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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