been living in the streets while waiting for their papers. Their sweet, shining faces stood as a testament to the indomitable human spirit - and an indictment of what people do to other people. 

"Where do you sleep?" "In the streets." Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

Helga Davis, the third soloist and an incredible singer and performer, then stood up and unleashed all the pain and sorrow that lay behind those smiles. There was another percussion interlude, even more intricate than the first, and further explorations of Qawwali, leading to a stunning duet between Sethi and Davis. Just as there are no easy answers to the refugee crisis, ...Shadows ended without a sense of closure - it just stopped. The audience caught their breath and then stood for a generous standing ovation. While it’s hard to be entirely sure based on one performance, I feel fairly certain that the music, in which I sensed a new level gravitas for Du Yun, will more than hold its own without the visuals. I urge the powers that be to record it as soon as possible!

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