Monday, December 30, 2013

Best Of The Rest Of 13

Music serves many purposes in our lives, which is why we welcome so much of it. The records in the top 20 are like complex single malt Scotches: you can return to them over and over again for new and deepening experiences. But sometimes you want a glass of Johnny Walker Black that is going to reliably satisfy and heighten your day without making too many demands. That's not to say that the albums and songs listed below are easy listening or without depth - they're all damned good, some featuring artists at the top of their game.

Coulda Been A Contender Had I another week or two to spend with the sheer delight of Any Port In A Storm by Scott & Charlene's Wedding it might have edged its way onto my top 20. Driving, melodic songs from Craig Dermody, a transplanted Aussie who tells us he "hasn't done much changing in what I love since 1993," and who in Fakin' NYC has come up with the second great Big Apple anthem of the year. Pusha T's My Name Is My Name was nearly the great album I knew he had in him. His vision that commercial hip hop can be good hip hop was inspiring and the variety and passion of his flow was simply staggering. Maybe if skeevy Chris Brown hadn't crashed the party there would be no hesitation. Arctic Monkeys seemed to finally crack America with their fifth album AM. While I'm not sure that should have ever been their goal, there are a lot of terrific songs on AM, along with an even beefier presence for one of the best rhythm sections on the current scene.

Take It To The Stage Seeing and hearing Atoms For Peace kill on stage at Barclays Center made me realize what I was missing from the quite fantastic Amok: Dynamics. The jam-then-cut-and-paste process of making the record took some of the air and interplay out of the ensemble. It's a great record but Thom Yorke & co. took to a whole other level in the live setting. The same could sort of be said for Wayne Shorter's titanic Without A Net, which was a live album but made up of selected performances rather than a single concert. I understand the curatorial impulse - and every performance is incredible - but having heard an unofficial recording of a show in Marseilles taped earlier this year, I found it easier to lose myself in the ebbs and flows of his extraordinary band. Also, Shorter plays only a little tenor sax on Without A Net and I found myself looking for a break from the high register of the soprano.

Don't Stop The Dance A lot of people seem satisfied to take the floor to pale imitations of past glories like Get Lucky or Blurred Lines but I require an actual groove to get me moving. Luscious Jackson's Magic Hour, their first album in 14 years, was a master class in the fun and the funky. A little push to the songwriting would have found them back at the peak of Fever In Fever Out, but I know what I'll be playing at the New Year's party. I'll probably also be spinning Disclosure's When A Fire Starts To Burn - no matter that the rest of Settle was at a slightly lower temperature.

Getting Better All The Time Over a decade into their career, 65daysofstatic returned from a three year hiatus with their strongest album yet, Wild Light. Choppy electronics, soaring guitars, epic compositions - it was the full package of what instrumental rock can be in 2013 and took its place next to Pell Mell's Interstate and Trans Am's Surrender To The Night among my favorites in the genre. Yes, that was me who added 65daysofstatic to the list of instrumental bands on Wikipedia! I've never been able to muster much enthusiasm for Midlake, despite the reams of rock journo ink spilled on them, but it seems that all they needed to do was lose their lead singer. The reconfigured sextet returned with Antiphon, a lovely and involving album that may presage future greatness. Then what will all those music critics say?

They've Been Careering Iron & Wine's Ghost On Ghost, Amor De Dias's The House At Sea, and Juana Molina's Wed 21 were all fine albums that I returned to often but that somehow stayed in the realm of the expected, even in their little innovations on trademark sounds. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they were for fans only, but I would hope that new listeners are led back to earlier, more powerful works. Edwyn Collins also exists in this realm and his punchy Understated is another reason I'm glad he survived two(!) cerebral hemorrhages to make more of his witty and heartfelt music.

Cool And Composed The vaguely named (and defined) area of New Music spun off a few gems that I spotlit over the course of 2013. Nicholas Cords, released his debut album Recursions, a beautifully wide-ranging solo viola album, while his regular gig, string quartet Brooklyn Rider, put out another strong statement with the Gypsy-inflected A Walking Fire. Another Nicholas, Nicholas Vines served up Torrid Nature Scenes, a welcome sampling of his sometimes raucous and always complex and accomplished music. Committed performances make the case that Vines is one of the most exciting of contemporary composers. The American Contemporary Music Ensemble performed something of a public service by bringing the early 60's work of NYC avant gardist Joseph Byrd to light - fascinating and fun stuff. Density, by Claire Chase, contemporary flutist extraordinaire, was a sometimes challenging survey of cutting edge music for her instrument, including the forever fabulous Density 21.5 by Edgar Varese.

Words And Music Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday led to a flood of catalog releases and new recordings. Sublime tenor Ian Bostridge put out one of the best of the latter, a collection of songs including the infrequently performed Songs From The Chinese. If you're unfamiliar with Britten, start to get acquainted with one of the greats here. Simone Dinnerstein, who made quite a splash with her self-released Bach recordings a few years ago, made her first foray into the dreaded crossover space with Night, an aptly-named collaboration with singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. Beats the heck out of Norah Jones.

Single & EP's Supposedly we live in a shuffle-based world now, with albums having less and less prominence. Why, then, is it so much work to get great singles and EP's noticed? I'll keep trying! Breton gave a hint of the larger canvas of their second album, due early next year, with the four song Force Of Habit, featuring the bouncy (for them) Envy and the doomy Got Well Soon plus two non-LP songs. Holly Miranda also set the stage for her sophomore release with the magnificent Desert Call/Everlasting single. I really hope 2014 is her year - been a long time coming. FKA Twigs (yes, formerly known as Twigs) collaborated with producer Arca for EP2 and the results were highly intriguing. Arca himself, aside from working on Yeezus, dropped a 26 minute mix of dazzling sounds, called &&&&&. The title hints that there's more to come from him, which will be more than welcome. Divine Fits kept their pot of brittle pop boiling with Chained To Love and Ain't That The Way, although I've heard rumors that Britt Daniel may be reviving Spoon next year. Finally, Matthew E. White re-released last year's brilliant Big Inner with five new songs - genteel and sly, funky and folky, the way only he can do. If you don't already have it, it's way past time to invest in a major talent.

Bandcamp Follower There's a wealth of free listening and downloads on Bandcamp. Two of my discoveries from 2013 are Historian and Journalism (you can make the joke about unused graduate degrees). The first makes hazy bedroom electro-psych-pop and the second comes up with catchy guitar rock that doesn't sound cheesy. When you're tired of the usual suspects, head over to Bandcamp and find something to tell your friends about.

I'm saving the spectacular reissues of the year for next time so we can all catch our breath. See you in 2014!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Best Of 2013

I'm not going to start, as I usually do, by commenting on the quality of the year's music. I believe that if you're hungry for good music and you apply yourself to finding it (I hope AnEarful can be of help), you will find more than enough nourishment in any given year. It's probably enough for me to say that, for the second year running, I am presenting a Top 20 and not a Top 10. I will also have a robust "Best Of The Rest Of" to follow and provide further directions to explore. Enough ado - here goes.

1. David Bowie - The Next Day I still feel as I did earlier this year, except more so now that time has molded these tracks into the warp and weft of my being. Even the somewhat weaker songs I delineated in my review have a crushing inevitability that is the result of an artist at full engagement with his craft and emotional core. Dropping that first video when he did in January, and all the subsequent remixes, bonus tracks and videos has made 2013 unequivocally the year of Bowie.

2. Kanye West - Yeezus Still astonishing after all these months. Mood swings from painfully raw to hilarious and everything in between.

3. Jenny O. - Automechanic In a perfect world, Haim would be opening for this enchanting singer and songwriter. With the help of master-producer Jonathan Wilson, she has crafted a richly detailed set of songs, many with a touching vulnerability beneath their road-hardened swagger.

4. Jonathan Wilson - Fanfare On the follow-up to 2011's brilliant Gentle Spirit, Wilson goes big AND goes home to a rich tapestry of sounds inspired by what must be a mother of a record collection.

5. Volcano Choir - Repave The other great record with Justin Vernon on it this year (see Yeezus, above). More live dates, please.

6. Jon Hopkins - Immunity It's been a great year for this dealer in texture and tension. Besides this Mercury-nominated collection he also put out an intense soundtrack for the dystopian thriller How I Live Now. Unlike Eno's quite nice Lux, Hopkins's work would never place in the New Age category at The Grammys.

7. Jace Clayton - The Julius Eastman Memory Depot While I'm still mourning the end of Clayton's often mind-blowing radio show (as DJ/Rupture), this furiously well-done introduction to Eastman was much more than a consolation prize. At times it sounds like nothing more than an extended intro to Mobb Deep's Quiet Storm. Mash it up, people.

8. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold A disarming and shambolic façade reveals canny compositions and NYC classicism par excellence. Their new EP sketches out some new outposts.

9. Daniel Wohl - Corps Exquis This is a jewel-textured and compulsively listenable series of compositions that apparently has another life as a multiple-media performance piece. I say, just put it on and close your eyes…

10. The Darcys - Warring That these Torontonians are just getting better and better is proven by this journey into a heart of darkness partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

11. Prodigy & Alchemist - Albert Einstein Blazingly inventive beats inspire Prodigy to his best work since Return Of The Mac, also produced by Alchemist. Let's just say that once you hear about "weed smoke pouring out the bullet hole glass," you never forget it.

12. Wire - Change Becomes Us Rock & roll may eat its young but post punk bands never die (see also: Killing Joke).

13. Son Lux - Lanterns Third time is the charm for the omnivorously talented Ryan Lott. His solo performance on WNYC's Soundcheck (using prepared piano) demonstrated the rock-solid structure behind these songs.

14. Mystical Weapons - S/T Speaking of omnivorous talents, the protean Sean Lennon teams up with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier on this series of improvisations filled with blistering twists and turns. Like electric Miles, it is always moving with purpose, even if the purpose becomes tangential.

15. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap Chancellor Bennett's sheer excitement at being alive and coming to terms with his own prodigious talent is infectious, even when he's rapping about how "everyone dies in the summer." I would almost advise starting at the last song, Everything's Good (Good Ass Outro), which begins with a phone conversation in which Chance thanks his dad for the computer and the T-shirts - and especially for believing in him. When was the last time hip hop made you cry - in a good way?

16. The Strokes - Comedown Machine The former scuzz-rockers grow ever more intricate, without losing their explosive energy.

17. Jonwayne - Rap Album 1 A series of cassettes heralded the arrival of a fresh sounding producer and rapper. While the album lacked some of the sense of play that made the tapes so delightful, it felt like a true journey into the mind - for both creator and listener.

18. Isadora - EP One of New York's finest. Get in on the ground floor.

19. The Mavericks - In Time I had almost forgotten about these guys when they came roaring back with what may be their best album yet. With country radio a Swiftian wasteland (Taylor or Jonathan, take your pick) leaving them beholden to no one but themselves, they bring a few new sounds to their patented blend of Americana and Hispanica.

20. Mutual Benefit - Love's Crushing Diamond A gorgeously elaborate song cycle of muted joy and sorrow. While we wait for Robin Pecknold to go through his process, this touches on some of those Fleet Foxes sweet spots, while still sounding completely original and occasionally exotic. This is one that will last.

Listen to the Top 20 on Spotify.

Coming Next: The Best Of The Rest Of 2013, including reissues.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Ambition: Not A Four-Letter Word

Sometimes it seems that ambition is a dirty word, a way to damn with faint praise and an acknowledgment that an artist's ideas have exceeded his or her talent. Four recent albums, all among the best of the year, put the lie to that construct.

Jonathan Wilson - Fanfare His last album, Gentle Spirit, was my dark horse (George Harrison reference purely intentional) of 2011, spotted by chance on a crowd-sourced Spotify playlist started by the late, lamented Word magazine and taking a firm place in my top ten. Gentle Spirit was located at a Laurel Canyon intersection of Pink Floyd and Gram Parsons and featured Wilson's virtuosic guitar accompanied by his warm tenor and a band consisting mainly of himself. I played Gentle Spirit for many people and nearly everyone who heard it had their eyes closed and their head nodding by the third track, if not before - he brings the bliss.

Those with mainstream tastes and a tolerance for ham-handed lyrics probably know Wilson as the producer of Dawes, but his studio skills have been better employed by Father John Misty on 2012's brilliant Fear Fun and Jenny O.'s wonderful Automechanic, released earlier in this year. Somewhere in the midst of working on those records as well as putting his hand in Roy Harper's Man & Myth and touring extensively, Wilson has found the time to put together Fanfare, a sprawling double-vinyl length affair that finds him working with some of the legends to whom his sound pays homage.

Even with the guests, there is no mistaking that this is Wilson's album. You gotta wonder what David Crosby and Graham Nash thought when he brought them to sing on Cecil Taylor (who's "on the White House lawn," apparently) after laying down tracks for guitars, bass, piano, Hammond organ, drums and percussion. I suppose they've seen it all by now and, after all, he did have to get someone else to play the flugelhorn! Just as on Gentle Spirit, however, all of this one-man-band stuff is no stunt, but is in service of Wilson's rich songs and the evocative sound he's after. If you didn't read the credits, you would assume each song was recorded by a group of simpatico virtuosos sitting in a circle and making beautiful music together.

Fanfare is definitely on a grander scale than Gentle Spirit, with episodic compositions that take the listener on dynamic journeys to inner space. He also adds a few new textures to his palette, as on Love To Love, which mingles sprightly Yoakam-esque country with Dylan and some dark, jazzy chords in a way that surprises even after the first hearing. Actually, there are several moments that astonish repeatedly: Benmont Tench's rhapsodic piano solo on Moses Pain, Wilson's hair-raising harmony vocals on Her Hair Is Growing Long, the expansive guitars of Dear Friend, the tough, funky breakdown in Lovestrong, among others. Speaking of tough, among the exploratory (OK, slightly hippy dippy) lyrics, Lovestrong features the wonderfully nasty line, "Coyote would chew off his own paw to get out of what you've tried to achieve, lady." I can hear that idiot wind blowing...

Mixing bitterness with optimism was also a specialty of the latter day edition of The Sopwith Camel, who were relics of sixties San Francisco (their hit was the regrettable Hello, Hello), when they reformed to record a second album in the early 70's. Wilson resurrects Fazon from that album here, perfecting their proto jazz-funk investigation into alternative housing ("Who's gonna live in all those cities underground?") with respect and depth. You don't have to move underground to enjoy Fanfare, just turn off the shuffle play and allow yourself to be transported. Wilson will be touring extensively in 2014 - get there.

The Darcys - Warring Speaking of ambition, how about attempting a full-album cover of the top-selling record by one of the most complex and technically assured bands of all time? That's exactly what Toronto band The Darcys did when they released their take on Steely Dan's Aja in early 2012. It was a complete success, mining the rich vein of darkness hidden in Becker and Fagen's slick studio funk. It was also a great introduction to The Darcys sound, which features Michael le Riche and Jason Couse's heavily treated guitars and keyboards, Dave Hurlow's stabbing, aggressive bass, and Wes Marskell's alternately busy and spacious drums. Couse is also the singer, often exploring his upper range to soar above the band's driving soundscapes.

Warring, their third record with the current line up, is the most complete expression of their art and ethos yet. No longer marred by the somewhat murky sound and slightly directionless songwriting that characterized the self-titled debut, The Darcys freely explore dub-infused space and unleash melodic and memorable choruses while delivering a set of songs filled with variety and dynamics. Couse's singing is more confident than ever and instead of Steely Dan's bleak LA tales, he draws on Cormac McCarthy's even bleaker Blood Meridian for lyrical inspiration.

The strongest cut may be the last, Lost Dogfights, which takes the tempo of a dead man walking, expressed mainly by Marskell's brick-hard drums. Hurlow's bass plays more space than notes, and a piano ostinato repeats like a recurrent nightmare that doesn't end when you wake up. There are also ghostly vocal harmonies and spidery guitar and synth, all adding up to a place of despairing beauty. Like McCarthy's gimlet-eyed vision of the west, it's a place you'll want to visit often.

Son Lux - Lanterns Ryan Lott, who releases music under the name Son Lux, seemed to come out of nowhere in 2008 when he released his debut, At War With Walls & Mazes. It was a fascinating song cycle that drew on his skills as a trained composer and on his love for contemporary production techniques as used in the realms of hip hop and electronic music. It was alternately thorny and contemplative and his passion for breaking barriers between genres - and people in general - came through loud and clear. It made a lot of top ten lists, including my own.

The follow up, recorded during a 28 day period as part of the RPM project, did not work for me at all. The elements were in place but the songs on We Are Rising seemed enervated, devoid of all forward motion. As much as I tried to like it, listening to it never ceased to be a chore. Now comes Lanterns, a rhapsodic collection that may be his best yet. The sonics are his most accomplished and innovative, with a joyful energy to many of the songs. Lost It To Trying and No Crimes are splashy and fun, the real "artpop" (sorry Gaga), while sparer tracks like Easy and Pyre seem to construct and deconstruct before your very ears.

While Son Lux occupies some of the same space as Dirty Projectors and Tuneyards, Lott deploys his talents with none of their arch condescension, a quality which makes listening to those critical darlings impossible for me. Nonetheless, fans of those bands and anyone who gets excited by the collision of compositional intelligence, production chops and savvy songwriting should let their musical universe be brightened by Lanterns.

Isadora - EP Since we're discussing artful and ambitious releases, allow me to introduce you to Isadora, whose debut came out near the beginning of the year. I discovered them when they were on the bill with Napoleon (who I discovered at the Mystical Weapons show earlier in 2013). Of course, I investigated Isadora before the show to see if I should plan to stay for their set. I knew within a minute or two of the first song, that I wouldn't want to miss them. While their debts (to Radiohead and The Beatles, among others) are clear, they have more than enough of their own personality to make their EP one of the most promising debuts of the year.

Over the course of the EP, they demonstrate a sure hand at crafting complex songs full of organic tempo changes and dynamic shifts in volume and tone. There's an experiential quality to their music, where by the end of each song you feel like you've been through something. This is even more apparent in concert, where they push the dynamics to the limit, but the crystal clear recording doesn't sacrifice the sense of spontaneity and interaction that helps their music achieve liftoff.

The five members of Isadora are all excellent musicians, with Nick Burleigh an important double threat on both guitar and violin, Joshua Rouah mainly playing atmospheric keyboards but also guitar on occasion, Ian Mellencamp melodic but not groove-averse on bass, and Jesse Bilotta knowing just when to ratchet up on the drums and when to lay back. Aaron Mendelsohn's vocals show a lot of range and flexibility, going from a reflective croon to a biting intensity as the song demands. Together, the music they make is incredibly satisfying. Get the EP now and keep an ear out for more from Isadora in the future.

Coming Next: But of course - The Best of 2013 and The Best of The Rest of 2013. 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Still Luscious

Full disclosure: as I've mentioned before, I was in a band in high school, the Young Aborigines, that morphed into the Beastie Boys. Kate Schellenbach, who became the drummer in Luscious Jackson, was our percussionist, added to our guitar/bass/drums trio to give the music a richer, more "tribal" feel. Jill Cunniff, who sings and plays bass in Luscious, was someone we had met in the downtown clubs who often hung around during our rehearsals and the dance parties, fueled by Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Gang Of Four and early hip hop, that followed. The Young Abs dissolved in 1982 and no one could have more pleased than me when, a decade later, Mike D sent me Daughters Of The Kaos and In Search Of Manny, the first EP's by Luscious Jackson. Jill had joined forces with Gabby Glaser (guitar and vocals) and Vivian Trimble (keyboards) to form the band, adding Kate in on drums to supplement the sampled beats. Seeing my friends and former band mates using their rock star status to lift up other friends on their new Grand Royal label was a beautiful thing.

Even better was how fun the music was, with sultry vocals, funky beats, and catchy melodies. Songs like Life Of Leisure and Keep On Rockin' It became anthems around my house, while She Be Wantin' It More hinted at a more introspective side. The mixture of hip hop, reggae, pop and sometimes angular rock seemed the natural result of all the music we Hoovered up in high school, where quality trumped genre and making mixtapes with surprising juxtapositions was a skill we all aimed to acquire. Natural Ingredients, their first full-length, followed quickly in 1994 and, while the songs weren't all well-developed, the album was carried along by the grooves and found Luscious Jackson more confident in the studio and primed to make their masterpiece.

Fever In Fever Out (1996) found the women working with producer Daniel Lanois, who, after working with Brian Eno on several of the ambient master's albums, had become a producer of globe-dominating records for U2 (with Eno) and Peter Gabriel, while his work with Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris found them making some of the best music of their careers. I'm not sure how the two parties came together (strangely enough, Lanois doesn't mention Luscious at all in his memoir, Soul Mining: A Musical Life), but when I praised the combination to Mike D. at the time, he kind of laughed and said, "I told Danny, none of that haunted house shit." Whatever was said, it worked. I suspect that Lanois, while restraining some of his more spectral tendencies, pushed the band most on songwriting.

The result was a compulsively listenable album that brought all Luscious Jackson's strengths to the fore - grooves, melodies - while developing that melancholy streak that gives their music richness and depth. Lead-off cut Naked Eye became a top 40 hit and the band was catapulted to a new level of success. Unfortunately, as so often happens in these cases, bigger sales led the record company (no longer Grand Royal but Capitol) to want even bigger sales. On the next album, Electric Honey, Lanois was out (as was Trimble), replaced mainly by Tony Visconti, known for his brilliant work with T.Rex and David Bowie. Visconti brought both power and polish and, whether it was his fault or the touch of journeyman guitarist Dominic Troiano, the album often succumbed to an anonymous "college rock" gloss. The band soon disbanded and, while there has been some rewarding music from their camp over the years, they mainly pursued other careers and/or raising their families.

When I got wind of their PledgeMusic campaign I signed on quickly, convinced by the snippet of vintage, streetwise LJ they shared, and the fact that there would be no record company shenanigans. Whatever the internal process that led to the reformation of the band (still minus Trimble), the time certainly seems perfect, with all things nineties receiving reassessment and reissue.

Sidebar: Many reviews and other articles about the nineties resurgence refer to Grand Royal as the Beastie Boys's "failed record label." I would not be so quick to dismiss an enterprise that released albums by Sean Lennon, At The Drive In, Noise Addict, Josephine Wiggs, and Buffalo Daughter, not to mention charming Luscious Jackson spin-offs like Kostars and Ladies Who Lunch. It's always been my belief that the Beasties curatorial skills were in full effect with Grand Royal and what they were lacking was more of the left-brain stuff like artist development and marketing. As someone who has eclectic taste I can tell you that while I didn't love everything Grand Royal put out, I was always excited when another package arrived with that distinctive logo. Whatever was within, I knew boredom was out of the question. For a quick listen to the Grand Royal legacy, check out my 8Tracks playlist. Some of it is out of print, although Buffalo Daughter released a comprehensive career overview earlier this year. End of sidebar.

Needless to say, the PledgeMusic campaign was a runaway success, reaching nearly 300% of the required funding and now we have the resulting album, Magic Hour. The 10 song collection is bright, bouncy and chock full of grooves made for dancing. For sheer body moving power, the beats here trump much of the overworked, machine-tooled sounds that pass for dance music these days. It's most impressive that the organically funky sound was achieved with minimal assistance; most of the production is by Cunniff and Glaser, with help from Adam Horovitz on one song and ADW Young on another.

Love Is Alive may be the most unstoppable song on Magic Hour, with a killer update on the disco power of songs like I Will Survive, More, More, More and Don't Leave Me This Way. As great as the sound of Love Is Alive is, it also points up the deficits that keep Magic Hour from rivaling Fever In Fever Out. While lyrical sloganeering has been a part of dance music since before Chic put out Good Times, the phrase "When love is alive, you can rest assured," lacks the strength to be much of a rallying cry. The lyrics of most of the songs are built around stronger phrases like Show Us What You Got and Are You Ready? but fail to find any deeper resonances in them. We Go Back probably has the best lines, including the clever and emotionally connected chorus of "We go back, but we can't go back, but we can go on/We go back, and we'll always have what we had." Come to think of it, that's probably what was going through the minds of Cunniff, Glaser and Schellenbach as they decided to embark on a second act.

On the whole, however, the lyrics are fairly negligible without getting in the way of the monster grooves - except on #1 Bum, which is amusing the first time but inane the second. Not only is "You're my male J. Lo" awkward and forced, it's the one moment on the album where LJ sound out of date. One other note about temporality: while the sound of Magic Hour is fresh and crisp, representing a distinct upgrade to the murk of their earliest recordings, their range of influences has remained pretty much the same since then. I don't get the idea that the members of Luscious Jackson are taking in new music the way we used to at those parties in the 100th Street loft. So consider Magic Hour a delightful reiteration of the Luscious Jackson sound, rather than a continuation of the "anything goes" operating principle they followed to originally achieve it. Maybe that was the wise thing to do after 13 years off the scene and they will explore more adventurous sonics on the follow-up. Either way, I'm glad to have them back. Catch them at Webster Hall on Saturday, December 7th and remember to bring your dancing shoes.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Overdosed On Pleasure: The Book of Nilsson

Biography Schmiography
"Neither of us could stop laughing, and finally I said, 'I can't take any more pleasure, John. I can't take any more pleasure. Stop! It's gotta stop!'" That's John as in Lennon, of course, being yelled at by Harry Nilsson in one of the haunting episodes in Alyn Shipton's fine - and necessary - new biography, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter. Nilsson and Lennon were in the midst of their famous "lost weekend" and were in the second continuous day of dropping acid and getting up to no good with two young women. This outrageous escapade began when Lennon said to Nilsson, "I'd love to get some girls and some acid and fuck'em," and Nilsson responded by saying he could get it done with one phone call. And he did.

Something about the gluttony described in that story, which Shipton gleaned from Nilsson's unfinished autobiography (a major source of information in the book), resonates with many of the themes in Harry's life and music. Even from his first album proper, Pandemonium Shadow Show, Nilsson was loading on piles of horns, strings, carnival barkers - everything AND the kitchen sink seemed to be the operating principle - enough that even when he's at his best you might find yourself saying "Stop! It's gotta stop." But he was so unique that you'll go back for more in fairly short order.

One doesn't need to be a psychologist (or even a pop-psychologist) to figure that Nilsson's need for surfeit, and ability to provide it, came from the gaping emotional wound left behind when his father abandoned him, an act compounded by his mother's lies about why he had gone. The final blow came when Harry later learned that for part of his childhood his father was nearby and was uninterested in seeing his son. Shipton deals with Nilsson's early life with brisk efficiency in the first chapter which ends as he is recording his earliest demos in 1962. By then he had a respectable job in a bank, showing an early aptitude for the computers that financial institutions were adopting at the time. However, he had already lived a couple of lifetimes at that point: born in Brooklyn, he criss-crossed the country both with his mother and sister and without, played high school baseball with Carl Yastrzemski, knocked over a liquor store to put food on his mother's table - practically the only thing he didn't do for his first 17 years was make music.

Even after he started it still took several years for his career to take off, but when it did it was obvious that a serious talent had arrived. From the beginning, RCA marketed him as "The True One," and even before his smash hit Nilsson Schmilsson album (his seventh for RCA) he had attracted the attention, and eventual friendship, of all four Beatles, had songs covered by everyone from Astrud Gilberto to Glen Campbell, worked on prestige projects such as John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (winning a Grammy for Everybody's Talkin') and Otto Preminger's Skidoo, and created a nationally televised animated special called The Point. By any lights, he was in the midst of an extremely interesting and richly musical mid-level career. "Mid-level" because, despite all his successes, RCA was not really making back their investment on his albums.

Enter Richard Perry, one of a swinging new breed of record producer, with whom Nilsson decided it was time to "' some rock and roll and get down." The resulting concoction was Nilsson Schmillson, an album I have dubbed "the white Thriller," both for its quantity of hit songs and its variety of material, which offers something for everybody - and every radio format. It went gold in a matter of months, earned him another Grammy, and has stood the test of time as one of the most enduring classics of the 1970's. The million-selling status of Nilsson Schmilsson may be unique in the annals of rock when you consider that it was achieved without any touring or live performances to speak of. However, it also sowed the seeds for Nilsson's personal and professional destruction, a transition which was stunningly rapid and which Shipton delineates in detailed reportage, with rueful affection but no judgement or sensationalism.

It's hard to imagine the deep feeling of worthlessness that must have fueled Harry's descent into a life of monstrous excess. Since he was joined in his descent by such fellow travelers as Lennon, Ringo, and Keith Moon, there is some entertainment value in the wild tales but it can make for painful reading when you consider the cost to Nilsson's music. Fortunately, Shipton is clear-eyed in his assessment of the patchy years that followed Nilsson Schmillson. The casual listener will likely be unaware of at least five of the seven albums (not including the somewhat bizarre soundtrack to Robert Altman's Popeye) Harry made from 1972 to 1980 - his last album wasn't even released in the U.S. But each one has something to offer and, with Shipton's guidance, I've assembled some of the tracks worthy of reconsideration in a Spotify playlist called Later, Harry. If you want to go all in, The RCA Albums Collection has everything he recorded for the label including many rarities and unreleased material.

One of the most remarkable parts of this remarkable story is Nilsson's third marriage to Una O'Keefe, who he met by chance in NYC when she was a nineteen-year-old on a student visa from Ireland and waitressing at Rumpelmayer's. After waiting for her to finish college, they married and went on to have five children. She stuck with him to the end, and it gives the reader comfort to know there was someone who cared for him unconditionally. Like Una, we have to accept the good Nilsson and the bad, and Shipton's book, along with the must-see documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, gives us the definitive take on an American original. So, put the lime in the coconut and read it all up.

P.S. Part of the fun of reading the book is running to YouTube to confirm that some of the crazy stories are really true, like the tale of the $5,000 TV commercial:

Holly Miranda In Her Element

Domino Kirke was first up at Knitting Factory on October 29th, and she played a sweet, short set of her dark-hued psychedelic ballads, growing more comfortable with each song. It seems her career as a superstar doula had kept her from the stage for a while and she was blowing the rust off as the opener for a triple bill of singers with Holly Miranda as headliner. Her sister Jemma is one of the stars of the HBO series Girls, but fortunately nothing went awry during her performance, as so often happens on that brilliant show. Domino is rock royalty, being the daughter of Simon Kirke, who as the drummer in Free and Bad Company helped define the soundtrack of the 70's. While Domino's music has none of the blues-based swagger those bands did so well at their best, perhaps her father's wonderfully spacious drumming had an influence on her open and uncluttered songwriting. Hopefully the warm reception she got at the Knit will encourage her to follow up The Guard, her four-song EP from 2012, with some new music.

While the stage was reset, a woman who had just come in asked me and my friend if the middle act, Kendra Morris, had gone on yet. No, she's next, we explained, you just missed Domino Kirke. It turned out that she was a friend of Kendra's and she wondered what had brought us to the club. "Holly Miranda," I said, "I've been following her for years but I haven't seen her perform in a while." She hadn't heard of Holly before and wondered how I had found out about her. I wasn't surprised by her surprise to my answer: "The New York Times." Nobody really thinks about finding out about cutting-edge rock music in the sometimes risible pop music coverage featured in the Gray Lady, which often takes the form of lengthy disquisitions on such non-entities as Brad Paisley. But every once in a while you learn about something amazing - I can recall first reading about Gang Of Four and Public Enemy in the paper - so I try to keep up with their features and reviews.

It was back in March 2009 when I first read about a Holly Miranda show at Zebulon. Something about how the music was described and the evident passion in the accompanying photo drove me to MySpace (yes, MySpace) to listen. The sounds were hypnotic, the voice was mesmerizing. She had nothing released at the time so I bookmarked her page and listened every day. I was apparently not the only one who was impressed - Kanye West shared Slow Burn Treason on his blog. I downloaded it from there and soon began to assemble a little playlist of free stuff as she made it available.

It turned out that she had quite a story: raised by fundamentalists in the Midwest, she had almost no exposure to popular culture until she fled for NYC at the age of 16. She fell in with some unscrupulous music biz types (who turned out to be mob connected) and recorded her first album, which can definitely be filed under juvenilia. Soon she was fronting a punky band called the Jealous Girlfriends and started having some success, with songs featured on Gray's Anatomy and other shows. But her vision was more expansive and she went solo, which is where I came in.

During her time in NYC, she became friends with the members of TV On The Radio and Dave Sitek began producing her demos. Eventually they made an album together, the Magician's Private Library. It's a fine record but I couldn't help thinking that Sitek's somewhat heavy-handed production had muted Holly. This was borne out when I finally had a chance to see her perform at Celebrate Brooklyn in August 2010. The sense of dynamics was far more pronounced than on the album and her gorgeous voice had a better chance to shine. This was also my daughter Hannah's first rock concert (she was 11) and she was riveted. One highlight was Holly's cover of the Etta James classic, I'd Rather Go Blind.

Holly moved to California and embarked on her next record, financed through PledgeMusic. The two songs she has released so far, Desert Call and Everlasting, are easily among the best songs of the year and lead me to believe that my hope that the album will be the full expression of her unique voice as a singer and songwriter will not be unfulfilled. When she's at her best, as in the new songs, she has the rare ability to induce me to stop what I'm doing and just listen. She seems incapable of being insincere, a quality borne out by the startling version of Alphaville's Forever Young included on the album of cover songs that was my pledge reward. I'd always dismissed this song as pure pap, but she approaches it without a shred of irony, finding a kernel of soulful truth in it and making me hear the song the same way she did.

Unfortunately, insincerity was not a problem for Kendra Morris, whose set stood between us and Holly's performance. I won't belabor the point but her clichéd belting drove us to get a drink in the outer room, where we remained until she left the stage.

Good company and good whiskey made the time pass quickly, however, and soon we were watching Holly take the stage, her spangled shirt sparkling in the dark. Her band included another guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and, in an interesting addition to this standard line up, a baritone sax player. As soon as the first song started, you could tell we were in the presence of the complete package. In the years since I saw her in Prospect Park, she has become a commanding bandleader and a versatile rhythm guitarist, while harnessing her remarkable vocal instrument with complete control. The sound was far from ideal - over-amped and a bit too bright - but the power of her music was undeniable and felt too big for the room, a quality noted by Jon Caramanica in that long-ago review.

When she played the new songs, it also became clear how far her songwriting has come. She has left behind the sing-song melodies that were sometimes a crutch in her earlier songs and and has developed a style both more sophisticated and more elemental, seeming to tap into the mainline of why we humans started writing songs in the first place. Perhaps singing songs associated with Etta James and Barbara Mason, not to mention embodying the live-wire emotion of a song like God Damn The Sun by Swans (also included on the covers album) has left its mark on her own writing. Whatever her process, throughout the concert I couldn't shake the feeling that her craft has now risen to the level of her talent.

Even the songs from The Magician's Private Library sounded more alive. The sax turned out to be a canny choice, sometimes doing the job of a horn section, and sometimes providing a drone or wash not unlike a keyboard. I'm not sure who was playing it, but she brought the house down with a melodic and surprisingly nimble solo. However, most of the bravura moments came from Holly herself - her voice, her stage presence, her songs - and I think the she might finally find herself in rooms big enough for her music when the next album comes out in spring 2014.


Thursday, November 07, 2013

Multiplicities Of Genius, Part 2: Sly Stone

Am I the only one who felt a slight sinking sensation upon realizing that Scorcese's brilliant film about Dylan, No Direction Home, was not going to go past 1966? One would think that by 2007, it was time to see Dylan's sixties work in context with the rest of his legendary career, which includes over 25 albums since 1970. I'm as capable of fetishizing the sixties as anyone else, but in the case of some of the music legends that came out of that time, it actually diminishes them to confine them to one era.

Sly Stone is another such genius. While his post-Woodstock career is nothing like Dylan's, his later work still deserves to be assessed and not dismissed, as it often has been. In the early 90's a friend sent me an import CD of Fresh, Sly & The Family Stone's album from 1973. Sony/Columbia/Epic had not deigned to include the gold-selling record that contained If You Want Me To Stay and In Time in their first round of CD issues. Why? "Too funky," my friend opined. "Too personal," I thought. Small Talk (also a gold record) and High On You, from 1974 and 1975, were also left out in the cold, along with the three albums that followed. Whatever the reason for the revisionism there has been a gradual correction, if an incomplete one, to the official canon. A huge step in the right direction was made in 2007 when Epic/Legacy put out a box set of the first seven albums, newly mastered and featuring bonus tracks.

It was a delight to hear beautifully prepared releases of Fresh and Small Talk, and to have a real opportunity to consider them in relation to Sly's more lauded work. Even considering the travails caused by his personal problems and addictions, he managed to keep the quality up. While the later albums didn't always innovate on a sonic level, they certainly held their own against the likes of Kool & The Gang and the Ohio Players, to mention just two of Sly's progeny. For the deep fan, however, there was still that twinge: What about High On You (represented only by a demo of Crossword Puzzle tacked on to the end of Small Talk) and the other albums? Shouldn't we have the opportunity, with an artist of Sly's stature (and one who has sold millions of records) to grasp the whole achievement?

Well, now another step has been taken, with the release of Higher, the lavishly packaged four CD set, which includes some pre-Family Stone work and goes right up through Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back, the last Sly album on Epic before he decamped to Warner Bros. There's also 17 unreleased tracks, including a few spectacular live performances, and many of the most famous songs are issued in their mono single masters for the first time on CD. There are some real gems among the rare material, like Remember, a swaggering blues that came out of a collaboration with Billy Preston (Free Funk from his Wildest Organ In Town is his version), and You're The One, a hit for Little Sister and performed furiously by the Family Stone on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert in 1973.

The live material from The Isle Of Wight festival is also stellar, but some of the newly unearthed material is strictly for bragging rights, such as a number of so-so instrumentals. There's a telling remark by drummer Greg Errico appended to one of them in the book included in the set: "These aren't instrumentals per se; they are tracks before the vocals were added," and that weren't completed for one reason or another. While the instrumentals aren't that memorable in their current form, they do serve to throw into relief the brilliance of Sly's lyrics, vocal melodies and arrangements. As for the classic material, much of it is well-chosen, although I would argue against including the nearly 14 minute Sex Machine (from the Stand! album), which I've always found leaden. The valuable real estate it occupies could have made room for two or three more songs from the final three albums, represented here by six songs in total, or accommodated one or two cuts from Back On The Right Track, Sly's first album for Warner Bros., such as the wry groove of The Same Thing (Makes You Laugh, Makes You Cry) or It Takes All Kinds.

On the whole, while the true fan will want all the complete albums as well, Higher comes closer than anything else to displaying the breadth of Sly's achievement. The book includes a decent essay, song by song descriptions with many quotes from band members (including Sly), and a timeline, along with great photos of the group and associated memorabilia. If you can find it, the "Amazon exclusive" version of the set is highly recommended as it comes with a bonus disc including six more tracks, including Sittin' On My Fanny from 1975.

While the essay does mention the "excess, strain, and recklessness which sometimes follow fame," there is no visual representation of the darker side of Sly's life. I have often wondered what it looked like as he made There's A Riot Going On, a dark murky album that still managed to produce three or four hit singles. I'll have to keep looking because all the pictures in the book show Sly smiling and seemingly in full command of the situation. This makes it easy to avoid thinking deeply about why Sly fell victim to drugs - was it just brain chemistry and opportunity, or could he feel the walls closing in as the culture's definition of him as a cartoonish avatar of sixties optimism grew more and more sealed? I believe that until we address questions like that head on, we will not be taking Sly's full measure with all the love and compassion deserved by someone who has brought the world so much joy and insight.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Lou Reed

"Lou was a prince and a fighter and I know his songs of the pain and beauty in the world will fill many people with the incredible joy he felt for life. Long live the beauty that comes down and through and onto all of us." - from Laurie Anderson's obituary for her husband, Lou Reed

Thanks to the ongoing slow-motion train wreck tragedy that is classic rock radio, it is all too possible that a majority of the people in this country associate Lou Reed with one song, the canny concoction known as Walk On The Wild Side. This is not an entirely bad thing as it is a brilliant song, and one that that managed to get both "head" and "colored girls" - i.e. transgression - on radios across the land. However, it is also shameful when you consider the gratitude we owe Lou Reed, both for his music specifically and for his ambitions for rock music in general. In countless interviews, Reed made it plain that his "life was saved by rock and roll," and that he wanted to return the favor by creating music that would align what was seen as teenage fare with the literary and artistic movements of the day, i.e. the great American novel in song.

For this reason, The Velvet Underground and Nico, the first album by his seminal band, is at least as important as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in affecting the transformation of rock music into an art form on the same level as books, movies, paintings, etc. What's more remarkable, he was able to accomplish this without losing sight of the blues and soul that made the music great to begin with. And why should we thank him for this? Simply because it meant that he made the rock and roll that saved the lives of a new, more sophisticated audience while inspiring some of the finest music of the seventies and beyond.

Even if he had burnt out and faded away after Loaded and being forced out of his own band, the songs he wrote for the four Velvet Underground albums (not to mention others released later) would have established him as one of the finest songwriters of the century. His novelistic eye for detail, ability to deal with multiple viewpoints and the compassion he almost always had for the characters he created and often portrayed in his songs enlarged the parameters of what a song could do. While he was sometimes accused of misogyny, it's remarkable how many songs he wrote from the point of view of women, from Nico's songs on the first album to Candy Says, Lisa Says, Stephanie Says and Caroline Says. That's not to mention She's My Best Friend and the tongue-half-in-cheek rebuttal of Women ("I love women, I think they're great") from 1982's The Blue Mask.

I'm not going to spend any more time defending him - as a man he was more complex than most, which fed into his complexity as an artist. I will say that the one time I encountered him face-to-face, at a Tower Records autograph event, he was friendly and patient with the long line of fans. Funnily enough, while people love to attack him for being a bit of a bastard, there are few figures outside of hip hop besides Lou whose street cred depends on them being the hard man. Concerns about him going soft are ridiculous, in any case, when you consider that the first track on VU's debut was the achingly beautiful Sunday Morning. By the time that record ended, Lou (and his cohort of John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Mo Tucker) had cleared so much artistic space for himself that to try to put a simple box around his talent was a fool's errand.

Defying expectations was a big part of his m.o., driven partly by the joy of taking on new creative challenges and the satisfaction of keeping people guessing. But to those of us who followed along closely, there was the excitement of being shown new perspectives on truth and beauty on a fairly regular basis. Here are a couple of snapshots of my own personal thrills of being a Lou Reed fan.

1983: I can distinctly remember the night air on Central Park West as I walked down to catch what was then the CC train for an important errand: a trip to the Bottom Line on West 4th Street to acquire Lou Reed tickets for me and my friend, Leo. This was a crucial concert and I was not leaving anything to chance. I was especially happy that Leo could join me as he was a bit of a project of mine where music was concerned. Just a few years earlier, he had called The Beatles "just a lot of loud guitar," so the fact that I had been able to move him off that and then get him into the Velvets and Lou Reed (not to mention a lot of punk, post-punk and new wave) was quite gratifying. Once the tickets were purchased, all we had to do was wait a few weeks, which time we spent listening to The Blue Mask, his complete return to form that had been released about a year earlier, as well as as much of the back catalog as we could get our hands on.

Anticipation was high by the time the night rolled around, and even a little anxiety. Which Lou would we get? The one capable of putting on a devastatingly effective rock show or the rapier-witted and sometimes downright nasty stand up comedian who appeared on Take No Prisoners, a live album recorded at the Bottom Line just five years earlier. In short, would he mug us on the way out, as he threatened to do on that album, or would he move us to tears with fragile and carefully observed songs like The Day John Kennedy Died?

We lined up outside the legendary club, our excitement immunizing us from the frigid February air. What passed for conversation was Leo saying, "Lou Reed, Lou REED," and me saying, "I know, I know!" Finally we were let in and grabbed a couple of spots at one of the long tables that abutted the stage. Since the drinking age had recently been changed to 19 I ordered a screwdriver by using the fake ID I bought in the back of a Times Square arcade. This was Lou Reed's New York, and we did dangerous stuff like that.

There was little fanfare before the man himself and his crack band appeared before the sold out house and launched into Sweet Jane. A shiver went through me as I took in every detail of the performance. The way his eyes would almost shyly rake the crowd, as if he was taking it all in. The precision of his guitar playing, locked tight with Robert Quine (the other genius on stage that night). The glances to Quine, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Fred Maher - communicating what looked like satisfaction and pride.

Before Sweet Jane had even ended, it was clear that Lou was in full command of his powers, excited and in total control all at once. The rest of the concert, a concise hour, did nothing to disabuse us of this first impression. The set list was well chosen between Velvet Underground classics and more recent material, with everything sounding homogenous due to the distinctive sound world of the quartet. There was Lou's guitar, dark and powerful, and Quine's trebly jangle, which could go into full on skronk at a moment's notice. Underneath was Saunders's very distinctive bass patterns, all swoops and glides, and Maher's drumming, which was both flawless and explosive.

Leo and I were hypnotized for the whole show, bobbing our heads like most of the crowd (maybe not Andy Warhol, whose table was not visible to us), in a perpetual state of joy and wishing it would never end. One moment that stood out was Lou's solo during Women; prefaced by some careful adjustments to his amp and axe, Lou uncoiled long, gorgeous notes, masterfully matched with overtones, the result sounding more like a viola than a guitar. It was jaw-dropping and I tried to hold it in my mind for as long as possible.
I made a tape of the concert, which was unnecessary as they were filming the whole thing. It was later issued as a video called A Night With Lou Reed and it is well worth watching. At the end of the video, we get to follow Lou backstage, where he greets well wishers (including his then-wife, Sylvia Morales, who deserves a lot of credit for his resurgence at that time), and makes a few telling comments about the show. "That was short and delicious," he says, and then "I hit one note that actually caused me to levitate about half a foot. I'm not sure if it was pain or pleasure that did it." Watching this a few days ago, I simply thought: I can relate.

I was lucky enough to see Lou four other times, and except for one over-amped sonic travesty at The Ritz, they were all great shows, especially the pioneering concerts where he played New York and Magic and Loss in their entirety.

1983, part 2: In September 1982 I became a believer in love at first sight when I met the woman who later became my wife. About a year after that, I transferred to her college and, after dealing with the end of her previous relationship, we became an item. When November was on the horizon, all I wanted was that we could be together over Thanksgiving break. However, it was not to be: I was laid low by a bad case of mono and was not able (or allowed) to travel to Syracuse (Lou's college town) to be with my love. I was lonely, wiped out and miserable. I did not want to listen to any music, which is very unusual for me, when a half-remembered sound came to me, a sound that might be the only thing to fit my mood.

A couple of years earlier, I had paid a pretty penny for a copy of Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed's fifth solo album. I had done my reading so I had some idea what to expect but bought it anyway, partly as a completist act and partly out of curiosity. At the time, I dropped the needle down on a few spots on the album's four sides and thought it was both a noble experiment and a brilliantly conceived fuck you. I loved the liner notes ("My week beats your year") and appreciated the irony of seeing RCA's Red Seal label - normally reserved for classical releases - applied to Lou's evil slabs of wax.

Now, however, my black mood called those little snippets back to my mind and I knew that no other record would do. I played all four sides and it fit my psyche like a glove. While I can't say I listen to Metal Machine Music frequently, I have always been grateful to Lou for helping me through that tough time. And fortunately, I didn't ruin everything when I played Berlin for my girlfriend some time later, even though she was actually angry at me for exposing her to such a depth of sadness. In the fullness of time, both albums, denigrated upon release, have become classics. That was Lou's final reward for staying true to his vision.

In the end, that is one of the central messages of Lou Reed's career: don't believe what you read, don't believe what people say about you, hone your internal compass and let it guide you. The same can be said for the artists who inspired him, from Hubert Selby, Jr. and William S. Burroughs, to Doc Pomus and Dylan. As a thought to end this, I urge you to follow Lou's example and find your own points of reference in his remarkable body of work. Don't believe the obituaries with their lazy shibboleths and bits of received wisdom. Transformer is not perfect (in fact, it's quite uneven), The Bells is not the great lost album (that might be Rock And Roll Heart), Take No Prisoners is not just a comedy album (stunning versions of Berlin and Pale Blue Eyes put the lie to that view), Lulu, his collaboration with Metallica, does not suck (it's a brave and bloody album, worth it for Iced Honey and Junior Dad alone). Listen for yourself. Do it for Lou.

"Take me for what I am, a star newly emerging." - Lou Reed, Set The Twilight Reeling (1996)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Glints In The Darkness: Mario Diaz de Leon

Embedded among the halal joints, Islamic libraries, thrift shops, and even a few hip restaurants on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, is Roulette, the latest iteration of a venerable space for avant garde music and performance. They've been in this spot since 2011 and the location was chosen wisely, as they are within sight of the Barclay's center and just a few blocks from BAM and other exemplars of cultural ferment in downtown Brooklyn.

This past Tuesday saw the former YMCA (circa 1928) devoted to a showcase of works by Mario Diaz de Leon, yet another exciting young composer launched from Columbia University's orbit. Diaz de Leon's instrument is the guitar and he has wielded his axe in the realms of progressive metal for the last few years, while also releasing albums of chamber music on John Zorn's Tzadik label. On the basis of this impressive concert, he is growing into an assured manipulator and assembler of a panoply of sounds and instruments.

Claire Chase, the flautist who made waves with her performance of Edgard Varese's seminal Density 21.5 on a platinum flute, opened the show with Luciform (2013) for solo flute and electronics. Dressed in a to-the-minute ensemble in shades of black, she launched into the complex opening sequences with a fury, dispatching the extended techniques with aplomb. Gradually, a cloud of synthetic sound began to engulf the amplified flute and just when that seemed to be the composer's modis operandi for the piece, Chase launched into a devastatingly knotty run that was matched note for note by the recorded sound in a texture like shattered glass rods. 

It was a thrilling moment, two wary collaborators finding common ground in a smoking crater of their own design. Between woman and machine, I'm not sure whose job it was to keep up with who, but it was executed flawlessly - and repeatedly throughout the 13 minute work, interspersed with more spacious periods of exploratory music. This is sure to become a signature work for Chase and it is included on Density, her just-released third album, along with the Varese and compositions for flute(s) by Glass, Reich, Alvin Lucier, and Marcos Balter. Needless to say, I bought it on the way out. Chase, also the founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), is seeming a more crucial element in NYC's musical firmament all the time. The spirit of Roulette was exemplified by the way she took her bows, packed up her flute and took a seat among the audience.

Next up was Tilt Brass performing Bellum, composed for their 10th anniversary festival held earlier this year. The seven players formed a semi-circle around the conductor and began sonorous blasts, assembling dense chords anchored by the tuba's rumble. In this piece, rather than working together, the electronics and instruments alternate sections, with three movements for the brass and two for the synthetics. At the end of the first brass section, the lights went down - all the way down - and we listened to the sounds in darkness, with the brass barely glinting on the stage. There was a touch of theater to it, but it also made perfect sense as there really is nothing to see during those moments.

The lights came up and the brass returned. The second movement held more chords, but also melodic strings of notes from either the pair of trumpets, the pair of horns or the trombone and bass trombone. There was some difficult writing here, whether in the duration of notes or the sequences, but like Luciform, it never dissolved into a virtuoso exercise. The lights went off again and we were treated splintered soundtrack that was quite loud, but very beautiful. Bellum was finished by the brass, limned by the echoes (in my mind, at least) of the explosive blocks of electronic sounds.

After a brief intermission, the three string players of Talea Ensemble took the stage for Trembling Time II, completed in 2009 and Diaz de Leon's earliest composition on the program. In this case, all the distorted and highly dramatic sounds are produced by the string instruments themselves. Deep, long notes from the viola or cello were accompanied by skirling runs from the violin, often ending in an abrupt pluck. From a melodic standpoint it was reminiscent of Eastern European liturgical music, with an atmosphere of mystery and ritual. It is arresting music and, of the works we heard at least, the most direct translation of Diaz de Leon's more rock-based work to the realm of the concert hall. One could easily hear three distorted guitars navigating its craggy, dark terrain but having traditional instruments play it was in no way a stunt.

The capstone of the program was the world premiere of The Chapel Abyss, performed by the full cohort of Talea, with Diaz de Leon himself on guitar. At around 23 minutes, this was the longest piece and featured some complex ensemble writing interspersed with glassy solo keyboard segments. There was a searching atmosphere, as if the group were seeking new territory, sometimes working together and sometimes at cross-purposes. 

While this, too, was a dark-hued piece, the chimes - withheld until the end - shot it through with hopeful light, just like those glints on the brass during the blackness of Bellum. All of the instrumental work was outstanding, without any sense of tentativeness. One quality that makes Talea so impressive is the sense of alertness all the musicians demonstrate - to the score, to each other and to the production of their individual sounds. As a listener, this has the effect of keeping me on the edge of my seat and listening to every nuance. The Chapel Abyss rewarded my attention and I look forward to hearing it again, along with the other pieces performed at Roulette and more music from Diaz de Leon. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Crowns And Crowds: Jonwayne & Mount Kimbie

See Mass Appeal for my review of Jonwayne's debut, Rap Album 1.

After my last hip hop concert experience, I was doubly excited that rising rapper Jonwayne was coming to the Music Hall of Williamsburg as an opener for Mount Kimbie, rather than as part of a rap show. That meant I could catch him live without standing around listening to open mic night before he came on. Even so, my friend and I arrived on the early side and after observing the completely empty music room, repaired to the basement bar for a drink. I admit that we were too busy tasting speed-rack rotgut (Kentucky Gentleman - better than expected!) and missed most of the opening set by D33J (pronounced "deej"). His laptop'n'guitar jams sounded pretty good, though, and he did his job, which was to priime the crowd for Jonwayne.

I had just got through telling someone that, no, they hadn't missed Jonwayne and that he would probably go on at 9:00 sharp, given how tightly Bowery Presents runs their shows, when the lights went down and a hulking figure shambled on stage and began unleashing sharp, dazzling, and dramatic beats from the stage. Even in the dark and with no introduction, everyone's attention was quickly focused on him. This was Jonwayne, and the timing and style of the beginning of the show were just the start of the brilliant surprises he had in store.
After about 10 minutes of music, the spotlights brightened and Jon picked up the mic and launched into Ode To Mortality from Cassette 3: Marion Morrison Mixtape. By the third verse, when he's procuring "drops of dark matter" and describing the "pure oceanic space inside my eyelids," it felt like he had much of the crowd in the palm of his hand. He continued with three more short songs from Cassette 3: Numbers On The Hoard, his appropriation of the similarly named Pusha T jam, Blaq Cowboy ("I am the rap game Sam Beckett"), and The Ritz, managing the neck-snapping changes of mood, tone and tempo with ease. All the while, he acted as his own DJ, dropping beats in and out with a practiced push of a button or twist of a knob while never losing his connection to the audience. This was virtuoso one-man-band stuff, and when you add the effective theatre of Jonwayne's gestures and use of the stage (at one point he sat on the stairs on the right of the stage and rapped from there), you have one of the most dynamic live acts in contemporary hip hop.
Like most great rappers, Jonwayne has a certain arrogance and is not uncomfortable projecting an air of superiority. Most of the time, you get the idea that this is protective, a force field against self doubt and self consciousness. Even so, near the end of his set, when he started repeating "It's not the crown that makes the royalty, it's the crowd and their loyalty," and expected us to say it along with him, I wondered if he had overreached. "I'm a performance artist," he told the audience, "I can do this for five minutes," if we didn't comply, that is. He also picked out individuals in the crowd who weren't feeling it and as much as told them to get with the program. You know what? They did, and he soon had a pretty good group chant going. And when he walked off stage shortly after, the audience wanted him back and he returned for another song or two.
Besides the songs from the mixtapes, he also did a few of the more beat-driven songs from his reflective debut album, Rap Album 1, set for release on October 29th. These were well-received and when, in Marion Morrison he rapped "I'm on the fringe, Mackelmore ain't got shit on me," I'd like to think the cheers were for the sentiment rather than just the name check of that pandering top 40 rapper. Overall, Jonwayne's act was a thrilling display and one I would gladly repeat. I don't know how many people plumped for the cassettes at the merch table, but I suspect a brisk business there when Rap Album 1 is available.
By the time the stage was set and the lights went down for Mount Kimbie, the Music Hall was at max cap and I was jammed up against the wall by people ready to dance. And as soon as Kai Campos and Dominic Maker took the stage, dance they did. There was a certain aggressive jockish quality to some of the dancers - at least in our little corner of the crowd - and my friend was prompted to ask "Have bros taken over the world?" while I wondered if EDM has ruined IDM.
That divide between the utilitarian and the avant garde makes Mount Kimbie is a curious case, to my mind. Their first album, Crooks & Lovers was an arty little gem of a record (#7 on my Best Of Ten), which displayed an originality of texture and composition that was the most refreshing thing in British electronica in years. Still, I was not expecting Campos and Maker's sounds to translate so well to a live setting until I saw their Tiny Desk Concert, and realized they had the goods on stage as well as in the studio. Even so, I was unable to catch them on tour in 2011 and was left to idly wonder about who their audience was.
I have read in more than one interview that they attribute some of the wonderful oddness of Crooks & Lovers to their not knowing what they were doing. The somewhat disappointing poppy direction of sophomore album Cold Spring Fault Less Youth makes me think they were not being entirely disingenuous. I wouldn't mind a return to amateurism, especially if it meant no more collaborations with the self-indulgent King Krule, whose stentorian vocals on two songs nearly sink the new album entirely. In any case, he was not on tour with them, thankfully. Instead, they brought Tony Kus on drums and occasional bass, and when he was bashing away and either Campos or Maker was playing guitar, Mount Kimbie seemed more than ever like a real band, and an excellent one at that.
Despite my doubts about Cold Spring Fault Less Youth and my hesitation about the motives of many of the attendees, there was no denying that they put on a fantastic concert. The projections of young Asians getting drunk and stupid on the screen behind them made me wonder if Mount Kimbie also have questions about their audience, but there was no reticence to their performance. Even the new songs sounded more interesting on the Music Hall's well-defined sound system, with the propulsive So Many Times, So Many Ways a levitating high point. As would be expected, the set was sequenced like a great DJ's playlist, with peaks and valleys and straightforward trajectories mixed with sharp left turns. One such turn was when Jonwayne joined them for a new collaboration, to the audience's overwhelming approval. Let's hope they lay that track down before the end of the tour.
In the end, it was a masterful and fully absorbing concert that allowed me to ignore my often rude fellow concertgoers. Lest I sound like a prig, it's not that I didn't move to the deep grooves, it's just that I believe a collective experience can - and should - come with kindness and joy rather than selfishness. Mount Kimbie's music left me blissfully exhausted, but also with one central question: where do they go from here?