Sunday, June 13, 2021

Record Roundup: Novelty Is Not Enough

Some of the hardest work of writing AnEarful is choosing what to share out of the many, many recordings that come my way. As ever, the cream rises to the top, but when interrogating why the cream is the cream, I think I've settled on something: Newness is not enough. While it's certainly admirable to push music forward by organizing sound in a manner that seems to have never been done before, for me to truly love something it must go beyond the merely novel. For example, take The Residents. While I can certainly say nothing else sounds like them and I appreciate the opportunity to hear something so strange, I'm not compelled to make their music a part of my life. Their novelty is something on which we can objectively agree, it's what is lacking for me that shades into the subjective. That said, perhaps some of what I share below may not fit the bill on all levels for you - but I hope you will give it a chance to at least expand your conception of what music can be and do.

Sō Percussion and Friends - Julius Eastman: Stay On It One of the most riveting events of the current livestream era was when Sō Percussion presented their version of Eastman's pioneering piece of maxi-minimalism with a stunning, mind-melting video by MediaQueer (the duo of Phong Tran and Darian Donovan Thomas) as part of their Brooklyn Bound series. I was in the kitchen, listening the chats and music that preceded it while doing the dishes, etc., but when that video started up, I could not look away from their next-level collage of TV ads, street protests, and bits of cultural detritus. I also had the sense that the performance of Stay On It was special on its own, instantly treasuring how the repetitions seemed to build momentum while allowing other themes and sounds to emerge. Now that it has been released as a standalone recording, I'm delighted to be 100% RIGHT. The four members of Sō laid down the elemental groove that drives the piece and then invited some extraordinary guests to add to the flexible structure of the piece, including Tran and Thomas on electronics and violin respectively, Grey Mcmurray on guitar and vocals, Beth Meyers on viola and vocals, Alex Sopp on flute, piccolo, and vocals, Adam Tendler on piano, and Shelley Washington on sax - each one a player who brings their all to any project. What a joy to hear this piece in a committed, well-recorded performance, allowing all the layers of one of Eastman's most accessible and optimistic works to reveal themselves clearly. It's as fresh and revelatory as it must have been in 1973, when he wrote it. Simply put, they've set a new standard for Eastman's ensemble work, and one as high as Jace Clayton's sparkling take on his piano music. There will be more Eastman goodies to come, too, as Wild Up has announced a multi-year project, starting with Femenine - hear an excerpt here.

Kenneth Kirschner & Joseph Branciforte - From The Machine, Vol. 1 Greyfade is a new boutique label prizing sonic excellence on vinyl and in high-resolution digital formats (no streaming) and seeking to present music that arises from innovative processes. In this case, Kirschner and Branciforte have transferred algorithmic and generative techniques from electronic music into the acoustic realm, using software to compose two pieces of austere elegance. The first, April 20, 2015, originally an electronic composition by Kirschner and here arranged for two cellos (Mariel Roberts and Meaghan Burke) and piano (Jade Conlee) by Branciforte,  finds the instruments in dialog, if not quite conversation, sliding around each other in a series of brief phrases. The second, 0123, composed by Branciforte for "low string quartet" (Tom Chiu, violin, Wendy Richman, viola, Christopher Gross, cello, Greg Chudzik, double bass), has the players work their way up an octave by exploring the same four-note cell in a ruminative fashion. Both works generate a mysterious disquiet that I think would exist even if you didn't know there was code behind them and represent a planting of the flag for Greyfade, claiming impressive territory that I look forward to exploring further on their first release, which featured collaborations between Branciforte and vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and their next one with the JACK Quartet, coming in September.

Peter Gilbert - Burned Into The Orange No one could accuse New Focus co-founder Gilbert of using the label to promote his own music - this is only his second release and the last was over a decade ago. But his dazzling command of various forces, from string quartets (both the Arditti and the Iridium are featured) to electronics to solo tuba, makes me hope we don't have to wait that long for more. Each piece grabs the attention like a great storyteller, with Channeling The Waters for flute and percussion (Camilla Hoitenga and Magdalena Meitzner, respectively) being emblematic. Opening with a heavy metal fanfare, it leads you on a labyrinthine journey that never ceases to fascinate, which could be said of the album as a whole. Join the adventure.

Wavefield Ensemble - Concrete & Void This first album from an ensemble launched in 2016 and made up of new music all-stars, including Julia den Boer, Hannah Levinson, Greg Chudzik, and Dan Lippell, was recorded at a socially-distanced concert at a parking garage in Montclair, NJ in October 2020. But you would never know it's a live performance, such is the gleaming perfection of the sound. Presented are five meaty works (the shortest is just over eleven minutes) from composers, including Jen Baker, Jessie Cox, Victoria Cheah, Chudzik, and Nicholas DeMaison, who all collaborated deeply with the players. Pushing through the COVID era restraints (no in-person rehearsals, etc.), the group has arrived at a series of gripping, cinematic soundscapes, with Cheah's A wasp, some wax, an outline of the valley over us a fall being especially involving. Like all the pieces, the integration of electronics and acoustic instruments is seamless and her use of suspense brings to mind Bernard Herrmann's work for sci-fi television or tracks from Nine Inch Nails Ghosts, as she draws you through a series of images in sound. After all of Cheah's tension, Chudzik's Silo washes over you like a hymnal, with his cello surrounded by harmonics and drones. Concrete & Void firmly establishes Wavefield as a group to watch, and I hope I can get to their next concert, especially if it has free parking!

Chris Campbell - Orison Using an array of forces including members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, "hybrid-music" violinist Todd Reynolds, and drummer Dave King from The Bad Plus, Cambell has created a seven-movement work that brings a sense of calm and reflection for its 37-minute length. Reminiscent of some of John Luther Adams' pieces, with high, whispery tones from the violin and swirling harmonics, King's drums (often played with brushes) and repeating piano figures lend forward motion to the piece. "Orison" is a perfect title, but "oasis" would work, too, for the way Campbell's music clears space in the mind. Although there are fewer daily shocks in 2021 than in 2020, this still feels just like what the doctor ordered. During the years of its composition, Campbell came to think of the piece as "a companion" and this listener feels the same. Keep it close.

Various Artists - A New Age For New Age Vol. 3 Eventually all genres of music, from the lauded to the discredited, come around for reconsideration. "New Age" music, which I used to view as sort of the strip-mall yoga center version of ambient, has been having a nice moment over the last few years, whether in the revival of Laraaji's career or ear-opening reissues like Pearls Of The Deep, the best of Stairway. Starting in 2020, the ever-expanding Whatever's Clever label began inviting artists to submit pieces that reinterpret New Age music and curating compilations based on what they received. The first two volumes (and Vol. 4, for that matter) were wonderful, but this is the one to which I keep returning. Partly that's because it has a NEW SONG from Elana Low, which is a precious thing indeed (full disclosure: I suggested she submit something!), but also for the sheer variety that somehow coheres into a satisfying journey. Opening with the supremely witty Serenity Now by shm0o0o, with its "dee-do-dee-do-dee-do...dah!" refrain, we are also given the rain-streaked chamber music of 4385650503, a collaboration between LLLL, Mitsuhiro Fujiwara, and DaisyModern, and the sun-dazed folk of Reliable Feelings by Adeline Hotel among other explorations in mostly electronic tones and textures. Considering Whatever's Clever has released four volumes in the series without repeating artists, they have obviously struck a nerve with creators. Don't miss out on what's exciting them - you may even find a new soundtrack for your yoga practice.

Ben Seretan - Cicada Waves This dreamy series of piano improvisations accompanied by nature sounds would have been HUGE during the original New Age era - it's also the most distinctive and assured music I've heard from Seretan, the founder of Whatever's Clever and a stalwart of the indie-rock/folk scene in the northeast. He just sounds so settled, spinning chords and melodies while rain washes down or crickets sing around him, and that sense of contentment is contagious. For full immersion, watch the videos he's created or commissioned for each song. Good luck getting a cassette, though, as he's already sold out two pressings. 

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Electro-Humanism
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed

Note: The cover photo includes a detail of Shoshanna Weinberger's installation for the Sunroom Project Space, on display at Wave Hill.

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

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Concert Review(!): Hymn To The City

There was a sound. It was coming from over there, traveling through air to me, here. It was music and it was LIVE, being played right in front of me. The fact that it was a quintet made up of players from the New York Philharmonic and they were engaged in a delightful arrangement of Aaron Copland's Simple Gifts was almost immaterial. But it was the ideal way to begin my first live concert since March 2020, the light, lilting refrain giving voice to my gratitude for the opportunity to be there.

And where was there? We were in Green-Wood Cemetery, one of the jewels of Brooklyn on a guided musical tour arranged by the visionaries at Death Of Classical with the grand title of Hymn To The City. By the time we got to the Pilot's Monument, we had already been treated to a spirits tasting that included mezcal, whiskey, tequila, and gin along with some snacks, lending a convivial atmosphere even as we all sought to remain distanced and masked when not eating or drinking. It felt quite luxurious to be sipping on an extraordinary rye from Coppersea, a complex gin from Appalachian Gap, or Madre's full-bodied Mezcal while the sun set. Never let it be said that DOC doesn't know how to take care of people!

Death Of Classical's Andrew Ousley welcomes the audience.

Our next stop was the Brooklyn Theatre Fire Monument, where we were treated to a lovely reading by our tour guide of James Weldon Johnson's My City, a moment that also paid tribute to the first responders and health care heroes who are so critical to the life of the Big Apple. Then, we were off to hear music in a peripatetic journey through locations and styles. Scroll through the following commentary and pictures to get the flavor of the experience. 

The audience on the move.

Along with the sweet strains of Simple Gifts, we also heard a very brief arrangement of Sergio Ortega's El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!, which increased the feeling that we were all in this together. 
On Battle Hill, near the grave of Leonard Bernstein, a brass quintet played selections from West Side Story. The setting and occasion thawed my antipathy to Bernstein slightly and I also enjoyed watching the audience take delight in the familiar tunes. 
The Hill Of Graves is Green-Wood's version of a potter's field, with many first-wave immigrants of no social standing buried there. It was a moving place to hear Paul Simon's American Tune, slightly dated though it is, and Marco Foster brought both restraint and open-hearted sincerity to his performance. 
Café Damas, commissioned by the NY Phil from composer Kinan Azmeh in 2019, is an intriguing piece, in a style that might be called "Silk Road Ensemble," with moods and methods of his native Syria blending with classical rigor. A dancer, who may have been costumed as a 19th century immigrant, lent atmosphere as the sun set.
The preceding rains had moved the next location from the Chauncey Family Mausoleum to this evocative spot, framed by weeping beech trees. The second movement of Florence Price's String Quartet in G Major was a lovely representation of her quintessentially American style and gorgeously played. Baritone Paul Grosvenor sang Over My Head, the traditional spiritual, a cappella, in a commanding if somewhat rhythmically rigid performance. It resonated nicely with Price's melodicism still hanging in the hair.
It was nearly full dark when we arrived at the entrance to The Catacombs, a sort of apartment house mausoleum for the middle class. 
Within was a long narrow corridor with folding chairs set up along its length. Once we were seated, Adam Tendler launched into his astonishing arrangement of George Gershwin's Cadenza on Rhapsody in Blue. He managed to encapsulate all that makes Gershwin's piece so compelling, while moving it firmly into the 21st century with some extended techniques. The man can PLAY and his piano sounded magnificent in the space. 
Next, Lucy Dhegrae, one of the great singers of our time, emerged from a side door to sing Sarah Kirkland Snider's How Graceful Some Things Are, Falling Apart, a rawly emotional homage to New York's resilience after 9/11. As Dhegrae's magisterial voice filled the space, I had a feeling of coming full circle, as she had sung at my last concert in 2020, a shattering U.S. premiere of Toshio Hosokawa's Futari Shizuka with the Talea Ensemble. It seemed only right that she would be a part of my road back to live music 16 months later. The Catalyst Quartet emerged next and played Credo, a piece by Kevin Puts that seemed to put the world right as it stacked consonance upon consonance, building something of limpid beauty in the air. By this point, I really felt I was at a concert and it was glorious. Pure cake icing arrived in the performance of Goin' Home, the song by William Arms Fisher with a melody from Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony. In the arrangement by Noah Luna, with quartet, piano, and Dhegrae all shooting for the stars, it was a masterstroke to end the evening. 
There was still the walk back to the entrance, with iPhone flashlights flickering along the path, which was a nice opportunity to chat with one of my neighbors and contemplate all I had seen and heard. 

With Hymn To The City, Death Of Classical once again proved what an incredible asset they are to the musical life of our city, employing a touch of theater and a sure curatorial touch to put together a truly memorable experience. If you're looking to ease back into concert going, their upcoming events could be just the thing. Long may they reign!

You may also enjoy: 
2 Nights 4 Trios 1 Duo
Jack In The Crypt
Best Of 2018: Three Concerts

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Record Roundup: Song Forms

The combination of words and music is as old as language and songs continue to be astonishing transmitters of thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and are limited in form only by their creators' imaginations. Here are a few recent releases mapping out multiple geographies of song form.

Will Liverman and Paul Sanchez - Dreams Of A New Day: Songs By Black Composers You would need know nothing about this album's contents, or even its name, to be immediately struck by Liverman's voice. From the first notes, that we are in the presence of a masterful baritone is immediately clear. He has depth and power to spare, but the transparency and delicacy of his upper range is very distinctive. The contents are special, too, as Liverman followed his passions to present a range of Black composers that takes us from Henry Burleigh, born in 1866, to Shawn Okpebholo, born in 1981. From the latter, we have a world premiere recording of Two Black Churches, commissioned by Liverman, and comprised of a song each for two era-defining acts of violence, the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and the Charleston shooting in 2015. The first is a setting of Dudley Randall's poem, Ballad Of Birmingham, and Okpebholo has constructed a fascinating piano part (brilliantly played by Sanchez), which seems to both fuel and fragment Liverman's steadfast delivery of the words, occasionally seeking a hymn-like resolution. The second somberly sets The Rain by Marcus Amaker, which provides a stunning bookend to an image from the first song on the album, by Damian Sneed and based on Langston Hughes' I Dream A World. Hughes writes of "joy, like a pearl" attending the needs of mankind, while Amaker's view is bleaker: "When the reality/of racism returns/all joy treads water/in oceans of buried emotion." Okpebholo and Liverman have given us a signature piece for our era that will resonate through the future we are building. And that's just a microcosm of what Sanchez and Liverman have accomplished on this crucial collection.

Caroline Shaw - Narrow Sea From the opening words, "I am a poor wayfaring stranger," you may suspect we are in the world of 19th century American song, specifically hymns. But even if you come to it without that foreknowledge, the creamy, deeply felt soprano of Dawn Upshaw will make you feel those words in your bones. Accompanied by Sō Percussion's wild array of instruments that click, clink, and clatter alongside Gilbert Kalish's searching piano chords, Upshaw sounds completely at home in Shaw's deconstruction of these old songs. My only complaint is that at about 20 minutes, this song cycle leaves me wanting more. Even with the addition of Shaw's Taxidermy, a little gem for percussion and spoken word, Narrow Sea makes me nostalgic for the glory days of "peak CD," when Upshaw and Nonesuch were putting out brilliantly curated albums like The Girl With Orange Lips or White Moon: Songs To Morpheus. I can imagine Shaw's cycle being given context among works by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Christopher Trapani - or some of those composers sourced by Will Liverman. Instead of wallowing, I think I'll just make a playlist with Narrow Sea and Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part, Shaw and Sō's next collaboration, which features 10 new song adaptations sung by Shaw herself, coming June 25th. 

Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince This is Aftab's third album but the first for me and I can't help feeling I've joined a trajectory near its apogee. That's just another way of saying: WOW. Her complete command of the eclectic environs through which this album transits is nothing short of amazing. She moves many genres, including art song, folk, and in one delicately devastating moment in Last Night. reggae. All of this is infused with the modes and moods of her Pakistani heritage and blended with such subtlety that any seams are invisible. Her taste in collaborators is as finely honed as her compositions, most notably violin wizard Darian Donovan Thomas, who lavishes Baghon Main with his special brand of liquid light. The album is dedicated to Aftab's brother who died during the early stages of its creation and no matter what losses you've experienced in the last few months or years, there is succor and peace to be found in these remarkable songs. As Aftab sings in Saans Lo, with lyrics by Annie Ali Khan: "There’s no one in this desolate world but you, but at least you have yourself/Breathe."

Domenico Lancellotti - Raio After the years that separated his last two albums, Cine Prive (2012) and The Good Is A Big God (2018), having Vai A Serpente, which opens Raio, slide into my Release Radar was an unexpected delight. Begun following a move from Brazil to Portugal, much of Raio was recorded after the pandemic hit, but you would never know any of it was made by remote collaborators. In fact, it feels even more unified than his other albums, almost a song cycle, with themes and textures appearing and reappearing throughout. He's still mining an encyclopedia of Brazilian sounds, leaning more towards the folky and jazzy sides of his homeland and saving his wackier Tropicalia-influenced side for the wry groove of Lanço Minha Flecha and parts of Newspaper, the instrumental that closes the album. Raio is a wonderful album and can serve as an introduction to this special artist as aptly as the others. Start here, start there, just start!

Jane Weaver - Flock My introduction to Weaver was 2017's Modern Kosmology, an explosion of melodically fueled art-pop that was an instant addiction. Now, nearly 30 years into her career, she's gone even further towards pop on Flock, incorporating the raptures of Goldfrapp and Stereolab along the way. With lighter-than-air synths and danceable grooves, Flock is infused with an inspiring sense of unfettered creativity and zero compromise. There's also not a trace of insincerity in Weaver's breezy soprano, which she often uses as an additional musical element, singing repeated lines and sometimes sampling herself. While fans of the bands mentioned above are likely already onto Weaver, there's absolutely no reason why devotees of, say, Billie Eilish wouldn't also be into this - let's hope the algorithms serve them well.

Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg Delivering completely on the promise of their 2019 EPs, this London quartet continues to find variety and invention in their patented blend of Florence Shaw's interior monologue speak-singing and colorfully angular post-punk played by Thomas Paul Dowse (guitar), Lewis Maynard (bass), and Nicholas Hugh Andrew Buxton (drums). John Parish's production has found the ideal balance, sinking Shaw's voice just enough into the mix and treating each instrument with care. Even if the songs weren't so good, New Long Leg would be notable for the bass sound alone, a rounded throb somewhere adjacent to Jah Wobble's work with PiL or Philip Moxam's in Young Marble Giants. The songs can read like stream of consciousness rambles (from Leafy: "I run a tight ship/Helicopter circling/Kalashnikov to look forward to/It’s a glam musical") but somehow assemble in your mind to become stories of fractured relationships, forensically detailing what's left behind or what an imagined future could hold. Speaking of days to come, I hope I get to see them in concert when such things happen again - looks like fun!

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Record Roundup: Songs And Singers
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AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Record Roundup: Chiaroscuro

There are times when unremittingly bleak music can provide necessary catharsis. At other times - like our current moment, I believe - a more nuanced sound world can give us the sound support we need. The five excellent releases below all include some light with their shade. 

Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson - Dark Days Played with deep engagement by Larson, a longtime collaborator, this series of short piano pieces works together so seamlessly you might think they were all part of a longer work. But that's more due to the expert assembly of the album rather than a sameness of tone, texture, or mood. While the bleak outlook implied by the title does leach into that work, the overall sensation is one of quiet yet glimmering contemplation. Although I don't have synesthesia, unlike Wollschleger (who uses the "colors of sound" in his process, I associate the album with iridescent jewel tones that grow more complex the longer you look at them. Pre-release, I spent many a morning with Dark Days, finding it quickly assuming a place in the soundtrack of my 2021. Let it happen for you.

Akropolis Reed Quintet - Ghost Light The sheer sound of this group, made up of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, and bass clarinet, is instantly captivating. There's a sublime smoothness of tone, texture, and ensemble that brings to mind the reed sections of great American orchestras like that of Duke Ellington or Glenn Miller. The Akropolis are sure-handed in their curation and collaboration as well, as the five pieces here interact and relate to each other in thought-provoking ways, exploring everything from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to racial violence in their native Detroit. Their choice of composers - all unknown to me except for Jeff Scott who I know as a member of Imani Winds - leads to a wide variety of sonorities and emotional impacts. Stacy Garrop's Rites For The Afterlife, takes us through the narrative of the Egyptian Book of the Dead with an appropriate sense of mystery and even a little Kurt Weillian wit in the third movement, The Hall of Judgement. Kinds of Light by Michael Gilbertson provides portraits in sound for Flicker, Twilight, Fluorescence, and Ultraviolet in colorful fashion, without leaning on the concept too hard. 

In Niloufar Nourbakhsh's Firing Squad - inspired by the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude - the quartet is mirrored by a recording of themselves, occasionally sounding like an infinite loop. Theo Chandler's Seed To Snag has almost has the whimsy of a classic Disney score as he describes the lifecycle of organic material, adding yet more colors to Akropolis' palette. Scott's piece, Homage To Paradise Valley, closes the album and incorporates spoken word as Marsha Music reads her poems about Detroit's earlier days. Scott's music is tuneful and sparkling, with nods to jazz, and Music's poems are lively and nostalgic, with their tales of her father's record shop and the musical luminaries that put the city on the map. The readings do interrupt the overall flow of the album for this listener and I can imagine programming them out after a few plays, but that's a minor quibble about this powerful artistic statement.

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė - Saudade Given her expert and brilliantly original deployment of small forces on In Search Of Lost Beauty... from 2019, it should be no surprise that this Lithuanian-born composer now presents symphonic works of a similar mastery. Of the four pieces here, perhaps Horizons is the most extraordinary, a gripping and sustained exploration of dynamics and darkness that also highlights the glories of the recording and work of Giedrė Šlekytė and the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra. Hints of past masters like Sibelius are certainly evident but this absorbing and inventive music is in no way retrograde. Yet it is accessible enough that American orchestras should be clamoring to program Martinaitytė. With Saudade as a calling card I can imagine that happening quite soon.

Christopher Cerrone - A Natural History of Vacant Lots and The Arching Path These two releases feature Cerrone at his most contemplative, with hanging chords, decaying notes, and chord progressions that seem to search their way through personal memories and shared histories. Vacant Lots is a brief piece originally written for percussion quartet and presented here as a solo piece for vibraphone and electronics, played by Andy Meyerson. It works equally well in either setting, perhaps even benefiting from the sonic focus of the solo version. 

The Arching Path (due on May 21st from In A Circle Records) includes four pieces from the last decade, with three of them being deeply embedded in place. The three-movement title piece refers to the Ponte sul Basento, a concrete modernist masterpiece in southern Italy, but Cerrone avoids any of the obvious musical tricks that might imply, instead using a chiming and percussive piano (played by Timo Andres) to unfurl melodies that are deeply affecting while avoiding the sentimentality that can mar the work of Nils Frahm. Double Happiness adds field recordings from Umbria and Cerrone’s lapidary electronics to the soundscape along with percussion played by Ian Rosenbaum. The five movements are distinct in their textures while maintaining a general air of rain-streaked reflection.

I Will Learn To Love Somebody, the third piece, sets five poems by writer-provocateur Tao Lin for soprano (a spectacular, gleaming Lindsay Kesselman), piano, percussion, and clarinet (Mingzhe Wang). It pulls the collection in a slightly more dynamic direction, with leaps in range that recall some of Scott Walker’s dramatic flair - appropriate, when you consider the attention Cerrone is paying to every word. The words themselves combine a conversational style with enough ironic distance to keep them from being diary entries with line breaks. Even without close attention to the words, however, these are gripping art songs that are an even more fabulous showcase for Kesselman's talents than The Pieces That Fall To Earth from the 2019 album of the same name.

The final piece takes us to a New York subway station, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, using piano limned with electronics and evoking an air of solitude, as if during a late night transit where the next train can’t come soon enough. I’m already peering down the tracks, looking for more from Cerrone.

You may also enjoy: 
Record Review: Beauty...And Darkness

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

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Record Roundup: Sonic Environments

All of the recent albums below succeed at creating complete environments, whether through music alone, or the combination of words and music. Each one blends genre as well, occupying new overlaps between classical, jazz, electronic, industrial, folk, and pop.

Listen along to excerpts here or below - and if you like something, head over to Bandcamp to support these artists.


Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises Some records you listen to, others you seem to enter into, like a space you can explore. This extraordinary collaboration between composer and electronic musician Sam Shepherd, who performs as Floating Points, and the legendary sax player is one such album. This impression that was likely enabled by the "non-visual" preview hosted by Luaka Bop about a week ago. Along with a password-protected link we were given instructions to dim our computer screen and do whatever was necessary to eliminate distraction from the experience. I didn't need to be asked twice. I entered the password, put on my Grado headphones, pressed play, closed my eyes, heard the opening tone cluster...and was off, traveling in the labyrinth of my mind. Besides that cluster, played on Shepherd's synth or a combination of keyboards and repeated with variations, Sanders' commanding reed playing was my guide, along with the strings of the LSO, at times ruminative and at others, sky scraping.

Considering the rich journey the nine-movement work takes you on, 46 minutes seems concise, with Shepard giving his imagination free rein, yet not being indulgent, like an epic novel where not one word is wasted. Intersecting with ambient music, space rock, spiritual jazz, and even the symphonic works of John Luther Adams, Promises feels like a big tent where people from many musical tribes can gather and find common ground. When I included Floating Points' second album Reflections: Mojave Desert on my Best Of 2019: Electronic list, I noted its "slow-burn intensity that is consistently involving," and remarked that "Shepherd remains an exciting talent, however, and I am sure there is more to come from him." While his last album, 2019's Crush, failed to fully excite me, Promises not only proves me right but serves as a coming out party for Shepherd as a composer and as someone with a vision far beyond the confines of a single genre. As for Sanders, who recorded his parts at age 78 or 79, he sounds completely at home in Shepherd's sound world, vigorous, exploratory, and emotionally engaged. If this turns out to be the capstone of his legendary career, it will not only honor his roots with John and Alice Coltrane, but stand alongside them as a remarkable recording on its own. I needed this in 2021 and I think you will, too.

Mariel Roberts - Armament Like any instrument, the cello is a sort of technology, and one which interfaces with other equipment remarkably well. So much so, that for long sections of this brutal yet engaging collection of improvisations, you will be forgiven for forgetting there's a cello involved at all. Roberts, a co-director of Wet Ink Ensemble who also plays with the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Bang On A Can All-Stars, among others, is a virtuoso at anything she chooses to play. Here she explores a dark view of our current environment, one in which she notes, "so much culture is being weaponized, turned into instruments of violence," by doing the same to her own instrument. Until the final lines, which almost provide the comfort of a Bach sonata, this is more the landscape of lifeless planets roiled by storms of unimaginably destructive power, an arena of texture and tone more commonly explored by the likes of Tool, Killing Joke, or Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. A kindred spirit would also be Mario Diaz de Leon, who often brings black metal into his classical compositions (and vice versa). Whatever your point of reference for the sounds Roberts conjures from her cello and some pedals, don't be surprised if you find yourself reveling in the grind and gleam of these brilliant soundscapes.

Benjamin Louis Brody/Ian Chang - Floating Into Infinity There's some fascinating gear-head detail behind the making of this album, which involves compositions by Brody played by Chang (also the drummer in Son Lux and Landlady) on a kit that's been converted into a "hyper sensitive sampler," giving him the ability to put some physicality behind the creation of electronic sounds. But that all melts away for the listener, who can simply sink into these starlit microcosms without a thought as to how they were made. While there is a bit of percussive drive to Modum, along with dramatic pounding keyboards, these are mostly contemplative pieces, made for scoring a session of staring at the clouds through rain-streaked glass. Sometimes conveying a slippery unease reminiscent of Harold Budd's Lovely Thunder, this music s not always comforting, however, but it is consistently gorgeous and full of invention and adventure.

Angelica Olstad - Transmute One could imagine a quarantined Erik Satie making a recording like this EP, only instead of deconstructing Fauré, Griffes, and Ravel, he would take on his own music, and combine it with field recordings, as Olstad did, including bird calls, sirens, and the shouts of protesters, as a way of soundtracking our current experience. Olstad also shares some of Satie's taste for melancholy, but her concision and inventiveness keep things from getting too much so. Transmute invites you into Olstad's apartment as much as her mind, working as both a pause for reflection and a musical collage of recent history.

Steven van Betten & Andrew Rowan - No Branches Without Trees While this album of chamber folk is often delicate, it's anchored in the sturdy drawing-room hymnals of the string quartet arrangements. Although it hints at some of the emotional landscape of something like Beck's Morning Phase, these songs are more like short stories than memoir, with the narrative distance that implies. There's also a bit of a scrapbook feel to what songwriter van Betten and composer Rowan have put together here, with short instrumentals among the more proper songs. A brief, yet lovely album that leaves me to hope they pursue further collaboration.

Anika Pyle - Wild River Scrapbook, collage, memoir - along with chamber folk and electro-pop - are all folded into this intimate and revealing collection of songs and spoken word, the first solo album from a longtime linchpin of the Brooklyn-Philly pop-punk axis. Delving into deep emotions following the loss of her father, Pyle has pushed her artistry into territory unexpected enough for her that it feels like we're meeting someone new entirely. Her abilities as a writer also keep poems like The Mexican Restaurant Where I Last Saw My Father from being overshares, pulling from the personal to the universal to create something starkly moving, which is true of the album as a whole. A real gem.

Since this is an eclectic roundup, you can also find tracks from all these albums in this playlist along with everything else I'm tracking in 2021.

You may also enjoy:
Collapsing Into Nordic Effect's Raindamage
Witness The Ritual: Music of Pierluigi Billone
You Will Believe: Helga Davis's Cassandra

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Celebrating 2021: New Year, New Music

Like a drone in the intro to Painting With John (essential viewing, btw), I have flown free of 2020's music only to crash in a dense thicket of 2021 releases. And it's not that I haven't been listening, it's that I've been listening to SO MUCH. Where to begin? For this first post, I'm going to wend my way instinctively through what has captivated me the most for a multi-genre celebration of the year so far. I'll catch up with more later!

Tak Ensemble - Taylor Brook: Star Maker Fragments “All this long human story, most passionate and tragic in the living, was but an unimportant, a seemingly barren and negligible effort, lasting only for a few moments in the life of the galaxy." Only the most arrogant among us would argue with this sentiment from Star Maker, the 1937 science fiction book by Olaf Stapledon that provides the basis for this latest gem from Tak and Brook. But I will say that if this "barren and negligible effort" we're all living through includes sublime art like this album, I'm good.

From the off-kilter clarion of the opening chord, it's obvious that you're in the hands of a masterpiece - and one that's masterfully performed. The toughest part for others to imitate will be Charlotte Mundy's delivery of the spoken word excerpts from the text. Her voice is both perfectly controlled and naturalistic, with enough musicality that you can let your mind touch down on the content or just let it become part of the sound world. Brook's ingenuity in scoring is critical, too, of course, and you will marvel at how he "plays" the ensemble (Laura Cocks, flute; Madison Greenstone, clarinet; Marina Kifferstein, violin; and Ellery Trafford, percussion) like more keys on his synthesizer, eliciting novel blends of sound at every turn. In 2016, I sang the praises of Ecstatic Music, which was a remarkable collection by these same collaborators, but I was still slightly unprepared for how great this is - don't say I didn't warn you!

Sid Richardson - Borne By A Wind This captivating debut portrait album from Richardson also features a piece inspired by literature. In this case it's the poetry of Nathanial Mackey, whose radio-ready narration enlivens the five-movements of Red Wind. The words are as evocative as the music, which moves in cinematic fashion through different scenes and moods. The performance by Deviant Septet could not be improved and Richardson's writing for jazz in a classical setting is the equal of Shostakovich's, except it swings a little harder. The album also includes There is no sleep so deep, and elegiac piece for solo piano, played here by Conrad Tao, and LUNE, for violin and fixed media, including field recordings of loon cries, which are perfectly integrated into the sounds of the violin. Lilit Hartunian's performance is deeply engaging. Finally, we have Astrolabe, a sparkling piece for six instruments given a dazzling run by the Da Capo Chamber Players, who gamely shout and whisper the excerpts from Chaucer and Whitman sprinkled throughout. I note that the most recent recording here is from 2017 so all gratitude to New Focus for bringing this remarkable music to light.

Susie Ibarra - Talking Gong While I'm distressed to see how much I've missed from this marvelous percussionist and composer (including an album with genius pianist Sylvie Courvoisier in 2014!), this album ruthlessly dispels negative thoughts. Whether through minimalist, modal or even romantically lush piano (Alex Peh), playful flute (Claire Chase), or inventive percussion - or all three at once - there is much bliss to be had by immersing yourself in Ibarra's intersectional vision. 

Patricia Brennan - Maquishti Despite its gentle sonic profile, this is a bold album that will likely define the vibraphone and marimba for our current era. Like Michael Nicolas's Transitions did for the cello in 2016, Brennan's music both exemplifies the qualities of her instruments and moves them into new territory. For the latter, look no further than Episodes, in which woozy electronics transform the vibe's tones into gooey lozenges of sound that you may find yourself reaching for in the air. For a more classic, er, vibe, the opening cut, Blame It, seems to pick up where Dave Samuels left off, for a deeply chill exploration of hanging notes, meandering chords, and glittering arpeggiations. While each piece is no longer than your average indie-rock song, Maquishti adds up to an hour-long sound cycle that rarely flags in interest and provides a much-needed oasis in these anxiety-ridden times.

Adam Morford & Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Yesterday Is Two Days Ago In which stellar violist Lanzilotti collaborates with Morford, guitarist and creator of the Marvin series of sound sculptures, for a series of improvisations that are unafraid of the dark. The title track is a droning and atmospheric epic that conceivably could have inspired Scott Walker to follow up Soused by working with these two. Never less than fascinating, this shows off a side of Lanzilotti's interests that feels completely new and one that should attract listeners from an array of genres - I know it hits more than one of my sweet spots.

Amanda Berlind - Green Cone A hazy combo of low-fi piano, electronics, voice, and field recordings, this reminds me a bit of Elsa Hewitt - but in all the best ways. There's also a visual album and a comic book - feast your eyes - and a bonus track commissioned and played by the Bang On A Can All-Stars that explodes into jazzy instrumental pop (albeit with loud birdsong), further proof that Berlind is one to watch.

Foudre! - Future Sabbath With a title like that you may be expecting starlit drones to accompany some new, previously unimaginable ritual. And you would be dead-on, as this band of European electronic experts (including Nahal founder Frédéric D. Oberland and Paul Regimbeau of Good Luck In Death), improvises their way into a gleaming web of sound. It also seems tailor-made for a space travel epic, especially one populated by murderous machines or alienated astronauts. You may want to keep the lights on.

Madlib - Sound Ancestors Selected and sequenced by electronic musician Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), this is as cogent and concise a representation of Madlib's divine madness as we're likely to get. And by that, I mean it's wonderfully all over the place, weaving together everything from obscure psych-rock to the Young Marble Giants and field-recorded urban chants, for a more than persuasive rattle around the master's head.

Shame - Drunk Tank Pink Shame made a splash across the pond and in my world with their 2018 debut, Songs Of Praise, which hit my Top 25 for that year with its canny update on post-punk. Three years later, their confidence has grown and they are now able to dig into and expand on their angular grooves in a way that's even more deeply involving. While the lyrics sometimes seem simplistic ("What you see is what you get/I still don't know the alphabet" is the opening line of the album), there is character and conviction in Charlie Steen's vocals as he seeks to pare communication down to only the essentials. No sophomore slump here - Shame seem to be in it for the long haul and, on the back of this terrific album, they are even higher on my list of post-pandemic must-see bands.

Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview Of Phenomenal Nature Jenkins has a dusky, intimate voice and seems to be singing to one person at a time on this gorgeous and, at 31 minutes, too-brief album. With production (and most playing) by Josh Kaufman, the sonic environment is sensitively built around Jenkins' singing and songs, with the instruments forming an almost distant bed of sound. Her melodies are sturdy enough that no more is necessary to define these personal vignettes. But as personal as they feel, the spoken-word of Hard Drive serves as a reminder that Jenkins is at heart a storyteller. As Stuart Bogie's sax wends its way through the changes, Jenkins talks us through her day and the people she encounters, gradually building to an incandescent finish. This whole album shines quietly.

Fruit Bats - The Pet Parade People are saying this is a high watermark in the 20-year career of Eric D. Johnson and Fruit Bats. I wouldn't know as I have allowed myself to remain only dimly aware of his progress over the years. I'm not really sure why - maybe it was the name, or maybe I heard an early song and couldn't get into his quirky voice. It wasn't until I fell desperately in love with Bonny Light Horseman, the alliance between Johnson, Josh Kaufman (him again!), and Anais Mitchell in 2020, that I was like, this is him, the Fruit Bats guy? So, when the first single was released from The Pet Parade, I was on it and loved it right away. Kaufman's production could not be more beautiful, with rich skeins of acoustic guitars, dazzling instrumental touches (the guitar solo on Holy Rose is a tiny, intricate wonder), and, only when called for, a certain grandeur. 

Johnson's songwriting draws from a deep well of Americana and British Folk, but his melodies feel both fresh and completely inevitable. Lyrically, he manages to convey a lot with a few words, as in the opening of Cub Pilot: "She is looking out the living room window/Watching Saturday become Sunday/Coyotes by the garbage cans/Howling in the driveway." He is also unafraid of going right for the gut, as in this verse from On The Avalon Stairs: "Today a little further from the shore/And maybe tomorrow/Into the volcano you go/It's hard to say, but all you know/Is that you got no kids to take/Your ashes to the lake." As for his voice, it's still highly distinctive, but he is in complete control and his inventive phrasing makes nearly any words intensely moving. For a perfect example, listen to how he turns "Gullwing doors" into an incantation in the song of the same name. I can't speak for his previous albums (give me time), but Johnson takes a firm place in the front ranks of American songwriters with The Pet Parade.

Find songs from all these albums and follow along with my 2021 listening in these playlists:

You may also enjoy:

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Best Of 2020: Out Of The Past

Herein I end the Best Of 2020 series as it began, with a multi-genre roundup of some amazing releases from last year, the difference being these are all reissues or otherwise from out of the past. As usual, click play here or below to listen as your read. 

The Big Boxes

Lou Reed - New York If only the New York City Man himself could have lived to see this glorious super-deluxe edition, with the original album luxuriously spread across four sides of vinyl and a DVD of a brilliant live show from Montreal in 1989. You also get the album on CD and discs of live takes and sketches. If the latter are not as revealing as you might hope, it's only further proof of the laser-focus Reed brought to the creation of the album, which never wavered between thought and expression. The songs themselves have a remarkable double-life, as a catalog of the ills of the 80's (AIDS, urban decline, climate change) and and reminder of how far we have to go in addressing some of them. And that Reed-Rathke guitar interplay never gets old.

Jimi Hendrix Experience - Live In Maui In the electric church of rock & roll, I'm nominating Eddie Kramer and John McDermott for sainthood. This staggering box set, containing over 90 minutes of fantastic live performances from August 1970 plus a new documentary, Music, Money, Madness...Jimi Hendrix In Maui, is yet another tribute to their careful stewardship of Hendrix's work. While some of this material has come out in other forms (and bootlegs), their sonic and sequencing magic has made for a coherent and thrilling listening experience. Highlights are too many to mention, from a fire-breathing Voodoo Child (Slight Return) to the finest version of Villanova Junction I've ever heard, and the documentary puts everything in illuminating context. Billy Cox (bass) sounds sharper than he did some months earlier when the Band Of Gypsys rang in 1970, and Mitch Mitchell proves himself Hendrix's ideal drummer, even on the tracks where he had to overdub to help conquer wind noise. It's a new landmark on my groaning shelf of posthumous Hendrix releases and I vow not to be surprised if McDermott and Kramer wow me like this again.

Jamaican Sounds

Various Artists - Coxsone's Dramatic and Music Centre Smashing remastering on this reissue puts you right in the room as Clement "Coxsone" Dodd recorded these tracks in the early 60's. Falling somewhere between jazz, doo wop, mento, and ska, this is not just a great piece of history but a direct Rx for your pleasure centers.

Various Artists - Blue Coxsone Box Set Yes, the back catalog of Studio One is endless. Yes, the super-cute 6x7" box set, which faithfully reproduced these mid-60's rarities in physical form, is sold out. But that shouldn't stop you from getting to these delightful - and mostly unfamiliar - tracks.

Various Artists - Pirate's Choice, Vol. 2 Delightfully deep cuts from Studio One in the 70's, many of them alternates, like an especially shamanistic take on Door Peep by Burning Spear. But it's now-forgotten tracks like Black Is Black by The Freedom Singers that truly astonish.

Various Artists - When Jah Come Among those we lost in 2020 was legendary reggae producer Bunny "Striker" Lee and this stellar collection of rare and alternate takes is a fitting homage to his sound, which was sleek, propulsive, and hypnotic. Too many highlights to note, but if you like roots reggae and dub, you will be thanking the good people at Pressure Sounds for their curatorial expertise.

African Head Charge - Churchical Chant Of The Iyabinghi When British dub master Adrian Sherwood collaborates with percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, this is what happens - explorations of rhythm, bass, and studio sonics, arriving at what could be settings for unknown rituals. This collection of reworked outtakes will alter your mind in a purely organic fashion.

Mystery Music

24 Carat Black - III Dale Warren's legacy was mostly earned by the extraordinary Ghetto: Misfortune's Wealth from 1973, but over a decade after Gone: The Promises Of Yesterday, Numero Group has given us another unfinished gem in these sparse jazz-funk-soul pieces from the late 80's. Using just bass, percussion and touches of other instruments, Warren conjures a late-night vibe of romance and mystery. Just as mysterious is why the three singers featured - Princess Hearn, Vicki Gray, and especially LaRhonda LeGette - are not household names.

Miles Davis - The Lost Septet I've had a bootleg of this 1971 Vienna gig forever (with an incomplete Sanctuary, however) and can attest to its majesty. Featuring a band that never recorded in the studio, it's an essential piece of the electric period. 

Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Transmissions and Live at Le Guess Who? 2018 The rediscovery of Beverly Glenn-Copeland's genre-defying work, whether the jazz/folk of his debut or the new age ambient of Keyboard Fantasies, has been a highlight of the 21st century. Transmissions is a wonderfully curated (and immaculately pressed) souvenir that spans his whole career, including triumphant live performances from 2018 and 2019. To hear more of his great touring band, featuring phenomenal drummer Bianca Palmer, grab the whole set from Le Guess Who?, which has been released separately. P.S. Early in the days of "shelter in place," MoMA PS1 shared an online screening of the marvelous documentary about Glenn-Copeland - keep an eye here and catch it if you can.

Ethan Woods - Mossing Around And Other Songs As I noted when this was originally released in 2018 (in a vinyl-only edition of 30), Woods creates "a mood that is alternately wacky and spiritual, spinning tales backed by his guitar, Aaron Smith's laptop, and Alice Tolan-Mee's keyboard and violin. Call it "chamber-freak-folk-tronica," if you must call it something." Now, we have a digital edition, which includes slightly enhanced "hyper-real" versions of each song, so everyone can experience this unique headspace and do some mossing around of their own.

British Folk Adjacent

Keith Relf - All the Falling Angels - Solo Recordings & Collaborations 1965-1976 While some of this is meandering and sketchy (or familiar from previous Repertoire reissues), taken as a whole, it makes the strongest case yet for Relf as a creative force outside The Yardbirds. Based on All The Pretty Horses from a BBC session and the spine-tingling 47-second demo of Only The Black Rose (later polished up for Little Games, the final Yardbirds album), he was a Joe Boyd production away from true Brit-folk godhead.

Trees - 50th Anniversary Edition Speaking of Brit-folk godhead, this four-LP compilation brings together The Garden of Jane Delawney (1970) and On The Shore’(1971), the two unjustly obscure albums by this band, alongside demos, BBC sessions, etc. Featuring the crystalline voice of the late Celia Humphris (she died in January 2021) and intersecting as much with Fairport Convention and Fotheringay as with the delicate side of King Crimson, this is essential listening if any of those are important to you. 

The Clientele - It's Art Dad Not every song lands with the acuity of classic Clientele, but atmospherically speaking this compilation of material from the mid-90's (available digitally for the first time) will give you all the reverb-drenched, 60's-inspired feels of Alasdair MacLean & Co. at their best. 

Michael Chapman - Sweet Powder & Wrytree Drift Often featuring the legendary guitarist, singer, and songwriter at his moodiest - even Hi Heel Sneakers is rendered as a swampy fever-dream - this reissue makes two excellent self-released albums (from 2008 and 2010 respectively) easily available. There's more from the Chapman motherlode, too, including an expanded version of Pleasures Of The Street, a smoking live set from 1975. Get your pick and shovel, and dig deep - the rewards will be many.

Rockin' Alternatives

Supergrass - The Strange Ones (1994-2008) While I can't attest to the super-deluxe edition of this career retrospective (I have seen complaints about the picture disc vinyl, however), the streaming version is a fab non-chronological career overview with some nice live and demo bonuses. It's a fun listen for this longtime fan and one I hope will convince others of the greatness of a band that is perpetually under-appreciated in the USA.

Ut - In Gut's House As I said when their 1986 debut was reissued in 2019, Ut were "were one of the best of the lot," when it came to New York no-wave, and this 1987 LP doesn't change that opinion one iota.

David Bowie - Originally released exclusively through his website in 1999, Bowie took performances mostly from Amsterdam, New York, and Rio (all 1997), and selected them for maximum excitement. Seamlessly sequenced and mastered so you never know the difference between venues, it makes for a thrilling listen. Clearly the best of the lot of 1990's performances with which the Bowie estate has been flooding the market as of late. 

Soundscapes And Cinema

Robin Guthrie & Harold Budd - Another Flower Recorded in 2013 but never released for some reason, Budd's death seems to have impelled Guthrie to gift us this swoon-worthy collection of jewel-toned ambiance. Swoon away...

Brian Eno - Film Music 1976-2020 While the two very familiar tracks from Apollo (as used in Trainspotting, etc.) threaten to eclipse some of the other pieces, this is a fine repository of strays from Eno's film and TV career. Notable tracks from Heat, Dune, and Top Boy demonstrate his unmatched ability to create atmosphere, and his cover of You Don't Miss Your Water (from Married To The Mob) shows off his unheralded skills as an interpreter.

Mort Garson - Didn't You Hear? This soundtrack from a 1970 art-house flick shows that the magic of Mother Earth's Plantasia was no accident - but is astonishing how quickly Garson mastered the Moog. Next time you're doing a gratitude exercise, send some love to Sacred Bones Records for this and other entries in their reissue series.

Ennio Morricone - Segreto If you're as big a Morricone fan as I am, you've likely heard some of these tropes before, whether hard-driving crime jazz or comically suave sex-comedy pop, but everything just sounds better here. The sequencing and mastering are both masterful, befitting the respect demanded by Il Maestro for both his work ethic and musical brilliance. Also, some of these are alternate takes or previously unreleased so this in no way a posthumous cash-in. If this is the start of a tsunami of Morricone retrospectives, I am so ready to surf that wave.

Find more from out of the past in the 2020 archive playlist and keep track of 2021's discoveries here.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: Out Of The Past
Best Of 2018: Out Of The Past
Best Of 2017: Out Of The Past
Best Of 2016: Reissues