Monday, November 28, 2016

From Warhaus To Your House

At this late, post-postmodern date, most hints of originality come from putting old things together in new ways. Another way to spin things anew is by drawing on aspects of influential figures that may seem secondary to most. For example, if I told you that Maarten Devoldere's new project Warhaus was indebted to Leonard Cohen, you might first think of poetic lyrics, then a certain bruised romanticism, and finally an unconventional voice unafraid of its own limitations. While those facets of the late, great Canadian are indeed part of what makes Warhaus's album, We Fucked A Flame Into Being, a masterpiece, the first thing that came to mind as it revealed itself to me was Cohen's louche, Euro swagger. This kind of confident, stylish magnetism is all too rare in rock these days, more often evident in hip hop and R&B. 

Devoldere's other avatars on WFAFIB are Coney Island Baby-era Lou Reed, the Iggy Pop who waxed Tonight and Turn Blue, Dylan's dry, snarling wordplay, and the Stones at their most outré. If Bowie's Dirty Boys made an album, it might sound a bit like Warhaus. These aren't necessarily the overused influences most people draw from these artists, which is refreshing. Even if these touchstones are familiar they feel new here, partly as a result of the sound of the record. There's an almost tactile quality given to the air between the instruments which, could be due to the fact that  - if this short and brilliant documentary is to be believed - much of the album was tracked on a slightly broken down river boat in Belgium. Groovy percussion (gotcher cowbell in spades), spidery guitar, propulsive rhythms, and heavily processed horns are all sonic signatures that make Warhaus distinctive.

There's also Devoldere's tight songwriting, which would make these songs memorable even if he bashed them out on a guitar with four strings and a couple of bullet holes. He's been honing his craft for a while as a member of Balthazar, a solid if somewhat unfocused indie band from Brussels. The attention they've attracted, mainly in Europe, is no doubt a credit to more than just being the most rocked up thing from Belgium since Plastique Bertrand. But Devoldere's time on the river has elevated his art into the highest echelons, launched on gloriously shocking lines like "I've got one hand on a Champagne-drinking cunt/I've got the other up the ass of the establishment/And I can't even distinguish which hand is which/God knows, I tried to be against the rich." 

The fact that he can spew such a bilious screed while still maintaining our sympathies is another indication of the razor's edge Devoldere rides throughout the album. At the end of Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, from whence this album's title comes, Mellors writes to Connie: "We fucked a flame into being. Even the flowers are fucked into being between the sun and the earth. But it's a delicate thing, and takes patience and the long pause." So if you get a little burned or bloody while listening to Warhaus, be patient and let the blossoming beauties within heal you. Besides, you were warned that rock & roll is dangerous. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Leonard Cohen

"There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen, Anthem

"I know you're really great," a Columbia Records exec once said to Leonard Cohen, "but are you any good?" The answer, thank god, was no. Cohen was no good at being a cog in the pop music machinery that keeps the music business humming. He was no good at toeing the folk music line, moving further and further away from being a guitar-toting troubadour into his own chilly blend of synth-noir-gospel-muzak. In fact, the transition from Various Positions, the 1984 album that contains the original recording of Hallelujah, to 1992's The Future (via I'm Your Man, 1988), is a quieter but even more startling musical transformation than when Bob Dylan went electric.

I think it may have been Various Positions that caused that uncomfortable conversation with his label boss in the first place. Perhaps it was at that same meeting that Cohen was informed that Columbia was done releasing his albums in the U.S., putting out the album on Portrait, a subsidiary label, and only in Canada. How ironic that the album containing one of Cohen's most covered songs wasn't deemed fit for wide release. I guess those head honchos were not yet aware of the "long tail" - and it's a good thing John Cale buys import records!

The Columbia guy was right about one thing: Cohen was great, one of the greatest poets to grace the world of music. There are endless lines to quote, from love songs to apocalyptic prophecies, words to puzzle over, and words to take to heart. How lucky that he could also come up with melodies, or find the right collaborators to create them, to hang his brilliant words on, and could deliver them in a voice that, post-Dylan, seemed at first rather sweet and which was always persuasive. The fact that he even tried is down to Dylan, whose example led Cohen to come back from his never-ending Greek vacation to see if there was a place for him on the folk scene.

The story I heard had him coming to New York with a sheaf of songs, hoping to get Peter, Paul & Mary or someone like that to record them. He showed up in Judy Collins's living room and tentatively strummed a few chords and sang Suzanne and one or two others. She was immediately taken with the man and the songs, recording Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag in 1966 and putting Cohen on the map as a songwriter. The next year, Collins literally pushed Cohen back on stage, launching him as a performer. We owe her a lot for being his champion, which really only worked because her engagement with his work was so sincere. "His songs carried me through dark years," Collins wrote in her autobiography, "like mantras or stones that you hold in your hand while the sun rises or the fire burns." I can relate. "It's Father's Day and everybody's wounded" - just one line that has helped me as much as therapy. Thank you for finally saying it!

Now that Cohen is gone, dead on November 10th at the age of 82, we can see his career as a whole in all it's beautiful idiosyncrasy, marveling at the perfect capstone of his last album, You Want It Darker, which came out just weeks ago. Brilliantly produced by Cohen's son Adam, there's a pitch black slinkiness married to European and American melodic tropes (with a dash of the Synagogue on the title track) that ties up many of Cohen's virtues in a fascinating package. Speaking of packages (Cohen liked his puns), one of his virtues was his carnality, his recognition of the body - a burden and a blessing - and the leavening that lust can bring to love. The biggest clue to me that the new album might be his last were these lines in Leaving The Table: "I don't need a lover, no, no/The wretched beast is tame/I don't need a lover/So blow out the flame."

He was already singing about Suzanne's "perfect body" back in 1967, his continental sophistication making the open sexuality seem suave rather than just the fantasies of another horndog. He was like your perpetually cool older brother, a man of the world who had seen it all and done it all before you even realized it could be seen and done - and always with style, grace, compassion, and seamless craftsmanship. He was also generous, giving the many musicians on stage with him their due in charming introductions and solo spots. One of his most magnanimous acts was allowing the singer Anjani Thomas (who accompanied him on several albums, including The Future and Dear Heather) to rifle through his old notebooks and create songs based on the lyrics she found there. The result, an album called Blue Alert, is one of my favorite products of Cohen's career, and one that is criminally underrated.

On a remarkable live recording of the two of them in concert in Poland in 2007, Cohen makes a lengthy introduction, which concludes: "These are songs that Anjani and I wrote about the little places, about the little loves, about the little corners." Here's to all the little things that loom so large because they matter so deeply to each of us. Cohen was one of the few that recognized them as worthy of being the subject of poetry and song, inscribing them in our hearts and in the firmament forever. Above all, here's to Leonard Cohen's indomitable humanity, a quality I fear we shall miss with a sharper sting over the next four years.

Rather than try to outsmart the master, I'll show my gratitude with a few words from the last song on Blue Alert:

"Thanks for the dance
It's been hell, it's been swell
It's been fun
Thanks for all the dances
One two three, one two three one"

Here's a quick playlist of some of my Leonard Cohen essentials - subject to further refinement, because he deserves no less:

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood

Heart Like a Levee and Vestapol both feature photos by William Gedney
"You can't choose your blues but you might as well own them."
- from Tell Her I'm Just Dancing by M.C. Taylor

M.C. Taylor knows the wisdom of a tambourine, sunk deep in the groove like a clock carrying your burden of time. He knows the warmth of the horn section that comes in just at the right moment, perfect as the key in the lock of a lover's long-awaited return. And he knows how a few notes on a piano can speak volumes more than even the most well-turned lyric. In short, Taylor, who performs and records as Hiss Golden Messenger, is a genius record-maker as much as he is a brilliant songwriter and a gritty-sweet singer. I've met the guy a couple of times and he is as humble as can be - he would probably give credit for much of the above to his superb co-producer Bradley Cook, who certainly plays a large role. But note whose name is on the record, who calls the final shots, and who stands at the front of the stage every night. 

Your iTunes might still classify Heart Like A Levee as folk, and that is indeed where Taylor sowed his seeds since beginning the HGM project. But there has always been a drive to his music, and a lack of orthodoxy, that makes it something other than that. This is even more true on the new album, which is open to a broader range of influences than Lateness of Dancers, his breakthrough record from 2014. Tinges of a fully-owned L.A. slickness give new life to the heartland gospel-soul-folk-rock. There's also new sense of the epic and cinematic, especially on songs such as Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer and Ace of Cups Hung Low Band. The first is a ruthless engine of interlocking parts, driven forward by a tube-driven swamp fire of a guitar that I figure must've been played by either Phil Cook, Brad's brother and a frequent Taylor collaborator (and a great artist in his own right) or Ryan Gustafson, a bit of a guitar wizard who performs as The Dead Tongues. Ace of Cups starts quiet, the credits rolling over a 70mm landscape, before locking into a soaring verse that sounds like a never-ending ending. Finality is not always a static state. 

The visual quality of many of the songs comes naturally, as Taylor was inspired not only by his own life but by the "durable and humane photographic vision" of William Gedney, who traveled the world capturing complex portraits of whole communities. Gedney's archive is housed at Duke University, which is where many of these songs were premiered after the school commissioned a project from Taylor. Great realist photographers like Gedney present an alternate way of seeing the completely recognizable world. While I think these new perspectives have enriched Taylor's art, I wouldn't put too much weight on the Gedney connection - Taylor is a protean artist who keeps moving forward no matter what.

Lyrically, Taylor has gotten bolder with his mix of the imagistic, mythic, prosaic, and the literary. Cracked Window zig zags in a couple of different directions with an intuitive grace: "Monday morning early, getting the kids to school/I can fix this, babe-I can fix this, babe/I can see the ghosts coming over the tidewater plains/I don't know if I'm running." He heads into some dark territory but there is often light visible, a dewy new dawn just arriving, or close enough. From Highland Grace: "I'd been searching in the mirror, but seeing my own face didn't make it any clearer/I'd rage against the hard times while others smiled to say, "Hey, take it easy."/And lo, this little angel was standing in the rain/Oh just what I needed." Words and music both are slightly soaked in the perception of an altered consciousness. Even Say It Like You Mean It, as straightforward a country-rock song as Taylor would release, contains the lines "Desire/Like a wire/Lead the choir/Tripping on that Orange County Wine."

Likely Taylor is more tired than high, however; there's an underlying theme found in the contradiction of being a devoted family man whose growing success, while elevating him as a provider, finds him often on the road, away from the ones he loves. This comes through in As The Crow Flies, which delineates a series of tour stops and has a chorus concluding "Don't get down/You're nothing but a number," all over a lockstep groove reminiscent of Turn Out The Lights from Lou Reed's Legendary Hearts.  But there's no self-pity, he's just a conscientious man with a bent for self-examination, trying to do what's right both for his art and his family.

Although it might not help with the fatigue, one thing Taylor does to deal with his concerns is work. The deluxe edition of Heart Like a Levee comes with Vestapol, a bonus album of eight more songs "Written and produced by M.C. Taylor at home, and in various hotels and apartments." He could just have been watching Game Of Thrones on HBO Go but instead he was creating. These are spare but fully realized songs, the occasional sweetening somehow amplifying an intimacy that is a privilege to witness. It's also great to hear some of Taylor's intricate and hypnotic fingerpicking - so beautifully in evidence when I saw him perform solo in Prospect Park last summer - Elizabeth Cotten would be gratified. If you're already in the Hiss Golden Messenger camp you were probably going to go deluxe anyway, but Vestapol really delivers, unlike some bonus tracks.

Like all of Taylor's work, both Heart Like a Levee and Vestapol display a heartfelt creative spirit that is dedicated to giving people something of value. However, it doesn't always come easy, as is evident in another couplet from Cracked Windshield: "A song is just a feeling and when you make it pay the rent/Next thing that you know, you're saying something you'd never say." Least of your worries, M.C., least of your worries. 

Hiss Golden Messenger's music takes on bit of a different tone in concert, adding a roadhouse backbeat and bringing songs to new heights through ecstatic extended passages. On stage, I think the only weight on Taylor's shoulders is a white Telecaster or an acoustic guitar and it's a beautiful thing to experience. I can't wait to be there on November 15th when Taylor and Co. rock the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I highly recommend you check into tour dates near you ASAP and get to the show. You'll get the message, loud and clear.

You may also enjoy:
Long Time Coming
New Americana, Pt. 1: Phil Cook
Best of 14 (Part 2)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Record Roundup: Composed, Commemorated, And Beyond

Oceans of music are flowing in under, over, and around me. This is no last-gasp geyser, but rather the result of passionate musicians, composers, and labels pursuing musical bliss - and delivering it to us lucky listeners. In another attempt to stem the tide, here is a roundup of recent or upcoming releases in the realm of classical, contemporary and avant garde music.

Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet - Carolina Eyck with American Contemporary Music Ensemble There are so many ideas and even theories behind this music - from how it was composed to fit an LP record, to the way the names of the pieces were chosen (" scanning multiple Scandinavian languages for pleasing lingual combinations...) - that I am reluctant to add more words about it to the world. Beyond "You must hear this!" that is, as it is an extraordinary album. I was aware of Eyck as a theremin virtuoso, but not as a composer. In this case, she wrote the string quartet music, sometimes sparkling, sometimes melancholy, always melodic, played here by Caroline Shaw, Ben Russell (violins), Caleb Burhans (viola), and Clarice Jensen (cello), and then improvised her theremin parts while listening to the recordings. You would never know that, however, so well does it all fit together, taking you on a seamless journey as only a well-sequenced album can. While some of the sounds she causes the theremin to emit did have my wife saying "Getting spooky!" there are almost no clichés to her use of this early electronic instrument. It often sounds like the human voice and, in fact, and I've never experienced the bass tones of the theremin as she plays them here. I strongly recommend you find a real stereo with which to listen to Fantasias. Kudos to producer Allen Farmelo for the technical wizardry and for the literate and fascinating liner notes, including thoughts on dragons and Derrida. This is one of the records of the year - and you can hear it live for the first time on November 4th.

Ice & Longboats - Ensemble Mare Balticum For more journeys in a Scandinavian vein, set sail with these meticulously researched (yet still speculative) performances of ancient music (1200-1582) from that region, on recreated instruments. It's highly atmospheric, sometimes hypnotic, and only the merest bit kitschy. Anyone making a movie or TV show about Vikings - here's your soundtrack.

Taylor Brook: Ecstatic Music - Tak Ensemble Based on Ice & Longboats, Vikings liked strange and dissonant sounds on occasion, which makes me think they would have liked some of this album. Brook likes to push the envelope, employing extended and techniques to produce music which never becomes quite familiar even upon repeated listens. The title track has a ritualistic, theatrical sound that is highly evocative, violin and percussion combining to sound like much more. The use of "microtonally tuned guitars" as drums probably helps in that regard. The sense of theater continues with Five Weather Reports, a song cycle with words from David Ohle's cult novel Motorman. Charlotte Mundy does a remarkable job with the vocals, switching from spoken word to soprano flights on a dime, all perfectly pitched, with command and humor. Mundy is also great with the vocalise of Amalgam, the last piece, but then all of the Tak Ensemble members show complete commitment to Brook's conception, turning in sympathetic performances (including using his guitar machine) that are further proof that it's a wonderful time to be writing challenging, original music. Let your ears be sympathetic as well, especially the first time you listen - the rewards of Ecstatic Music are many.

Garden of Diverging Paths - Mivos Quartet Taylor Brook's music also features on this album by Mivos, an adventurous group whom I discovered because of their gorgeous collaboration with vocalist Zola Jesus. Here they play three works based on the written word, starting with Brook's title piece, which is based on a short story by Borges and uses imaginary theories and histories to create music that sounds alien and ancient at once. Andrew Greenwald, who co-directs Ensemble Pamplemousse, contributes A Thing Is A Hole In A Thing It Is Not, a single movement of scratchy, scrapey and high-pitched sounds that somehow holds together. The title is from a remark by conceptual artist Carl Andre and keeps you guessing as much as the music does. Greenwald has also produced arrangements of this work for two cellos and even solo euphonium - check it out. The final work, Nadja, finds the Mivos joining forces with the composer, Kate Soper, who sings vocal parts drawn from Tennyson, Ovid, and Breton. Even in the quiet moments, this is fiercely engaging listening, and Soper is in fine form. This whole collection more than lives up to the "adventurous" tag I hung on the Mivos above. Now it's your turn to be adventurous and listen.

Ginastera: One Hundred - Yolanda Kondonassis, Oberlin Orchestra, et al If you're crying for more Argentina in your life after listening to the Borges-inspired piece on the Mivos album, have I got a record for you. As the title makes plain, Alberto Ginastera was born 100 years ago, which means he began composing at a critical time in the development of a distinctive Argentinian culture. The central tension between the rural (old) and urban (new) was an animating force in much of the music and art of the time and Ginastera rode the line in fine style. His Harp Concerto, performed here with extraordinary skill and feeling by Yolanda Kondonassis, is the definitive large-scale work for her instrument. Ginastera surrounds the harp's sparkle with colorful, wonderfully evocative melodies, harmonies and orchestration. One thing that makes the Concerto special is the way he both pushes the harp into new territory and exploits its familiar qualities perfectly. Kondonassis couldn't have asked for a better partner than the Oberlin Orchestra under the direction of Raphae Jiménez. Actually she did ask for it as she executive-produced the album. She must have a hell of a Rolodex, too, as the other works are performed by the likes of Gil Shaham, Orli Shaham, and Jason Vieaux, who are all the best at what they do. The Sonata for Guitar is a late work for Ginastera, composed in1976, seven years before he died. It seems to synthesize many of his ideas about the past informing the present and Vieaux's playing is preternaturally assured, dashing off the intricate work with the flair of a gaucho troubadour on horseback. The Shaham siblings acquit themselves nicely in the romantic and slightly jazzy Pampanea No. 1 and Orli digs into the cutting-edge virtuoso charms (two keys at once? We got that!) of Three Danzas Argentinas to close the album. Kondonassis has done a service to Ginastera's legacy with One Hundred and we are the  beneficiaries of her advocacy. I would say if you own one record of Ginastera it should be this one - however, I think you'll want more after hearing this. 

Simple Gifts - The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center As it happens, Ginastera studied with Aaron Copland on a Guggenheim fellowship in the 40's, learning much about how to push harmonies further while still keeping your music accessible. Appalachian Spring, Copland's score for a Martha Graham ballet, is Exhibit A for this approach, feeling as American as corn on the cob without being corny, thanks to its spare, modern design. This is much like the Shaker attitude towards design and architecture, which makes their furniture and buildings look so timeless and inviting. Of course, Copland's masterpiece has been recorded dozens of times, including a fairly definitive account conducted by the composer and recorded in glorious Living Stereo in the early 60's. But here we have what may be the best version yet. Marketers at Lincoln Center would like you to know that it was recorded live "in the heart of an authentic Shaker village," and filmed for broadcast on PBS. This is a first, apparently, and maybe it did inspire the musicians to new heights. The tempos are perfectly judged, the dew-limned opening notes flowing into one of the great slow builds in music, kept so taut that you're on the edge of your seat even if you've heard the work many times, and the full gallop is as thrilling as it should be. The sonics are delightful as well, with clear textures, a wide dynamic range, all the detail you could want - and no audience noise, not a cough or a creaking chair, intrudes. Until the end, that is, when the crowd explodes, seemingly fully aware that they had just heard something special. Due to my own particularities, the rest of the album, which includes short pieces by Louis Gottschalk, Samuel Barber, Dvorak, Mark O'Connor and Stephen Foster, is basically superfluous. Everything is performed brilliantly - the CMS is a band of virtuosos - and if you like the music you'll love this recording. I also loved reading the excellent liner notes and learning that Barber was a fan of Edie & Rack, the 1940's piano duo - I've never seen their names anywhere except on singles that I found in my grandmother's collection after she died. Perhaps she and the composer of Adagio for Strings crossed paths at the Blue Angel Club...but I digress. This is the Appalachian Spring to hear, so make a plan and get it done. That's the American way.

Restless - Ken Thomson If Copland is bit on the modern side for you - but you like it - here's a quick catapult into the 21st century, and I promise a painless flight. Throughout this album, composer Thomson displays a muscular approach to romanticism that is shorn of sentimentality - this is emotional music, but free of bathos or ornamentation. Restless, a four-movement work for cello and piano, sounded perfect the first time I heard it, as if it had always been there, but also very fresh. Think of your favorite room, and imagine it as it was when it was new - that's Restless, with the fourth movement being the dark corner you don't visit often. Part of its indomitability must be due to the spectacular playing of Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano), who sound like much more than a duo. Bathgate is a Bang On A Can luminary, so I would expect no less, but Larson is new to me, and it is he who is in the spotlight on side two (like Eyck's Fantasias, this was conceived as a vinyl album). Me Vs., a three movement work for solo piano, can be spikier and more fragmented than Restless but still feels inevitable and deeply involving. Thomson has done something very special here, and while these recordings and performances are already ideal, I hope to see both of these pieces enter the repertoire on record and in the concert hall. Think I'm blowing smoke? Come to Le Poisson Rouge on November 9th for the album release concert and hear for yourself.

Westside Industrial - M.O.T.H. Like most of the records discussed here, there is more than meets the ear to Westside Industrial. If you're interested, you can look into the conceptual framework in which the project is "a narrative response to the commodification of culture and the fallout that occurs when lifestyles are turned into brands in order to sell real estate." There is a performative aspect as well, using "handwritten journal entries, voicemail recordings, poetic dialogue and photographic imagery," framing a narrative. But here we just have the music, three long tracks of "nervous ambient" (my term), created using guitars, analog pedals, radio signals and other sound generators, making for seamless audio paintings. It's quite beautiful, and the details, especially when listening through headphones, are wonderfully textural. This is the second album by M.O.T.H., the nom de guerre of Matt Finch, with 3 Vignettes from 2015 being equally worthy of investigation. Between the two albums, M.O.T.H. should now be considered to a reliable brand name of it's own. Buy in.

As always, let me know what I'm missing, and keep up with the totality of 2016 here.

You may also enjoy:
BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed
Record Roundup: Classical Composure
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas