Sunday, October 23, 2022

Record Roundup: Songcraft

According to the dictionary, “songcraft” should be two words yet “witchcraft,” to which it often seems related, is one. Let this post serve as one citation on the road to changing that. All of the albums below find artists pursuing their own definitions of songcraft, whether in a cycle derived from poetry or a kaleidoscopic array of hip hop-infused R&B. Read on and give a listen - you may even find your own definitions expanding.

Michael Hersch - The Script Of Storms As I wrote about his searing 2020 album, I hope we get a chance to visit soon, we owe Hersch "a debt of gratitude for never turning away from subject matter that would make other artists uncomfortable." That obligation continues to grow with the title piece here, composed in 2018 and based on poems by Fawzi Karim, an Iraqi author who often focused on the horrors he witnessed during his war torn childhood. As the text in the devastating final song reports:
"Skulls and fragments of bone,
Wreckage ...
given thicker presence by the mud.
You can’t get away from the sight of those mouths where the breath is stilled."
Hersch gives these words breath through the vocal lines he wrote for soprano Ah Young Hong, who sang on his previous album and delivers another furiously concentrated performance here. Often singing in the upper realms of her voice, sometimes ending lines with a shriek, it is impossible not to feel the impact of these unflinching songs. The fourth song makes explicit why it is critical that we listen very closely: "We are not victims of some past epidemic./Nor were we ever fodder for lost wars./No, we are your mirror."

The music, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Tito Muñoz, maintains a churning intensity, punctuated by violent outbursts. The imaginative orchestration and dynamic range are reminiscent of Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, itself a response to Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death.

Cortex and Ankle (2016), another song cycle featuring Hong and played by Ensemble Klang, opens the album seemingly in medias res, with a dramatic blast of piano, woodwinds, and percussion, before an electric guitar fanfare leads the way to the first song. The words of British poet Christopher Middleton provide the texts here, and while often more abstract than Karim's, also approach humanity's dark side in a manner both visceral and clear-eyed, as in the 11th song:
"The dead are tangled in a heap,
Scooped up and in and left to rot.
Waves of them come up with a stink,
Agony in the gaping rhomboid mouths,
Some with bedroom slippers on their feet.
So many, how to identify them?"

By animating the texts in both pieces with music of great integrity and color, Hersch pays homage both to the masterful poets and the people whose lives - and deaths - they describe. 

Björk - Fossora It's been over a decade since I reviewed an album by Iceland's favorite dottir, my struggles and ultimate disappointment with both Vulnicura and Utopia reflected by their absence from these pages. I am happy to report that were I to be ridiculously reductive, I would just say, "Björk is back!" But she has worked her way both back to a semblance of her old form and forward to somewhere entirely new. The shapely melodies alone confirm that the last two albums were at their roots lacking in good songs. And not only are Fossora's tracks filled with the moments of humor, seduction, and sublime beauty she had addicted us to before, now they are set in her most inventive art-song arrangements yet. The music is filled with next-level combos of acoustic instruments, such as a clarinet sextet, and electronics, while not ignoring the needs of the body with insistent rhythms percolating under several songs. Lyrically, she's often dwelling in nature (mushrooms are mentioned) or dwelling on the death of her mother in 2018. While there's the occasional clunker (from Freefall: "I let myself freefall/Into your arms/Into the shape of the love we created/Our emotional hammock") that's par for the course and it's all heartfelt. While she's still more of a niche artist than she used to be, without the dance-floor-ready grooves and easy pop appeal of the past, on Fossora Björk has found a rapprochement between arty and accessible, between the intellect and the body. 

Steve Lacy - Gemini Rights I admit to keeping The Internet, the band that put Lacy on the map, and his prior solo album in my peripheral vision. So pardon me for sipping on the cream when it rises to the top, but this album is a TREAT. A multicolored blend of pop, rock, funk, and r&b that comes on like a descendent of Shuggie Otis, Andre 3000, and Frank Ocean, the main feature are the tightly focused songs that might have all three of them watching their backs. About the only bad thing I can say about Gemini Rights is that Lacy occasionally sounds too much like Stevie Wonder, but it's like Stevie in his prime - and it's been too long since we heard that.

Sudan Archives - Natural Brown Prom Queen As I noted when I saw her live last summer, the music of Brittany Parks has grown edgier as she continues to build on the promise of Come Meh Way, the single that turned so many heads, including mine, back in 2017. While her creamy voice, swooping violin, and diamond-sharp electronic rhythms are still the heart of her sound, she's also grown more accomplished as she deftly switches between moods and styles - sometimes within the same song - across this expansive release. And it is a release, with 18 tracks over nearly an hour giving you the full range of her personality. Vulnerable, arrogant, smart, romantic, she doesn't hold back or construct a perfect person for your consumption, and the album is richer for it. Get to know Sudan Archives so you, too, can say OMG BRITT.

Julia Jacklin - Pre Pleasure After her stellar sophomore album, 2019's Crushing, Jacklin reached a new level of success, playing to crushing crowds (I literally could not move when I saw her at Warsaw!) around the world. Possibly in response to all that attention, she has grown both more intimate and more expansive on her third release. Opening with the stripped down, keyboard- and drum-machine-driven Lydia Wears A Cross, we're already in a different sound world than one might expect. It builds up to a gauzy strum before coming to a halt and leading into Love, Try Not To Let Go, which begins in such a constrained fashion, it's almost like the instruments are being cupped by tiny hands. The sensitive accompaniment of Ben Whiteley (guitars, etc.), Will Kidman (bass, etc.), and Laurie Torres (drums) really shines here. Then, when it explodes on the chorus, it feels wonderful. Ignore Tenderness is next, a glowing ballad with sweeping strings - another new sound for her - arranged by Owen Pallett. I Was Neon is one of the crowning glories of the album, riding a motorik beat, chugging guitar, and boasting a melody that flows so naturally you almost don't notice how sophisticated it is. Throughout these four songs, she pursues issues of identity, whether the skeptical Lydia of the opening, or the narrator of Neon who wonders, "Am I going to lose myself again?," and the complexities of love and relationships. Throughout all, her voice is a glory, flawlessly expressing the nuances of the emotional tenor of each song. A key line in Love, Try Not To Let Go hints at painful events ("The echo of that partyThe night I lost my voice/The silence that surrounds it/No longer feels like a choice") that lend a layer of poignance to her sheer excellence as a singer and songwriter. May she never lose her voice. 

The Soft Hills - Viva Che Vede This psych-folk-cosmic-rock project of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Garrett Hobba has been going since 2007, but journeys both exterior (to Europe) and interior (Ayahuasca) meant that he was away from making music for the last few years. Whatever the road it took him to get here, Viva Che Vede sounds like the work of someone who knows exactly what they want and has the skills (and collaborators, most notably Jon Peloso (guitars & keys), Anthony Shadduck (basses), and Garrit Tillman (drums) to get it. Opening track Medicine starts with an accented voice telling us "We must die...we must be reborn" before the softly galloping song begins, with quirky percussion touches, a halo of electronics, melodic guitars, and flowing harmonies. The playful dislocations of Medicine - familiar to any Syd Barrett fans - set the tone for a collection of great beauty, with Hobba's sweet tenor becoming a welcome companion across the ten songs. Like Jonathan Wilson, Hobba is influenced by the past (mainly the 60s and 70s, with a touch of Elliott Smith) but never indebted to it. He's always present in the now, his prismatic lyrics constantly referring to the natural world that keeps him grounded as he explores, as one song would have it, "the infinite." Listen and be embraced. 

Tchotchke - s/t The path to musical fulfillment lies in following the threads. For example, that time Drinker played at Berlin Under A I became acquainted with Emily Tooraen, a sharp musician who was playing bass, and managed to keep an eye on her over the years. I was not surprised when I saw she was taking a more prominent role in this new band, but I was delighted at the first single, Dizzy, a glamtastic pop tune with fat analog synths and a sprightly melody. Follow-up Ronnie was even better, with a skirling twin-lead guitar hook that grabbed on and wouldn't let go. The album is one winner after another, clever, sunny, songs with a slightly theatrical bent. It's a great collaboration with the Lemon Twigs, who I knew were talented but needed better songs. Emily, along with her partners in sass, Anastasia and Eva (who prefer first names), more than do their part as far as that's concerned. Fun, fun, fun - a pure blast of escapism and most welcome in these times.

You may also enjoy: 
Record Roundup: Plugged In
Record Roundup: Song Forms
Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)

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