Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Record Roundup: American Tunes

I'm going to try to deal with the general backlog of music with a "Record Roundup" of quick(er) takes from time to time. Here, the operating principle is to cover number of good American (but not necessarily Americana) releases that have come over the transom in the last few months. From veterans to new blood, there's a lot to feast your ears on if you follow up.

Chris Maxwell - Arkansas Summer Chris Maxwell has been hovering in my peripheral vision for quite some time as a tangential member of the Holly Miranda universe, along with Ambrosia Parsley. Those planets aligned at Hell Phone last month when Chris and Ambrosia opened for Holly's solo set, and also provided some backup as needed, on guitar and vocals. I liked Chris's flexible voice and wry way with a lyric, as well as casual mastery of a variety of rock forms. While Arkansas Summer is his debut solo album, I wasn't wrong about the mastery as Maxwell has been in the game since the 90's, when he was a member of Skeleton Key.

Self-produced, but ably supported by such Woodstock-area compadres as Phil Hernandez, Marco Benevento, Amy Helm, and Parsley herself, Maxwell pursues fun and introspection while channeling Wilco, The Beatles, and other Anglo-American avatars in fresh combinations. His songwriting is honed to a fine point throughout, but standouts such as Have You Ever Killed Yourself, Imaginary Man, the title track, and Devil Song might convince you the most quickly. His smarts are not only musical; check out the lyrics of the acoustic-driven Things Have Changed For Me: "Allies to enemies/Alibis to apologies/I burrow like a bullet in these complicated strategies/I make promises no one could ever keep/I make mistakes I'm doomed to repeat/Never been called lucky, never had a lucky streak/But things have changed for me." They can for you, too.

Ocean Music - Songs From The City When I saw Ocean Music at the Knitting Factory recently, it was an explosive update on Replacements-Pixies-Van Morrison, with interlocking guitars, pummeling rhythms, and songs that were sometimes concise and sometimes took their sweet time. So clearly singer, songwriter, and guitarist Richard Aufrichtig has already shifted from the beautifully atmospheric acoustic folk epics on this EP and the self-titled one that proceeded it in 2014, but they're a place to start. And start you should, because Aufrichtig has lived a few lives already and is more than willing to sing about all he's seen and experienced. Catch up, then catch them live - can't wait for the next show.

Cory Taylor Cox - Extended Play Like Richard Aufrichtig and Ocean Music, Cox has taken a winding road to get to this place, which is a good and gritty spot to be, with soaring guitars, homespun vocals and solid song structures. Americana with the occasional touch of glam, he could tour with Phil Cook and no one would complain. Keep an ear in his direction.

Sonya Kitchell - We Come Apart If you're like me, you took note of Kitchell's protean abilities when her debut was released in 2005, but then lamented how quickly she was absorbed into the coffee house-TV series industrial complex. She's been through changes since then, especially during the eight years since her last album, and We Come Apart feels like a new beginning. She's more willing to push her voice now and is remarkably comfortable in the variety of settings, from embellished folk to torchy soul, she's assembled here. Reintroduce yourself - you'll be glad you did.

Max Jury - Max Jury Just 21, this three-time Berklee dropout is obviously a huge talent. He's put together a set of songs that mine the history of rock, soul, and folk with surprising musical maturity and that are well-served by this expansively produced debut. But there's also a little of a portfolio feel to the collection: "Look what I can do!" Hopefully he'll find the time, like Sonya Kitchell, to fully grow into his gifts. This album will make more than pleasant listening while we wait.

Bob Dylan - Fallen Angels These Great American Songbook collections may be somewhere to the side of Dylan's overall project, but there's still a lot to like in them, not least Jack Frost's sparkling production. When is that guy going to work with some other artists? While last year's Shadows In The Night held a consistent mood (perhaps slightly too consistent), Fallen Angels has both more variety and a bit more wit. The twinkle in Dylan's eye is especially evident on That Old Black Magic - he's finally embodying the "song and dance man" he once claimed to be and couldn't seem more delighted. You should be, too. 

Various Artists - Blonde On Blonde Revisited While Dylan himself is following his nose through the back pages of American song, there's no shortage of other perspectives on his own deathless canon. Mojo Magazine's track record on these multi-artist single-album collections may be varied, but this one, in celebration of the album's 50th anniversary, is a triumph. After the menacing electronica of Malcolm Middleton's take on Rainy Day Women #12 & #35 most of the artists stay in the folk-rock vein while still throwing new light on these familiar songs. 

In fact, if Blonde On Blonde is feeling TOO familiar this is the antidote. Some highlights are the way Thomas Cohen uses a hooky bass line to add mood to his powerful take on Most Likely You'll Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine, or how Peter Bruntnell drains the sarcasm from Just Like A Woman leaving only deep sorrow, or Ryley Walker's wholly owned Fourth Time Around. And I love the way Michael Chapman (also a 75 year old legend) toys with Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat like a kitten with a ball of yarn. Just as they did with their excellent Physical Graffiti tribute last year, Mojo has produced a special limited edition on ("blonde") vinyl, with some sweet accoutrements. If I didn't already subscribe I'd be ordering that now!

Yes, I know, Car Seat Headrest. And Mutual Benefit. More on them next time when we discuss The Best of 2016 (So Far)!

You may also enjoy:
New Americana Pt 1: Phil Cook 
New Americana Pt. 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon
Holly Miranda Is Here

Friday, June 10, 2016

Space, Time, Guitar: Rupert Boyd

Rupert Boyd is an Australian guitarist of surpassing skill and intelligence with an eclectic ear, all qualities in evidence on his globe-trotting (and time-traveling) sophomore album, Fantasias. By the end of the collection, we have touched down in Argentina, Spain, Cuba, Italy, Hawaii, France, Switzerland, and the British Isles, and moved through 400 years of music. 

When you read "Argentina" your mind probably conjured up Astor Piazzolla, which would be spot on, as it is the neo-tango genius's Otono Porteno, in an arrangement by S. Assad, that opens the record. Like the master himself, Boyd avoids any over-dramatic clich├ęs to deliver a performance that handily deals with the virtuoso requirements of the piece. This sets the tone for what follows, a lively sequence of the tuneful, folky, and exploratory. Boyd's project is enabled by the lighter-than-air, crystal clear sound of the record, which was made in a "centuries old church just outside of London" with John Taylor, a British producer of some renown, especially for his work with guitar and lute players. 

Perhaps it's Taylor's influence, but the Celtic and English folk songs are marvelous here, especially John Dowland's Fantasie, which traverses a few moods in its four minutes. Naturally, Boyd is simpatico with his fellow countryman, Philip Houghton, with whom I was completely unfamiliar. He manages to lay on a bit of mystery, especially in his God Of The Northern Forest - don't be surprised it this one shows up on Game Of Thrones or in the next Peter Jackson fantasy.

I'm especially grateful to Boyd for including two Manuel de Falla pieces, including his own arrangement of Pantomima. Other guitarists should add this to their repertoire and continue bringing attention to this oft-overlooked composer. Leo Brouwer, a Cuban musician who explored everything from Afro-Cuban forms to Bach, The Beatles, and beyond, is also not overexposed. A guitarist himself, his Tres Apuntes takes almost maximum advantage of the possibilities of the nylon-stringed instrument. Speaking of which, my fantasy is that Boyd takes on Luciano Berio's Sequenza XI on his next record - I think it would fit like a glove.

Brouwer's trilogy is one of the meatier pieces on the album, but as expected from the title, Fantasias does not aim to make demands, but to rather provide a bit of smart escapism. We also escape the expected - turns out Boyd covered Granados on his first album so you won't find that guitar-record staple here! I like Boyd's light touch, both on his guitar and in his conception of the album. It's been a great accompaniment to mornings at work and I can imagine it finding a place in your life as well.

If you're in NYC and you want to see Boyd in person, act fast as his album release event is June 16th at the Greenwich House School of Music. All the information is here, including dates in December with cellist Laura Metcalf - they perform together as Boyd Meets Girl and who can resist that?

You may also be interested in:
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicholas

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Radiohead: The Pool At Rainbow's End

I've been playing a fun little mind game while listening to A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead's astonishingly great new album. What if this were a debut album by a new band...how many copies would they sell? How long would it take them to get to 12 million followers on Facebook? Would they fill arenas with 20,000 fans and get them on their feet? In short, would they be one of the biggest bands in the world on the basis of this extraordinarily sophisticated and deeply emotional take on rock music?

Of course, these are all moot points. A Moon Shaped Pool could never be a first album as it is a work of consummate mastery, made by five musicians at the top of their game and working together as one. It feels so completely unified musically that I only rarely find myself thinking about Jonny Greenwood or Ed O'Brien or Phil Selway or Colin Greenway...the sounds are all just there, providing a perfect backdrop for some of the finest singing of Thom Yorke's career. 

Along these lines, one review I heard complained about the fact that they have one of the best drummers around in Selway (and they do) but that he is underused on this record. That completely misses the point, in my opinion, and is a very "rockist" way of looking at things, a hangover from the distant days when Radiohead developed their huge audience with "Modern Rock" songs like Creep. That was a long time ago and the fact that they have maintained so much of their audience would be an interesting thing to study at another time.  

Back to the present. The way I hear it, AMSP is a work by virtuosos who only want to serve the music and not create showcases for themselves. Perhaps their time in the wilderness of The King Of Limbs, their surprisingly ennervated last album (and on which Selway was sorely underutilized) led them to this perfect middle ground between being a rock band and something more futuristic. In some ways, however, this is more traditional music than what they put forth on TKOL, much of which seemed like studies for future remixes. In fact, it was on the remix album, Tkol RMX 1234567, or on stage, that many of those songs found fruition. 

Not so here. Each song is a self-contained gem, layers of guitar and strings and keyboards blending together in an egoless wash of brilliant sounds. AMSP seems in this way to be more of a continuation of where they arrived at on In Rainbows, especially in the direct emotional communication from Thom Yorke. While the album starts on a passionately political note with Burn The Witch, many of the songs are more down to earth. "Hey it's me, I just got off the train," Yorke sings to begin Glass Eyes, "A frightening place/Their faces are concrete gray/And I'm wondering should I turn around, buy another ticket/Panic is coming on strong..." I'm not sure anybody alive couldn't relate to that on some level.

"There's a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in," Leonard Cohen once sang and that seems to be an operating principle here. There's a wonderful variety to Radiohead's approach on AMSP, from lush orchestral settings to seemingly simple, acoustic guitar-led arrangements that harken back to Nick Drake and David Crosby. There's also welcome evidence, if slight, of a sense of humor, such as the tape-warble entry and snores of Daydreaming, or the fact that the album is sequenced alphabetically. While their wheelhouse is still post-Rubber Soul rock, I hear hints of alien R'n'B and soul on Identikit, which fits the lyrical themes of "When I see you messing me around, I don't want to know," and "Broken hearts make it rain." Sade or, even better, Kelela should cover this beauty. Of course, this being Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood's angular chicken-scratch evolves into a math rock solo par excellance before the song stops dead in its tracks - you will, too.

Identikit and the quietly devastating True Love Waits, which ends the album, have both been around a while, with the latter first being played on stage over 20 years ago. This has led to some speculation that Radiohead is reaching the end of the road. I see no reason to think that. Some songs are just not immediately ready to be fixed in the amber of a studio recording. And like Wilco, there's plenty of room in the band for each member to pursue their own interests, from Yorke's electronica to Jonny Greenwood's film scores and orchestral work, and Selway's albums of gently persuasive folk. One imagines that these extra-curricular activities help bring new dimensions to the collective effort when they do regroup. That certainly is the case here, and it's led to one of the finest albums of their career, one that will be near the top of 2016. Take all the time you need, boys. Like true love, we can wait for another masterpiece like A Moon Shaped Pool. 

You may also enjoy:
Do The Cut & Paste
Explosive Atoms In Brooklyn