Saturday, September 18, 2021

Record (And A Concert!) Roundup: On An Island

I may be in the minority, but I'm still not ready to go to indoor concerts. Whether it's in a glorious sweatbox like Market Hotel or the immaculate Merkin Hall, I can't seem to project myself into a space where everyone is sitting or standing together - masked or unmasked. I hope all my favorite artists, whose tour dates flash past in my newsfeed and my inbox, will forgive me. And I hope even more strongly that they get the audiences they deserve! Fortunately, some artists and presenters are being creative and I have so far been to concerts in a cemetery, an orchard, and will tonight experience one from a canoe in the Gowanus. But, most recently I visited a tiny, manufactured "island" in the Hudson River. Words on that below and on a few albums on islands of their own.  

International Contemporary Ensemble: Tyshawn Sorey - Autoschediasms While I can see arguments against them, as a lifelong New Yorker I am a fan of some of the investments made to revitalize the far west side with projects like the High Line. So I was curious about the latest to open, the Little Island, which has replaced Pier 55 on the edge of the Meatpacking District, but I couldn't see any reason to go there, especially with the Delta Variant cropping up everywhere. But then I got an invitation to one of the concerts in NYC Free, a monthlong series of events on Little Island that will hopefully become an annual summer institution. How could I resist the opportunity to see the International Contemporary Ensemble in their first live concert since 2020, with Tyshawn Sorey conducting Autoschediasms, his classic work of spontaneous composition? In short, I couldn't, so my daughter and I drove downtown and, after parking at a meter on Gansevoort (it can happen, people!), we walked over to the Little Island. 

Supported by a series of udder-like concrete stems, the place is a fully terraformed two-plus acres, with paths and hills and at least two areas for music performance. There are also food and drink concessions, tables to eat at, and a wide variety of plant life. The night we went (Thursday, August 19th), the place was buzzing, too, with a crowd diverse enough to set an urban planner's heart a-flutter. Was it a little more crowded than we would have liked in some areas? Yes, but most people were wearing masks and we employed a time-honored NYC strategy: keep moving. At least after my daughter had a quick meal of a tasty grilled cheese sandwich and a can of wine, we kept moving. We followed the signs to the Amph, which is a gorgeous amphitheater facing west, and were able to choose seats far from other people, many of whom wanted to sit with a direct view of the river and the sunset to to come.

Sorey admires his handiwork

As soon as the musicians assembled and Tyshawn Sorey began eliciting sounds from them with his trademark blend of hand gestures and instructions on a small whiteboard, I noticed the excellent amplified sound coming from the web of speakers above us. It was natural enough for the urban soundtrack to interact with the music, but loud enough so the sounds of the city couldn't become a distraction. As I did the last time I heard this piece - which is never the same twice - I took notes. Here's what I heard:

  • Ghostly wails and guttural noises from Alice Teyssier (flute and voice), joined by Corey Smythe (piano)
  • Cymbals and bells from percussionist Levy Lorenzo, splashy and nautical
  • Dan Lippell down-tunes the E string on his electric guitar and attacks it with an e-bow, drawing fourth deep, burred sounds
  • Mike Lormond's trombone inquires and Rebekah Heller's bassoon answers.
  • An airplane weighs in with white noise from above.
  • Teyssier on bass flute making whoops and whispers, a little comedy from Lormond's muted trombone.
  • Hypnotic groove emerges from Lorenzo's toms and suddenly we’re deep in a jungle, jazzy stabs from the piano.
  • Lippell starts to sparkle but…
  • Everyone STOPS and Smythe goes OFF, then it's back to the groove, Lippell soloing with a furious delicacy.
  • Things start to get frantic. And fragmented.
  • Baton held high, Sorey brings the hammer down and…silence. For a second, anyway, before a new section begins, spacious and abstract, a prop plane commenting from the skies.
  • Increasing angularity from percussion and guitar, brass and woodwinds in their own serene world.
  • Repetitions from the woodblocks join up with a twangy riff from Lippell, then Sorey leads Lorenzo into a percussion solo, funky and virtuosic.
  • Sorey starts micromanaging the percussion with his baton, directing rhythms and moving Lorenzo from instrument to instrument in his massive kit.
  • On to vibes and piano with a smooth underpinning from the woodwind and brass.
  • Lippell stars working his wah-wah and whammy bar, weaving a spell, Teyssier making strange incantations through her flute.
  • Smythe digs deep on the bottom end of the keyboard while Lorenzo gets intimate with his side drum, leaning in, keeping the mallet close to the skin.
  • Woodwind and brass get squirrelly, Smythe building something in the background, until Sorey pulls him to the fore.
  • Things quiet down and break apart, Lippell getting downright nasty.
  • Then we’re back in the ghost space again, Lippell, Smythe and Teyssier leading the way. Heller joins with percussive pops from her bassoon. 
  • Lippell is now using his slide and things get quiet until…an OUTBURST - and then “Goodnight, thanks!” And it’s over. 
Sorey steps down and walks off, followed by the musicians. Spectacular! Everyone should see this engaging, entertaining piece at least once. Even some of the children (those brave parents!) were captivated.

Alarm Will Sound - Tyshawn Sorey: For George Lewis | Autoschediasms Rather than being antithetical to the spontaneous nature of the piece, having recordings of Autoschediasms is actually a delight. At bottom, they confirm the impression that in the end, Sorey's methods are resulting in music - and excellent music, at that - spiky and alluring in equal measure. His collaboration with Alarm Will Sound is as deep as that with the International Contemporary Ensemble. So much so, that you would never know that one of these performances was recorded on Zoom during lockdown. I watched it happen in real time and it's a stunning tribute to the flexible strength of both his conception and the musicians involved. While I somewhat miss the edge-of-the-seat engagement with each musician's reactions to Sorey's directions, that's only because I've seen it happen. However, the two Autoschediasms here are almost bonus tracks to accompany the immaculate world-premiere recording of For George Lewis, a nearly hour-long homage to a towering figure in contemporary composition and one of Sorey's mentors. 

This magnificent piece is the kind of music that compels you to breathe along with it, deep, lingering breaths to entrain with the succession of extended tones and chords from the ensemble. Some of the gravitas of later Messiaen is here, along with Morricone at his most pensive, but the totality of the work is all Sorey. The way the woodwinds and brass link up and then separate, the extraordinary use of the piano's low end, and the immense subtlety of the percussion are just some of the very distinctive touches here. Another is the way he builds drama within a very narrow dynamic range, which is essentially unchanged throughout the piece, toying with your expectations and keeping you riveted throughout. And then, just as the conclusion is drawing near, an ever-so-gentle reference to jazz, with mournful, soaring trumpet, is seamlessly evoked. There is much to discover in this monumental work and I'm grateful for the journey.

Michael Compitello - Unsnared Drum My first listen through this album for solo snare drum went through a few stages. I started skeptically, unsure that it was even a good idea. Then as it launched on the wings of Nina C. Young's remarkably textured, electronically enhanced Heart.Throb (2019), it turned into a high-wire act. Could Compitello really keep up this level of interest on pieces by Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko? After the resonance and mystery of Young's piece faded, Lash's Start (2018) arrested with its brittle bursts, causing my admiration for her to rise, not to mention my astonishment at Compitello's brilliant technique. Ghost In The Machine (2019), Kirsten's entry, leans into the clanky funk of the drum's possibilities, even calling Michael Blair's work for Tom Waits to mind. Finally, we get Negative Magic (2019) by Ko, which starts as an exploration of the instrument's authority and evolves into an expression of its flexibility. Besides causing a paradigm shift in my view of the snare drum, Compitello's album is just a damned good listen. It's a handsome package, too, in case you still do the whole physical media thing.

Molly Herron + Science Ficta - Through Lines What causes an instrument to fade from view? Presumably, it's because new techniques and technologies make successor images "better" at the same job: more expressive, perhaps, while also sometimes being louder and easier to play and maintain. Whatever the reasoning, this album of music for viola da gamba will have you reconsidering that whole notion. Now, a quick read through the Wikipedia entry for this relative of the guitar and ancestor of the cello tells me that it fell out of fashion in the mid-18th century and has had periodic revivals of interest in the late 20th century and early 21st century, mostly around music of the baroque and renaissance era. But Herron is one of the few to simply use the instrument as a basis for new music without any reference to the past, and what a wonderful gift she has given us by doing so. 

Herron is also lucky to have Science Ficta, a viol da gamba trio made up of Loren Ludwig, Zoe Weiss, and Kivie Cahn-Lipman, as her collaborators, as they navigate the music and instruments with aplomb. Now, if you heard Through Lines without knowing what they were playing, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a cello trio, but there is a taut, almost metallic dryness to these sounds that is full of character. The music itself is quietly introspective and songful and occasionally radiates a woody hint of a Nick Drake solo guitar piece. Herron also seems to have a post-modern bent, as in Trill, which takes a Baroque ornament and makes a whole piece out of it. Just one remarkable invention on an album full of them!

Van Stiefel - Spirits Electric guitar wiz Stiefel throws a lot of names into his liner notes for this album of multilayered guitar pieces - Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell - but I would have to add Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno into the mix, thinking of some of the "country and western" tracks on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, or some of Lanois' pedal steel explorations. This often very chill but dimensional album also slots neatly with recent releases from Corntuth and Jeffrey Silverstein, making me think one of the spirits evoked here is the zeitgeist. But no matter; these intricate pieces, weaving electric guitar, lap steel, piano, and electronics in seamless fashion, can stand fully on their own and will enrich your universe.

Ning Yu & David Bird - Iron Orchid Yu's debut, 2020's Of Being was mightily impressive, but this album, a collaboration with composer David Bird, is a whole other animal. Bird, who first caught my ear on andPlay's wondrous Playlist, is obviously a deep thinker about sound, refusing to accept any limitations on what an instrument can do, in this case the piano, which is pushed to its limits as an object of wood and metal and plastic. Surrounding the sometimes startlingly heavy sonics generated by Yu are not only electronics but recordings collected from the Echo Chamber, an 11-foot tall sculpture created by Bird and Yu with Mark Reigelman that contains a speaker in each of its 56 metal tubes. That's all fascinating to know, but the overall experience of the album is of inventive, mind-expanding electroacoustic soundscapes, some spiky and herky-jerk, like a malfunctioning Terminator taking baby steps, others, like the staggering album-opener Garden, nearly overwhelming oceans of wall-shaking sound. I'm no audio elitist, but that latter quality is only fully realized on my good, old-fashioned component stereo. If there's one nearby, you owe it to yourself - and the dedicated team who made this extraordinary album - to play it there and at high volume.

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Monday, September 06, 2021

Record Roundup: Rooms Of Their Own

Each album below creates a self-contained universe and feels like a direct view into the minds and hearts of their creators. All are also musical innovators who put deeply personal explorations solidly in the context of these challenging times. Their artistic and emotional bravery can be inspiration and guidance for us all.

Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever I can't imagine what it's like to create something new when you're not so much an artist as an industry. One way around the pressure is to not think you're making an album, just recording a song here or there, and then get boxed into a corner by a global pandemic, which sidelines the world tour that was going to keep you occupied for the next 18 months. At least that seems to have worked for Eilish, who has beat the odds and followed up her earth-shattering debut with this excellent collection of (mostly) elegant and (mostly) intimate songs. I say "mostly" because when she lets all the tension out on the title track, it comes as an explosion of distortion maybe not heard since the golden age of digital hardcore. But up to that point, she and her brother Finneas, who produced the album, explore various realms of electronic pop, lacing in strains of bossa nova, blues, jazz, disco, in a restrained fashion that occupies the same small space as, say, Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants. 

While there's no doubt this is the same artist who made When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, the sense of an artist following her muse is very strong. Eilish has enough stadium anthems already, after all, but it will be interesting to see how quieter songs translate to the necessarily large venues she will be visiting on her tour, when it happens. As for her artistic development, there was a key moment in The World's A Little Blurry, the documentary about her early career, where she and Finneas are in the back of a tour bus trying to record their theme song for No Time To Die, and Finneas is urging her to put a little more power behind her vocal. She complains, saying something to the effect of, "I hate belting." Well, it seems like she protested to much. Besides the title track, there are a number of moments here where she lets it loose, like Oxytocin (which must have Madonna simmering with jealousy), a neo-house nightmare of a song that has her unleashing unearthly wails.

A note about the lyrics. While some have complained that they can't relate to the subject matter of the songs because they touch on Eilish's rapid ascent to stardom and the ensuing fallout...I say not so fast. Take the opening track, Getting Older, which has the line, "The things I once enjoyed, just keep me employed," which could be taken as a world weary plaint about how being famous is such a drag. Maybe there's a kernel of that in there, but it's also a rhyme Cole Porter would grab at, and in the context of a song where she also sings "I've had some trauma, did things I didn't wanna," I have no problem feeling sympathy for that narrator. And in NDA, where she makes a cutting remark about having a potential boyfriend sign a non-disclosure agreement before leaving her house, it would be easy to see that as a "first world problem," when the problem is really with the gossip-industrial complex that put her in that position in the first place. In the end, while there's plenty of hard-won personal experience fueling these songs, these are not journal entries but exercises in creative songwriting.

The sequencing of the album is one of its strengths, with tones, moods, and rhythms sliding into or interacting with each other in ways that pull you from song to song. Not My Responsibility is  the dark heart of the album and the tough inner core Eilish exhibits on that spoken word track about the many judging eyes on her and her body is a remarkable display of self possession - and will likely help many young women around the world. Only the last song, Male Fantasy, is ill-served by the track-list as it can't help feeling like an afterthought following the explosion of the title track. It's a beautiful song, however, with an almost folky quality and, like Your Power, shows off the crystal clarity of Eilish's soprano. It's thrilling to think that she has yet to fully exploit all the qualities of that golden voice.

My biggest concern after the massive success of Eilish's first album was that she and Finneas would be corrupted by success in a way that would taint their self-contained writing and production methods, leading to the use of outside writers, guest features, and other things that would dilute the power of their work. Thankfully that hasn't happened here, but I would note that on the vinyl copy I have, there's no mention of Finneas interpolating Gustav Holst in the intro to Goldwing, and neither is there any credit given for the lush photography (by the remarkably talented Kelia Anne MacCluskey) or the pretty graphic design. Until you can do literally everything yourself, it's a good idea to give credit where it's due. Just a minor point and one that doesn't sully one of the year's best albums.

Anika - Change I never knew how much I needed a record that combined the hauteur of Nico with the distracted pathos of Joy Division until I pressed play on this, Anika's second album in 11 years. That gap is misleading however, as she and Martin Thulin, who made the album with her, also released two albums  as Exploded View (along with Hugo Quezada and Amon Melgarejo) in 2016 and 2018. But I missed those at the time and was hence unaware of Anika's remarkable development as a songwriter and artist since that self-titled debut. Using a backing that often combines a tough rhythm section with synths that soar and squiggle in time-honored post-punk tradition, Anika declaims and sings lyrics that often hold up an all-too clear mirror to our current age of anxiety. This radical honest reaches a terrifying peak on Never Coming Back, a mantric (yet not preachy) chant about all we're erasing from the earth through our inability to stop climate change. That tension makes the title track all the more heartbreaking in its hopefulness. "I think we can change, I think we can change," she sings over and over, almost as if she's trying to convince herself. I know she's made me a believer!

My Tree - Where The Grace Is In 1971, Stevie Wonder planted a flag in the future world of synth pop with Look Around, the opening track from Where I'm Coming From. Now, we get the duo of Caroline Davis (vocals, vocal effects) and Ben ‘Jamal’ Hoffmann (keys, keybass, drum programming, guitars, vocals), who seem to have grasped a thread from that flag and pulled it right up to today. Another thing that outs them as Stevie's progeny is the captivating melodic invention of each song, which Davis sings with a jazzy lightness and flexibility. Hoffman's all-synth backing (right down to the LinnDrum rhythms) shimmers and sparkles, aided by a warm production and occasionally live contributions. Musically, it's a breezy experience, but dig a little deeper and you will find mention of Ahmaud Arbery and the Pulse Night Club shooting. They also dissect the Reagan presidency with some help from a rapper Rico Sisney, but even there they evince the light touch that distinguishes their sound and makes me hit "repeat" - I think you will, too.

(Eli)zabeth Owens - Knock Knock When I included Owens' debut, Coming Of Age, in my Best Of 2018: Rock, Folk, Etc., I closed by saying,
 "I get chills imagining the moment when her ambitions are fully realized." Well that moment came when I sat riveted on my couch as I watched the premiere of the visual album that accompanies this album. Using a dazzling variety of visual styles, Owens and their main collaborator, Oscar Keyes, explore issues of identity, breaking free from negative patterns, and the many ways our internal resilience can pull us through tough situations. The music, much of which was recorded and performed by Owens alone, combines sparking harp, lush piano, or spiky synth with glitchy hints of percussion, creating looping sound beds for their nearly operatic musings, which are unafraid of asking the hard questions. 

"When I was a kid, I thought I'd die young," they sing in Oversoon, "Wave goodbye to everything and everyone/Twenty years go by and I’m still alive…/What to do with all this time?" Often layering their voice to create hypnotic choirs and occasionally touching on prog rock, Owens is charting their own course here. While its easy to imagine fans of Kate Bush or Joanna Newsom coming on board, Owens communications more clearly to my heart than either of them. With this richly imaginative, almost theatrical album, Owens has installed themself yet more firmly in the musical firmament of our time. Catch a rising star today.

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Sunday, August 29, 2021

Lee Perry: Farewell To Scratch

I lay in bed, 14 or 15, waiting for sleep to come. I switched over to the AM dial and caught the soothing voice of reggae DJ Gil Bailey, whose show on WLIB I had enjoyed before. Even the commercials, often for local businesses in Queens and Brooklyn (such as Paul’s Boutique, immortalized by the Beastie Boys), were entertaining. 

Then I heard something hard and beautiful: a brutal drum intro followed by a reedy wavering voice: “Welllll, a wicked man I know will live forever...” What WAS this? Then the chorus: “When Jah Jah come, he make hellfire burn/When Jah Jah come, all Babylon have fe run.” The bass line, even coming out of the mono Radio Shack speaker, cut through me, a sound as serious as your life. That bass had a physical quality, a sculpture in sound, and formed an unstoppable groove with the ticking of the high hat, which had been processed into a gleaming chain of mechanical noises. I was wide awake now. Clearly this was reggae of a different order than the Bob Marley I knew or The Harder They Come. I never wanted the song to end, but I also couldn’t wait to hear Gil Bailey say who it was - I HAD to get that record. 

The next day, after school, I was on my way to J&R Music World to buy a record called Scratch and Company: The Upsetters Chapter 1.
This was my introduction to the world of Lee “Scratch” Perry, who died today at the age of 85. Perry had been an apprentice to Sir Coxsone Dodd, the founder of the legendary Studio One and one of the creators of the Jamaican recording industry. Perry eventually went on his own, building the Black Ark studio, the source of some of the most fascinating sounds ever committed to tape, and working with nearly every important singer in the roots reggae era. As an avatar of dub reggae, where sounds are manipulated with echo and other effects and instruments and vocals drop in and out of the mix, Perry was a central figure in the “Jamaica-fication” of popular music. Thanks to his innovations, and those of other Jamaican wizards, the producer became preeminent. Recording musicians in the studio is only the beginning of making a record, and a song can be the subject of endless remixes. The development of hip hop and dance music is unimaginable without his contributions.

Most of all, however, he made fabulous record after fabulous record, a river of music barely contained by the many discs I have. Any serious collection should have Heart of the Congos, Police & Thieves and at least one collection of Perry's work with Bob Marley. He also contributed to records by everyone from The Clash to the Beastie Boys. Sometime in 1979, either due to a mental breakdown or in an attempt to extricate himself from punishing business relationships, Perry torched the Black Ark and left Jamaica. For most of the last 40 years, he lived in Switzerland, still making records. He also made live appearances, including a bravura performance at Le Poisson Rouge with Adrian Sherwood and others in 2013 as part of Red Bull Music Academy's NYC in Dub festival. In 2015, he weathered another loss when his Swiss studio burned down in an accidental fire.

But he kept going. While his most recent output has been patchy, there have been moments of scattered brilliance. Seek out Rainford or its dub companion, Heavy Rain, to hear the best of his latter-day albums. Whether he’s truly nuts or just crazy like a fox, Perry deserved to rest on his laurels as someone who changed music in seismic ways - the aftershocks are still being felt today. Back in the day, I never went anywhere without 20 or 30 Perry-related songs on my iPod. Thanks to labels like Pressure Sounds, there is inexhaustible stream of new material to absorb. 

I am still in touch with that visceral reaction that I had that night, listening in bed. The liner notes on the back of Scratch and Company put it very well (all grammar from the original): “The Emotional Thrust The Burning intensity and the expressive feel in his recording stream; Here is a small drip of what I am talking about...listen in depth and you will hear what I mean and love it." 

The Black Ark man has left us today. It's more than time to "listen in depth" if you haven't already.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Record Roundup: Enigmas And Excitations

The composer starts with a blank page - or screen - and fills it with notes or diagrams, which are meant to enable others to issue forth sounds that previously only existed in the mind of their maker. While there may be iterations based on collaboration with the musicians, with a back and forth between writer and performers - or even an invitation to improvisation - the fact remains that it all begins one person's mind. Gain entry to some truly enigmatic and exciting thoughts below.

Spektral Quartet - Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Enigma Beethoven, Bartok, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich - just to name a few - all served to make the string quartet a proving ground for a composer. The exposed format presents both an opportunity and a challenge to translate your individuality and complexity across just 16 strings on four instruments. It's a different matter than a solo piece, which can also present difficulties, as one key element is interaction between the players. Still, the rigidity of the quartet makeup provides an excellent opportunity for the listener to compare approaches, like creating an overlay in he mind of The Beatles and Wire, who both use two guitars, bass, and drums as their essential lineup. Shostakovich also helped establish the idea of the string quartet being an especially personal expression, away from the more public space of the symphonic or operatic.

Those are some reasons I was all aquiver when I heard that Anna Thorvaldsdottir, one of the preeminent composers of our time, had written a string quartet. The work, called Enigma, premiered in Washington DC in 2019 and is finally being released on August 27th in a stunning performance by the Spektral Quartet, beautifully produced by Dan Merceruio for Sono Luminus. Right from the start of the three-movement work it's obvious that Thorvaldsdottir is operating on her own trajectory, with little reference to what's come before in the medium. Beginning with some mysterious alchemy that has the strings sounding like a distant wind, or someone's breath, Enigma is instantly arresting. Long, drawn-out chords further the piece's grip, almost physically pulling you in, as a melody emerges from the drip-drip-drip of the sequences. More breathing, the sound of insects ascending in a swarm, glassy notes interleaving, and sustained drones all assemble in a sound world that seems as visual as it is sonic. 

After listening several times, I'm not surprised to learn that there is a virtual reality component to Enigma, created in collaboration with filmmaker Sigurdur Gudjonsson. While the first release will be a conventional CD, eventually you will be able to  explore this at home with a VR headset. However, I imagine its full expression may be in future performances, each conceived to be a "360 degree full-dome theater live concert experience," premiering in Chicago and Reykjavik in spring/summer 2022. Hopefully additional dates will include New York!

The second movement is a little more active, with dramatic barks underpinning drones and occasional quick-moving passages. What starts to sink in is Thorvaldsdottir's preternatural understanding of the many varieties of sound that can be produced between wood, string, and bow. An extraterrestrial would not need much to be convinced she had conceived and built these instruments herself strictly for the purpose of making this music. Movement three is a bit eerie, as if exploring a pitch dark space, cobwebs dancing in pin-sized shafts of light. Then, ever so slowly, a melody develops, an ascending series of chords that seem to pay homage to the human need for order and narrative. An ancient song to carry you home. Listen to Enigma once and you just may believe it has always existed.

José Luis Hurtado - Parametrical Counterpoint Even as the board chair for Talea Ensemble, who play on six of eight tracks here, it took a random internet occurrence - i.e. luck - for me to learn about this album. At a recent board meeting, I learned it was a surprise to the ensemble as well, having recorded the works back in 2015 and then lost track of the project. Perhaps the delay was due to Hurtado, wanting to fill the album out a little, which he does with the two piano pieces that bookend the collection. Hurtado plays those himself, opening things up with the almost violent The Caged, The Immured (2018), which pushes the piano to some of its limits of volume and sustain. It's a thrill-ride from start to finish, with Hurtado in complete control throughout and the patented excellence of Oktaven Audio's sound on full display. Apparently there's a two-piano version, with the second instrument playing the same score, yet read upside down - must be quite an experience!

Retour (2013) is next, putting Talea through their paces for a dynamic, fragmented seven minutes and change. It's spicy and tart, full of agitated strings, a blatting trombone, and a flute whispering like a shy person trying desperately to get your attention among the noise. It's a delightful introduction to Hurtado's ensemble work, as are the four versions of Parametrical Counterpoint (all 2015), which pit two variable ensembles against each other to play a series of modules in an order of their choosing. Each version is a fast paced swirl of ideas, with the musicians trading melodic and rhythmic ideas with verve and commitment. Incandescent (2015) for 12 amplified instruments, is full of mechanical interactions, like a rusted engine trying to turn over. While still fragmentary, there's a greater sense of unity among the ensemble and a real sense of forward motion. Le Stelle (2015), for piano and fixed media, closes the album, a starlit and occasionally disorienting series of short, linked pieces that have the piano and electronics combining with a masterful organicity. This is the first I'm hearing of Hurtado, but thanks to this stunning collection he's firmly on my radar now.

Rarescale + Scott L. Miller - 05 IX I was eager to hear more from Miller after Tak Ensemble's marvelous recording of his Ghost Layers last year - and he delivered, putting this wild and occasionally wacky collection of telematically created pieces right in my inbox. With the pandemic pausing their usual collaborative methods, Miller and Rarescale, a flexible ensemble based in the UK, explored ways to work together online. As they normally work with graphic scores that encourage improvisation as the instrumentalist reacts to electronic sounds produced by Miller on the Kyma, they needed a platform that would allow them to interact in real time with very little latency, eventually settling on one called (yes) Netty McNetface. You can see some of how this worked in this video, which show Miller and his colleague, Pat O'Keefe (clarinet), in Minnesota jamming with Viv Corringham (voice and electronics, from Long Island) and Rarescale's Carla Rees (flutes, from London), working off of Miller's graphic score. 

OK, that's a lot of the HOW of 05 IX, but what does it sound like? Featuring Rees and her Rarescale colleague Sarah Watts on clarinets, this varies greatly from Ghost Layers in sound and style. Full of witty asides and amusing outbursts, this combo of people and instruments seems primed for play. Round 2 is a perfect example, with Miller's Kyma echoing and leading Rees' flute, like a robot trying to imitating its human companion. Picture C3PO and Luke Skywalker - but in a Marx Brothers comedy - to get some idea. However, there's more to it than that, with moments of repose and atomization, as if each player is returning to a quiet corner before leaping forth and batting sounds around some more. In just under five minutes, the piece takes you on quite a journey, which can certainly be said for the album as a whole. What other tricks does Miller have up his sleeve?

Douglas Boyce - The Hunt By Night Having delighted in The Hunt By Night when it opened Against Method, last year's brilliant album from Counter)induction, I was excited to dig into this collection. As the four other pieces here demonstrate, the man knows what he's doing, generating chamber works that are both splashy and elegant, whether interacting with the genius of the past, as on Quintet "L'homme armé," inspired by that medieval melody, or the future, as on Sails Knife-bright in a Seasonal Wind, inspired by his son as a four-year-old. Alternately playful and contemplative, that piece, like many here, features members of Counter)induction, in this case, Miranda Cuckson (violin), Dan Lippel (guitar), and Jeffrey Irving (percussion), with everyone engaging deeply with Boyce's music. But all the performances and the recording are top-notch, making this a perfect showcase for a composer deservedly gaining wider attention - give him yours.

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Note: The illustration contains part of a work by François-Xavier Lalanne as seen at The Clark.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Record Roundup: Rock'n'Pop Adjacent

There are number of releases at least adjacent to rock and pop that have been energizing me throughout 2021. Get into these albums (and one playlist) and get all the feels, from raucous to reflective.   

The Muckers - Endeavor Thanks to kick-ass releases by Jane Church and Frankie and the Witch Fingers, I always keep an eye out to see what Greenway Records is putting out, which is how this caught my ear. Led by Emir Mohseni, their sleekly propulsive psych-rock generates excitement at any volume. Between Mohseni and rhythm guitarist Chris Cawley, there's a supple funkiness to much of the riffage, while the bass and drums of Anthony Azarmgin and John Zimmerman keep things moving in tireless and unfussy fashion. I can imagine The Muckers being a complete thrill in a club setting and will find out for myself when the time is right.

Acid Dad - Take It From The Dead I've been keeping a close eye on this band since at least 2016 when  I noted the "riff-tastic garage rock" on their Let's Plan A Robbery EP in my Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.. However, I did feel then, and on their 2019 debut album, that they could push their sound more. And they have! Since they're also affiliated with Greenway I'd like to think that some of Jane Church's expressive melodicism and FATWF's hypnotic power has rubbed off on them, but it's more likely just the sound of a good band getting better. Either way, this is their best album yet, with Vaughn Hunt and Sean Fahey's signature spiraling guitars and drummer and groove-oriented rhythms sounding more confident and involving than ever. This especially comes to fruition on knockout tracks BBQ, RC Driver and album-closing epic Djembe. That last one starts out quietly, with a questing bass line supporting a stately rhythm, and just keeps building in a controlled fashion, inexorably becoming your whole world. Keep'em coming, boys!

Bachelor - Doomin' Sun I loved Jay Som's last album, Anak Ko, but had a little trepidation when I saw her next release was a collaboration with an artist I was only slightly familiar with, Ellen Kempner, who records as Palehound. File the results under: Stop worrying so much. Doomin' Sun turns out to have many of the pleasures Jay Som (Melina Duterte) delivers on her own, namely well-developed melodies, songs constructed with old-school craft, and smart, relatable lyrics. So what does Palehound bring to the mix? Considering Jay Som's last two albums were made completely on her own, there is a jolt of energy and dynamics triggered by their devoted friendship, which seems to involve a lot of laughter. Palehound also brings more guitars, helping some songs build to washes of shoegazey deliciousness, and her higher voice blends beautifully with Duterte's more mezzo tones. The two make a remarkable production team, too - just listen to the sonic details on Anything At All. A side benefit of this terrific album is that digging into Palehound's back catalog made me realize I should have kept a closer eye on her. And whatever Jay Som wants to do next, or with whom, I'm on board. 

Lael Neale - Acquainted With Night Have Omnichord sales increased since this dusky jewel of an album came out in February? I wouldn't be surprised as the combination of Neale's crystalline voice with the plastic sparkle of her Omnichord is pure captivation. Her songs have the sturdy quality of folk music coupled with a haunted quality from the darker side of the girl group sound. There's a sense of privacy here, like a half-finished Nick Drake bedroom recording, that feels almost mythic. But Neale and her Omnichord are very real and no less precious for that.

UV-TV - Always Something I've been a fan since 2017 and it seemed to promise great things for the year in live music when I finally got to see them in February, 2020. Well, I was wrong about that but my ongoing fascination with the sonic vision of Rose Vastola (bass, vocal) and Ian Bernacette (guitar, vocals) has paid mighty dividends on their third album. Continuing the trend from 2019's Happy, the production has improved yet further adding sheen and heft to their taut post-punk and letting Vastola's voice soar over it all. As I secretly wished, she sings on all tracks, letting Bernacette concentrate on what he does best, namely playing guitar, drawing on familiar vocabulary (Johnny Marr, Bernard Sumner) but putting his own spin on it, whether using colorful arpeggios or layering crunchy chords. New drummer Ian Rose fits in perfectly, whether thrashing away or providing a motorik backbeat. If you have yet to tune into UV-TV, now is the time.

Palberta - Palberta5000 Unlike some of the bands included here, I'm a latecomer to the trio of Ani Ivry-Block, Lily Konigsberg, and Nina Ryser, catching the caboose here on their fifth album. So I've missed their whole trajectory from exceedingly lo-fi, ramshackle avant-rock to where we are now: a heat-seeking missile of mathy minimalism with sugary vocals shining brightly over the churn und drang of the music. Some of this story may be informed by the development of Konigsberg as a songwriter, which you can trace on the excellent compilation The Best Of Lily Konigsberg Right Now, which also came out earlier this year. As that title suggests, humor is a part of the Palberta charm, very occasionally becoming self-indulgent. But most of the album is wondrously catchy art-pop. More impressive, many songs barely hit 90 seconds yet still feel absolutely complete, making my head spin at all they pack into those tiny vignettes. Fun, smart stuff - and I definitely won't miss the next one.

Ganser - Look At The Sun This Chicago band's second album, 2020's Just Look At That Sky, gained them much attention and accolades. I listened, too - a couple of times - and admired it while not being totally grabbed. This EP, which finds songs from the album being remixed by everyone from current indie sensation Bartees Strange to shoegaze maestro Andy Bell of Ride (in his electronic guise as GLOK). In the case of the former, Strange strips Emergency Equipment And Exits down to its essence, chopping off a guitar part or two and losing two minutes in the process. The result is a tidy machine of a song, highlighting Alicia Gaines' powerful voice, which takes on an unearthly tone over the chugging rhythm. And so it goes throughout, with each collaborator, including Sadie Dupuis, Algiers, and Girl Band, putting their own stamp on their track while somehow maintaining Ganser's personality. It will likely turn me back to the album and to a new appreciation of their sound and songs. 

Lucy Dacus - Home Video I've been more of an admirer from a distance than a fan of Dacus, a fine singer and songwriter who regularly lands on year-end lists and certainly doesn't need my help to get attention. But I can feel my own attention shifting with this, her third album. The songwriting seems more focused, her voice more expressive, the settings a little more pop oriented, and the production is warm and highly detailed when it needs to be but is never fussy. But those are just words I'm using to try to explain this: Home Video touches me in ways her previous albums didn't. Many of the songs revolve around her coming of age, coming to terms with her sexuality, being confronted with the pain the world can dish out, and learning that you can survive and grow through all of that. In short, most anyone can relate, even if their upbringing and circumstances were different. Home Video represents another coming of age for Dacus, this time as an artist who can tap into almost primal emotions ("I would kill him/If you let me/I would kill him/Quick and easy," she sings in Thumbs, wishing the demise of a friend's deadbeat dad) with a lethal elegance. I saw her open for Jonathan Wilson a few years ago, and she did not quite command the stage. Listening to Home Video, I can't imagine that ever happening again.

LABEL FOCUS: Eye Knee Records This is a new venture founded by expert singer-songwriters Holly Miranda, Amb. Parsley, and Chris Maxwell, self-described as "a homemade label, periodical, co-op and kitchen." Most importantly, it's a way for them to remain completely independent, without any outside influences affecting what they release or when and how they release it. They're also promising to tithe all proceeds from one in every ten releases "back to the community." Now, Holly Miranda is one of the most important artists in MY 21st century, so I'll follow her wherever - and I'm excited by the idea of her having total control over her art. I've also enjoyed Parsley's work over the years, especially in concert, and she is easily as skilled in the studio as Miranda, and Maxwell is a sharp songwriter and explosively talented guitar player. The three of them make a fantastic team, able to put together songs in nearly any style or sound, and the fruits of their labors have been impressive so far.

No albums yet, but the 11 songs Eye Knee has put out range from Let A Wolf, a dark-tinged slow-burner with smoky guitar from Maxwell and coy vocals from Parsley, to Exiled In Alicante, a hushed acoustic song that has Miranda singing with moving restraint, as if holding back a flood of emotion. Then there's Kindness Of Strangers, perhaps the finest song co-writers Maxwell and Parsley have been involved in, and one of the best of the last few years. It's a song that should be sung around campfires unto eternity, deeply human and perfectly constructed. The production by Miranda is equally perfect. She sings backing vocals and plays guitar, drums, and xylophone alongside her regular collaborators Maria Eisen on baritone sax and Josh Werner on bass. Then there's Miranda's devastating take on Bonnie Raitt's Nick Of Time, with nothing but her guitar and Parsley's backing vocals. No one but Holly can take a song that has essentially become background noise and find a way to rip your heart all over again. 

New Setlist No. 2

I got to hear her do that to Van Morrison's Sweet Thing in the open air, at a concert the three of them recently put on at Westwind Orchards in the Catskills, and it was just extraordinary. The whole show put their partnership on full display, with each supporting the others in their own songs. We got to hear  Nothingland, a new song from Maxwell, as well as his cover of Nick Lowe's When I Write The Book and a few from New Store No. 2, his marvelous 2020 album,. Parsley gave us Strangers, Wolf, and a number called Heavy Metal Stacy, which let Maxwell unleash his inner Eddie Van Halen, with the moves to match. And Miranda did some of the new songs but dug deep with classics from her catalog like Until Now, Desert Call, and Waves. There is nothing to replace the sensation of Holly Miranda standing right there, singing for all she's worth and letting it rip with one of humanity's golden voices. I'm on the edge of pretension trying to paint the picture for you, but hopefully that will compel you to get out there if she shows up and a club or an orchard near you.

All of the artists above could learn from this trio's passion, work ethic, and level of craft. I urge them - and you - to buy all the Eye Knee songs, now numbering 11, and put them in a playlist - it's as satisfying a listen as any of this year's best albums. Email me at and I will gift you with what I think is the perfect sequence, which I have dubbed The Eye Knee Experience. Since neither Maxwell, Miranda, or Parsley is afraid of a bad pun, I leave you with this: I need more Eye Knee!

Eye Knee Trio Live: Amb. Parsley, Holly Miranda, and Chris Maxwell

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Songs And Singers
Record Roundup: Rock Formations
Holly Miranda's Exquisite Mutual Horse

Monday, July 05, 2021

The Best Of 2021 (So Far)

The year's halfway point is a good opportunity to take stock of the music that has been animating my year, some of which I haven't had a chance to write about yet. As always, what constitutes the "best" is simply what has demanded repeat listening because of the way it connects to my heart, soul, brain, and body, not necessarily due to a higher level of "excellence" than the other music I've written about. Here goes nothin'!

Previously covered albums are linked to their original review. Click play here or on the playlist below to listen while you read.

1. Fruit Bats - The Pet Parade

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Quietly Blowing It

3. Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson - Dark Days

4. Elsa Hewitt - Lupa "Rivers and streams feeding my dreams," Hewitt sings in Car In The Sun, a line that captures everything I love about her music. Part of the reality of flowing water is that it's "never the same twice" - but, just as the Thames is always the Thames, Hewitt's music is always an invitation to a universe of wondrously hazy electronic ethereality, familiar from album to album, but never precisely the same. The fact that I'm quoting lyrics when talking about Lupa is one aspect of what makes it a new step for her: eight of the nine tracks have lyrics, when usually the opposite is true. Often any singing she does is wordless, another texture in the layers of gauze she assembles. While she's still swathing her voice in reverb, you can read along with the words either on Bandcamp or within the j-card of the limited-edition cassette. Just as her music maps out a luscious interiority, occasionally defined by beats, her lyrics have the immediacy of conversation and the intimacy of a journal entry, like these opening words from Howl: "What am I up to?/I'm just upstairs, trying to cope with/Heavy wordless love in my chest/How do I continue? How?" In addition to this extra content, the rhythms are often more intricate and defined than they have been, a drift towards the shiny lights of pop music, and one which feels entirely organic. Squirrelex opens with another lyric that feels like a mission statement: "i am warm but not too warm/i am on a journey that i adore/i am like a shaman on mtv/the cameras obstructed by fog." I adore her journey, too, in all its warmth, chill, and fog.

5. Tak Ensemble - Taylor Brook: Star Maker Fragments

6. Jane Weaver - Flock

7. Domenico Lancelotti - Raio

8. Madlib - Sound Ancestors

9. Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises

10. Sō Percussion and Friends - Julius Eastman: Stay On It

11. Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg

12. Wavefield Ensemble - Concrete & Void

13. Faye Webster - I Know I'm Funny HaHa In my review of her third album, Atlanta Millionaire's Club, I noted that Webster could almost be Natalie Prass's little sister. Now, on her lush fourth album, she inched even closer, recording some of it at Spacebomb Studios and engaging Trey Pollard, their in-house polymath, to conduct some of the arrangements. By leaning further into to her country-soul inclinations she also seems ever closer to her genuine self. One of my favorite songs is Kind Of, which also seems to be a deep cut, at least if Spotify play counts are to be believed. With an organ and pedal steel dueling for the stars and a guiro's ratchet sound driving the rhythm, she ends the song by repeating the chorus, "And I feel kind of tucked away," for over a minute before relinquishing the song to the music. It's as if she casting a spell - and I'm entranced. Kind Of leads into to Cheers, which has a grungy strut yet manages to retain a delirious melancholy, the two songs forming the backbone of her most consistent album yet. And I haven't even mentioned the brilliant Better Distractions, which even managed to attract the attention of Barack Obama, or whoever creates his playlists, when it was released as a single in 2020. I do admit that my devotion to this album is not hurt at all by the fact that Prass hasn't released anything in three years. It's not that one replaces the other - and I hope Prass is OK - but they hit similar sweet spots. And it's one of my sweet spots that needs attention!

14. Mallu Magalhães - Esperança If you want to know what a smile sounds like, listen to Magalhães sing "Chin-chin-chin chin-chin chin-chin-chin" on the chorus of Barcelona from her fifth album. You will soon be smiling yourself, whatever mood you were in when you started listening. As she revealed on Facebook, the album was completed over a year ago, but she just could not see launching it in the midst of the world's troubles. That's a debatable point, but the good news is that we now have this lighter than air confection to propel us through whatever comes next. Recorded in Portugal and co-produced by her fellow Brazilian Mario Caldato, Jr., Esperança finds Magalhães perfecting her sublime blend of bossa nova, fifties-inflected pop, soul, funk, jazz, and folk. Look no further for a direct injection of pure pleasure.

15. Christopher Cerrone - The Arching Path

16. Raoul Vignal - Years In Marble As on his exquisite second album, 2018's Oak Leaf, Vignal's latest finds him generating rainswept bliss with his fingerpicked guitar, hushed voice, and the sensitive drums and percussion of Lucien Chatin. However, Vignal, who also plays bass, synth, sax and bamboo flute on the album, is also coming out of the shadows a bit, with more uptempo songs and an increased dynamism to his sound. To Bid The Dog Goodbye, for example, has flourishes (electric guitar! bongos!) and stopped-tempo moves that evince a subtle drama. But the core of it all is that guitar, which he plays with the off-hand perfection of a Michael Chapman or Nick Drake. After honing his craft for the last three years, Vignal should be top of mind for anyone seeking the finest in contemporary singers, songwriters, and guitarists.

17. Anika Pyle - Wild River

18. Tyler, The Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost With 2019's Igor, Tyler arrived at a new pinnacle of creativity and emotional connection, a trajectory he continues with this kaleidoscopic album. His ability to bare his soul while sailing over a multitude of genres, from synth-pop to RnB to lovers rock, with a casual virtuosity is truly remarkable. Similar to Frank Ocean, who makes an uncredited appearance here, Tyler is trying to reconcile where he is now - and who he is now - with where he came from. But he avoids solipsism by letting in the outside world through well-deployed guest spots, which do nothing to reduce the individuality of his achievement. One key feature is a voice memo from his mother describing her devotion in no uncertain terms: "I'd stand in front of a bullet, on God, over this one." Her concern somehow becomes ours and strengthens the bond between listener and artist. The centerpiece of the album is the nearly 10-minute Sweet/I Thought You Wanted To Dance, in which he transforms two well-traveled songs (this one and this one) into a two-part suite of love and loss that dazzles in all directions. As a producer, Tyler is like a painter who chooses just the right color from a polychrome palette. In addition to the transformed samples, he adds RnB singers Brent Faiyaz and Fana Hues are the perfect surrogate and foil, respectively, to illustrate the story. Tyler's ambition is as massive as his talent and, at this point, it's hard to imagine the former outstripping the latter. After Madlib, this is the hip hop album of the year - and number three is not even close!

19. Ben Seretan - Cicada Waves

20. Patricia Brennan - Maquishti

21. Amy Helm - What The Flood Leaves Behind

22. Adam Morford & Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Yesterday Is Two Days Ago

23. Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

24. Mndsgn - Rare Pleasure Sometimes an artist has to go backwards to move forward. Or something like that. Whatever the lesson, this third album from the composer, singer, and producer Ringgo Ancheta delivers on all the promise in his first, 2014's Yawn Zen in ways I couldn't even imagine, especially after Body Wash, the disappointing follow up from 2016. Richly immersive from the opening seconds, Mndsgn constructs something like the Muzak from a divine elevator, jazzy, woozy, and soulful sounds that seem to beg you to find a hammock immediately and just sway along. While wonderful, Yawn Zen, was just the bare bones of his heavenly vision. Inviting brilliant collaborators like arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to help realize those ideas is just one reason Rare Pleasure succeeds on all levels - and lives up to its title perfectly.

25. Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince

Keep up with all my listening across all genres in these playlists: 
Of Note In 2021
Of Note In 2021 (Classical)
Of Note In 2021 (Electronic)
Of Note In 2021 (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
Of Note In 2021 (Jazz, Latin & Global)
Of Note In 2021 (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
Of Note In 2021 (Out Of The Past)

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2020 (So Far)
Best Of 2019 (So Far)
The Best Of 2018 (So Far)
Best Of 2017 (So Far)

AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Record Roundup: Americana The Beautiful

For the last four or five years, there's been an increasingly bitter battle over what it means to be an American. There are some of those among us who might even have found themselves questioning the whole enterprise, i.e. how good could this place be if it produced those people with those ideas? But most days, the good outweighs the bad, even if the latter can get an unholy grip on the reins for a moment. Turning towards albums like those reviewed below can be a part of both appreciating the good and gathering strength to resist the bad. We must be doing something right if music like this still grows here, alongside those amber waves of grain. Reap the harvest.

Hiss Golden Messenger - Quietly Blowing It The critic's job can be tough when an artist nails it in their own words, as HGM's M.C. Taylor does in his essay, Mourning In America, when he says, "I'm not sure what the difference is between celebrating and mourning. I feel like I was doing both at the same time." There in a nutshell is the array of moods, from joy and sorrow to hope and regret, found here, masterfully distilled and blended into a complex whole, like one of those whiskies made from 12 different barrels of varying ages. In that same essay, Taylor also talks about the difficult journey to Quietly Blowing It, which began in late 2019 when, blown out on the trail and unsure of his purpose, he cancelled his first Australian tour - he hated disappointing people but  says "it felt like the best $10,000 I'd ever spent" - and came home to his family. 

From the outside perspective, part of the conundrum Taylor was confronting is what might be termed the corrosive effect of success, which can burn off rough edges, dispel mystery, and tie up loose ends in the misguided quest for more of the same. When his last album, the beautiful Terms Of Surrender, earned his first Grammy nomination (for best Americana album), perhaps it also allowed some of those voices, both external and internal, to intrude enough for him to doubt his process. But the best defense against that lay in his own remarkable discography, now ten albums strong and stretching back to 2008. That Grammy nom - and the increasing attention that led to it - was arrived at without compromise, in his continual pursuit of realizing songs that combined the personal and the universal while paying homage to his musical forebears and honing his own distinct sound.

Beginning with three hymn-like chords on a keyboard (likely played by Devonne Harris, of Richmond, VA stalwarts Butcher Brown), Way Back In The Way Back welcomes you to the album like an old friend, with chiming guitar joining in and soon that Matt McCaughan backbeat I've rhapsodized about before (or it could be Brevan Hampden, who's just as good). As the song wends its way with a weary strength through lyrics that hint at the exhaustion Taylor described, a pair of saxophones join in, played by Stuart Bogie and Matt Douglas, lending muscle and building a foundation for a guitar solo both stylish and raw (sounds like Josh Kaufman, but the great Buddy Miller is also in the credits), and the sense of a man who knows exactly how to express himself is undeniable before the song is even over. But if he doesn't put the couplet, "Up with the mountains/Down with the system," on a t-shirt I will feel free to question his merch strategy!

Now, last time around, some sought to make hay out of the fact that Scott Hirsch, who had been on many prior albums, was not present. He's back this time, lending his lap-steel and synth expertise, yet Phil and Brad Cook, who were on several albums as well as being in the touring band from time to time, are absent this time. While Brad's sensitive bass playing and Phil's over-driven guitar and harmonica solos and dominating abilities on the organ are always highlights onstage and on album, HGM has always been Taylor's vision and I have seen nothing to indicate that anything interpersonal is involved. Scheduling is a more likely culprit, as both Cooks are busy in many kitchens, including their own. Hell, if Phil makes an album as good as Southland Mission again, I'll be actually happy he wasn't on this one. And never forget that Alex Bingham, who plays bass here, created what Aquarium Drunkard called the "song of the year" in 2019. This is all just to say: Whether you're a longtime Hiss fan or newer to the band and listened before you read the credits, you knew you were in good hands just by the sound of the thing.

The Great Mystifier is a nifty country-tinged mover, with twin-lead guitars tipping their hat to Duane and Dicky, while Mighty Dollar is molasses-slow, with a funky groove for Taylor to preach his anti-prosperity-gospel gospel: "It never fixed a broken heart/It never made a dumb man smarter." Give the man a mega-church for the truly righteous. The song kind of grinds to a halt, leaving a space for the achingly gorgeous title track, limned with Hirsch's lap-steel, to make its mournful way. "The shape of things/Don’t look so good/On the TV there’s a riot goin’ on," Taylor sings, recognizing our recent history while giving tribute to Sly Stone who caught 1970 with as much acuity on that classic album. Curtis Mayfield also gets called into the room on Hardlytown, with its rousing "People get ready" in the pre-chorus. If It Comes In The Morning, a co-write with Anaïs Mitchell, also has a gospel flavor, providing a needed uplift continued by the solid-rock folk of Glory Strums (Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner). Thus bolstered, Taylor feels free to sink into the near despair of Painting Houses, co-written with Gregory Alan Isakov and one of the saddest songs he's recorded. 

Angels In The Headlights, a glorious slice of spaced-out cowboy music that seems barely tethered to earth, fluttering heavenward on Hirsch's steel wings, may be the shortest at just under two minutes, but if Taylor ever plays it live, I hope it goes on for 20. Sanctuary, which ends the album, could almost serve as a mission statement for the whole HGM project, with its perfect opening and closing lyrics: "Feeling bad/Feeling blue/Can’t get out of my own mind/But I know how to sing about it." It already feels like a standard, too, partly because it was released a while ago, but mostly due to Taylor's emotionally engaged craftsmanship, both with his pen and in the studio. The same could be said of Quietly Blowing It as a whole, which Taylor produced solo, arriving at one of the deepest expressions of his art yet released. Careful, dude - keep this up and you just might blow it for real by getting even more successful.

P.S. HGM is one of THE great live acts - if you want a reminder of all we've been missing since March 2020, check the dates to see if they're coming to a venue near you.

Jeffrey Silverstein - Torii Gates As he did on last year's wondrous You Become The Mountain, Silverstein is mapping out a very distinctive territory where tributaries of the New Age river flow into a gentle stream of sun struck Americana. A key element is Barry Walker Jr.'s pedal steel, which seems to take as much from Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks as it does from Nashville. Spare bass from Alex Chapman and Silverstein's guitar and vocals complete the picture, along with an occasional drum machine. Songs seem to emerge out of the atmosphere on repeated listens, and one they do, the mood and the melodies will be tough to shake off. No matter, you can just play it again...and again...

Corntuth - The Desert Is Paper Thin On his debut album, Music To Work To, this Brooklyn-based artist applied a canny songwriting sense to the tools of ambient music for a winning combination that was as good to work to as it was to just listen. Here, he takes us on an imagined journey through the American southwest, adding the organic tones of his own acoustic guitar - often miked extremely closely - and the pedal steel of Pete Finney, who's worked with Mike Nesmith, Beck, and everyone in between, to the electronic textures. The sound is sublime, with the looped nature of the songs making for a hypnotic experience. Between Silverstein and Corntuth, Hiss Golden Messenger has some good company in the spaced-out cowboy music genre - book a flight. The album releases on July 16th but you can pre-save the first single now to hear it on July 2nd - and keep an eye on Corntuth's site, Bandcamp, and Flow State for more information to come.

Amy Helm - What The Flood Leaves Behind The story we tell ourselves and others about why a record works or doesn't work is just that - a story. But the working or not working is a real thing that can't be explained away. So, I could tell a story about Helm's first two albums seeming to come from an obligation to her heritage as the daughter of the legendary Levon Helm, or maybe diluted by producers or music biz affiliations. But who knows? All I can say is that, while the second album, This Too Shall Light, was getting closer, I was not compelled to keep listening. That all changes here, with these ten new songs quenching a thirst I didn't know I had, and it's a drink of which I have yet to tire. I can tell myself story about that, too, about her prodigal return to Levon's studio, home of his rambles and where she may have first raised her voice in public. Or I could talk about Josh Kaufman, who produced and played a half dozen instruments beyond his usual brilliant guitars, and who seems to be able to create a place of comfort for artists, where they can produce their best work. 

And if you're a Hiss Golden Messenger fan looking for Phil Cook, he's here, too, along with expert rhythm section Michael Libramento (bass) and Tony Mason (drums). They're intrinsic to the success of the album, along with Daniel Littleton's electric guitar and the superb horn section of Stuart Bogie (sax) and Jordan McLean (trumpet), who even give some Garth Hudson wooziness to Renegade Heart, the final track. Helm has also come into her own as a songwriter, writing or co-writing seven of the songs here, showing an ease with her history (from Cotton And The Cane, co-written with Mary Gauthier: "My father was a sharecropper’s son/Handed hope and hymns to ease the pain" and "Heroin, I’m locked out again/On the side of the road") and a fine use of imagery (from Coming Home: "Found a picture of her/I framed it in gold now it burns up the room"), making songs that feel simultaneously new yet familiar, personal and universal.

Maybe she learned some of those lessons from M.C. Taylor, whose sterling song, Verse 23, opens the album, applying a Dylanesque resonance and concision to lines like "Some got caught in the wanting/And some lost the feel/Some got lost in their own eyes/And went crazy on the hill." But the true glory of the album is Helm's voice, rich and earthy now, reminiscent of Frazey Ford, and less concerned with conveying words as with carrying emotional weight. Whether on gentle songs like that opening track or the gutsy funk of Breathing, everything she does feels completely natural and from the heart. So take all the stories you've heard or told yourself about Amy Helm and close the book. This is a new volume and one I suspect we will be reading for a long time. It should be great to hear live, too.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: American Harvest
Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana
Autumn Albums, Part 1
Autumn Albums, Part 2
Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood
New Americana, Part 1: Phil Cook
New Americana, Part 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon