Saturday, November 25, 2017

Record Roundup: Eclectic Electronics

My musical diet includes a large helping of albums that are based in synthesized sounds - here are some of the tastiest finds from 2017.

Novelty Daughter - Inertia Faith Harding has been in my personal pantheon of unsung heroes since I caught her opening for TV Girl a few years ago. She could do literally anything with her extraordinary voice and it would be instantly compelling. Her instrument has the timbre of a smoky jazz chanteuse and she wields it with the exquisite control of someone who specializes in avant-garde art song. Combine that with the lapidary settings she contrives on her laptop and the results are sublime. However, the most original thing about Novelty Daughter is the way she puts melodies and musical structures together in counterintuitive ways that end up feeling so right.

Her first album, Semigoddess, was a terrific showcase for the way she never takes the easy way out, with soaring melodies pushing against the pulse of the backing tracks in a cerebral approach to emotional explorations. Inertia finds her embracing more dance rhythms on several songs, produced with her usual elegance and attention to sonic detail, as if seeking to be transported out of the difficult feelings and situations that come with living life fully. On Grown, for example, she lets the music draw the conclusion that if you can’t go home again, “put your chin up” and dance till dawn. U Want What I Want borrows a little drum’n’bass busyness to sweeten the slightly bitter pill of the lyrics, in which Harding tries to reach common ground with her counterpart in what may be a failing relationship. 

Kindness, Calmness puts skittering rhythms below meditative synth while Harding tries to come to terms with her own inability to find comfort when somebody treats her well: "Ease is hard to settle into/Paradoxically/Ease is hard to settle into/But I want to try/I'm ready." Harding's lyrics never let you forget there is a real person behind her towering musical intellect. On the title track, she does something new, breaking her usual cool reserve and singing with near abandon about wishing she could “withdraw into a haze, and write my absence as a burning question mark upon your skin.” Rather than a withdrawal, Inertia is further proof that Faith Harding is one of the most interesting artists around. 

Elsa Hewitt - Peng Variations On this, her third album in 2017, Hewitt continues to establish herself as electronic doyenne of the first order. Superficially, she’s doing the same thing as Novelty Daughter (and many others), building beats and backgrounds on synthesizers and laptops and singing over them, yet the results are quite different and very much her own. She creates hazy atmospheres, made up of either ambient washes or interlocking fragments, with distant beats gently propelling the songs. One thing that distinguishes her from others in this musical space is her compositional craft, which she has been honing since she released the bedroom folk album Hotel Rosemary in 2008.

She often uses her voice as another instrument, repeating syllables to add another layer of melodic invention. When she does use words, they’re buried enough in the hazy atmosphere she creates to feel like an internal monologue. That fuzzy quality adds warmth and humanity to all the little electronic bits she painstakingly assembles to build the songs. There are also samples of cats and babies to put a little more fur, flesh and blood into the tracks. Woven into the mix are "cuts from a single event – a play written by four women and their one performance of it in the Yorkshire dales..." which adds intellectual intrigue.

If I were going to categorize Hewitt's three albums, I would say that the first, Cameras From Mars, is future pop, the second, Dum Dum Spiro, is almost purely ambient, and Peng Variations is the most daring, applying some of the principles of musique concrete by adding all kinds of extra-musical sounds into intricate sequences that cohere on repeated listens. There is still significant overlap on all three records and therein lies her style and personality - handmade, gentle, somehow empathetic. I think Hewitt makes music partly as an act of self-care, and the enveloping, immersive nature of her sound-world translates that compassion directly to you - and we can always use more of that in the world! Peng Variations comes out on December 8th - show you care by downloading it or by supporting her PledgeMusic campaign to release some of her music on vinyl.

Summer Like The Season - Thin Today This is a project of Summer Krinsky, a musician, singer, composer and producer who has been plying her trade in the Detroit area for a few years, including in Pocket Candies with the guitarist Sam Naples, releasing a full-length album, Caves in 2015.  You can hear some of Krinsky's dense approach to harmony and prog-fueled arranging in that band but it comes through with more originality and clarity in Summer Like The Season.

The title track of this four-track EP is a perfect example, starting with a layered and looped vocal phrase, over which she starts singing the main melody of the song in her warm, pliable voice. Drums kick in, pushing the song forward busily, electronics burbling underneath and then - thrillingly - sheets of tightly packed backing vocals swoop in, raising the hair on the back of your neck. After the bridge, she expands the envelope  with more layers of sound, but somehow out-of-phase, almost like driving past bridge stanchions with the window just slightly opened: whup-whup-whup. It's breathtaking, and the rest of the songs are nearly as strong.

I'm excited to see what comes next from Summer and also to catch up with Detroit happenings via Girls Rock Detroit, a nonprofit that is "dedicated to fostering creative expression, positive self-esteem and community awareness in girls, trans and gender nonconforming youth through music performance." They just released their first mixtape, which includes Thin Today and 15 other tracks from local artists. If there's anything else on there even half as good as Summer Like The Season, that will be quite a find!

Jonti - Tokorats I know this South African-born, Australia-based polymath mainly as someone in the background of a lot of dreamy sounds over the last few years, but this is the first time I've delved into one of his solo albums. Tokorats is his third full-length and apparently had a tortured gestation over the last five years - but you would never know that by the sonic delights contained within. Jonti also has some high-concept thoughts behind it, claiming that it documents "a five year spiritual journey," and that "every song is a conversation with all the good and unflattering reflections of myself..." That's all well and good - but it has little to do with the experience of listening to the album, which is fortunately far more buoyant than his ponderous thoughts would lead you to imagine.

Rather than an self-lacerating session of encounter therapy, Tokorats is more like a spa treatment for the mind, almost a 21st Century take on 1950s mood music, like that of Martin Denny. Burbling clouds of pretty sounds overlay gentle hip hop-infused rhythm tracks, vocal choirs exhale nearly-wordless melodies, a string section might swoop in like a troupe of ballerinas, somebody might contribute a rap or spoken word interlude (Odd Future's Hodgy is featured and Sampa The Great is also heard from) but nothing breaks the mood. Most of the songs are short, merely elements in the whole album, which is a concise 50 minutes.

Sleeping And Falling is probably the best stand-alone track, its multiple sections a miniature of the album as a whole. The open-eared influence of J.Dilla is everywhere throughout Tokorats, but the spirit of the thing is contained in Misto On The Moon's sample of Comment (If All Men Were Truly Brothers), the hymn-like ode to fellow-feeling by Charles Wright. If you're looking for something to sit alongside Cornelius's 90s classic Fantasma, or Dilla's Donuts itself, get Jonti on your shelf. Thanks to his richly imaginative musicality and generous heart, wherever you listen will be instantly bedazzled with rainbows and waterfalls.

Suzi Analogue - Zonez V.3: The World Unwinds But The Sound Holds Me Tight On the latest installment of her Zonez series of "audio moodboards," Suzi invites a few more guests than usual, featuring collaborators on six of the 11 tracks. But the ultra-rhythmic and sweetly melodic personality that defines her music is always at the forefront. In a way, having someone like dancehall singer JAX on the opening cut, NUMBA 1, is a signpost, pointing your ear to the Caribbean flavors embedded in the track, which might not otherwise be so obvious. Similarly, having a verse by DC-based rapper NAPPYNAPPA on Game/Change is a way of giving the nod to the influence of hip hop on Suzi's music. 

Besides reggae and hip hop, Suzi draws on many traditions, including drum'n'bass, house, footwork, and even ambient, building her tracks from repeating modules of soft and hard sounds, including vocals, and interleaving them with the beats with the deft touch of a true virtuoso. She also demonstrates structural command through the concise journeys each song travels, like mini-trips through her imagination via the most scenic route possible. Her music is often busy in all the right ways, and she's also very prolific, making videos for nearly every song and branching out by scoring a short horror film called End Of Forever. This is promising direction for her as she conjures some truly hair-raising sounds out of her rig. Mica Levi should be looking over her shoulder!

Looking for more fascinating electronic sounds from 2017? Follow this playlist and find your joy.

Coming next: Bob Dylan gets sanctified.

You may also enjoy:
Goldfrap, Silver Eye, Brooklyn Steel
Best Of 2016: Electronic
Novelty Daughter: Up From Underground
Channel Surfing With TV Girl

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Autumn Albums, Part 2

This has been a bang-up fall for new music from my favorites. In Part 1, I looked at the latest from American veterans Hiss Golden Messenger, Beck, and Iron & Wine. This edition features two surprising returns to form and two strong albums from artists still early in their careers.

The Clientele - Music For The Age Of Miracles While there have been a few songs released since their last album, the infinitely autumnal Bonfires On The Heath from 2009, it seemed that circumstances were conspiring against us ever having a new full-length collection from The Clientele. I counted myself beyond lucky to have seen them twice in 2014, when they were celebrating the reissue of Suburban Light, their debut, but thought that might indeed be it. 

Then, a chance meeting between singer/songwriter/guitarist Alasdair MacLean and an old friend, Anthony Harmer, catalyzed the (yes) miraculous album now under discussion. Harmer plays the saz and the santur, a Middle Eastern lute and dulcimer respectively, and is also dab hand at pop arranging. He wound up producing the album, sprinkling his sparkling instruments here and there and helping to develop jewel-like settings for each song. There are are trumpets, strings, keyboards, and detailed vocal arrangements, all in service of some of MacLean’s best songs yet. Providing the perfect foundation, as always, are bassist James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen, whose telepathic engagement with every contour of the songs is more remarkable than ever. 

Take Lunar Days, for example, where Keen’s drums tick along almost in a bossa nova style until the chorus, when subtle taps on the snare underscore each word and gently perturb the tempo, helping to emphasize the way the words “Holloways, lunar days,” seem to spill out of the preceding verse. Constellations Echo Lanes also goes through subtle changes that seem to arise organically from the flow of the words rather than just following verse/chorus/verse. There are many such detailed moments throughout Miracles and finding them is like following Ariadne’s golden thread to the heart of The Clientele’s genius. 

When I was first falling for The Clientele, around the time of their third album, I would often find myself ticking off their influences. But now I just hear The Clientele, as no one really sounds like them. That doesn’t mean they don’t push their own envelope a little, as on Everything You See Tonight Is Different From Itself, which features electronic beats programmed by Harmer, amidst Keen’s drums. Keen is also responsible for three charming instrumentals, which provide space for contemplation amidst the rainswept suburbia that is MacLean’s lyrical bailiwick. That’s not a dig, by the way, as a more literate and intelligent guide would be hard to imagine. For example, the Museum of Fog is a spoken word piece (like their classic Losing Haringey) that reads perfectly as a short story and for Falling Asleep he adapts verse from World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, making lines about hounds and herons sound positively contemporary. 

As elaborate as the settings are on Miracles, a recent concert at the Bell House proved, yet again, that MacLean, Hornsey, and Keen are the heart of the band. All they need to create a whole world out of thin air is electric guitar arpeggios, gently meandering bass, precisely pulsing drums - and the comforting burr of MacLean’s vocals. It’s a remarkable conjuring to witness, and having new songs to play this time only injected more wonder into the night. From the smile on MacLean’s face as they brought album standout Everyone You Meet to a close that Sunday night, he agreed completely. Their U.S. tour has ended, but keep track of their activities - you never know when you might get a chance to see them.

Historian - Expanse I don’t want to be a jerk, but often when people DM me their music, it’s just not very good. So, when Chris Karman, (who records as Historian) sent me his debut album Shelf Life in 2013, it was a more than pleasant surprise. While somewhat unformed, especially in the vocal department, there was a spark of originality and craft to his melancholy songs that kept me listening. Somehow I missed his second album, Currents, which showed steady improvements on the way towards the excellence we find on Expanse. 

Led by Karmen’s stately keyboards and windswept guitar, the core of the band is tight and the strings of Quartetto Fantastico (which includes the brilliant Miguel Atwood-Ferguson) has elevated Historian’s sound into the realm of exquisite chamber pop. Karman’s singing, which reminds me a little of Mike Doughty, is more confident and compelling by several orders of magnitude. Each song creates its own atmospheric cloud of mood, matching the lyrics, which probe themes of existential import in enough detail that I wonder if the project should have been called Philosopher. But it’s more heartfelt than that would imply, and quite affecting. 

Although I could highlight songs like Here And Then, which is very catchy and nearly breezy, or Stars, which seems to create more mystery with each finely incised guitar riff, Expanse is a very consistent album and one which firmly plants Karman’s flag on today’s indie landscape as a talent with which to reckon. P.S. Currents is very nearly as good so you might as well save on shipping and order them both at once!

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band - Adios Señor Pussycat I’m not going to recount Head’s storied past with bands like Pale Fountains, Shack, and The Strands (this article does a good job of that), but suffice to say that one of his albums is called The Magical World Of The Strands and more than lives up to its title. There’s also plenty of that magic on this new release, which is perhaps the most rapturously received album in Britain this year if my Twitter feed is to be believed. 

And why not? All the Brit-folk-rock touchstones are here, as is the spirit of The Byrds - far more strongly than on that snoozefest Tom Petty produced for ex-Byrd Chris Hillman. The sound of the album, all 12-string shimmer, swaying rhythms, perfect touches of strings and sax, and Head’s warm tenor, is nothing more than the sonic expression of a person seizing a second (or maybe a third) chance at life, fully in command of their talents and grateful for the opportunity. That means songs that flow with perfect inevitability and dole out hard-won wisdom and joyous sing-alongs in equal measure. On What's The Difference we even get a dose of Love steeped in the grandeur of Ennio Morricone - grandiose, yes, but it's great to see Head still taking chances. 

If Michael Head is a completely unfamiliar name to you, there is a 30-year wealth of great songwriting to imbibe. Start with Adios Señor Pussycat and work backwards - and sign up here so you don't miss the next 30 years. 

Warhaus - Warhaus Maarten Devoldere's first brilliant album as Warhaus was called We Fucked A Flame Into Being, after a DH Lawrence quote, and I guess he knew he couldn’t top it, hence going for the self-titled option. Or maybe he was just seeking more name recognition after the first album, which I included on my Top 20 for 2016, failed to set the world on fire.

That was the world’s loss, however, and one which will now be doubled if this second slab of louche Euro-cabaret-rock escapes the notice it deserves. Devoldere has perfected his gravelly, insouciant slur of a voice while bringing more clarity to his musical conception, which is spacious and dimensional, with plenty of air around each well-chosen instrument. Tuned drums or a brushed snare define the rhythm with upright bass as a dance partner, strings may hover above, or his trademark barking trombones might intrude with apt rudeness, as piano and guitar sketch out melodies. The last point should be emphasized as Devoldere's most surprising trait may be his uncanny ability to come up with great tunes and sweeping choruses. 

Many of the songs have familiar titles - Mad World, Dangerous, Bang Bang, Fall In Love With Me - but sound brand new, which may be his sly acknowledgment of the vast territory he wishes to occupy in the zeitgeist, or (more likely) a reflection of his warmer, more direct approach this time around. But while the music may go down with less spikiness than the first album, there are still plenty of barbs to be found in the lyrics. "You have a god to forgive you it's a privilege you have/You have a book that starts with a Bret Easton Ellis autograph/Bottles to empty and prescriptions to fill/And if no god will forgive you, baby, you know I will," he sings in Mad World with a combination of contempt and compassion. And there's probably no one else alive who could get away with this line from Well Well: "And if you want to get laid/In a fashionable way/I'll try to look like I understand/What you want from a man." Thank god for unreconstructed Europeans - never change, Maarten!

With these two Warhaus albums, Devoldere is carving out a unique spot in rock, but one with enough broad appeal to be less niche than it appears. If you're looking for something with the unfiltered edge of a Gauloise and the sensibility of a true devotee to the craft of songwriting, do not hesitate. And you can bet that if he ever ventures outside of Europe for a concert, I'll be first in line. I hope you'll be ready to join me.

To find cuts from these albums and others in similar veins follow AnEarful: Of Note In 2017 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) on Spotify.

Next time I'll return to the Record Roundup format to report on some eclectic electronica that's come out over the course of the year.

You may also enjoy:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Autumn Albums, Part 1

It’s a rare year indeed when so many of my bedrock artists of recent years put out new material, especially so close together, but this fall's releases are redefining "embarrassment of riches." Let's get right to it!

Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow Every record by M.C. Taylor is a labor of love, but this may be the most loving music he’s released yet. It comes hard on the heels of last year’s Heart Like A Levee, a sprawling double album shaded by its fair share of self-doubt, with many songs guided in part by the philosophy “You can’t choose your blues but you might as well own them.” This batch of songs is all together sunnier, a reflection of Taylor’s remarkable ability to use music to turn things around when things look bleak. 

There’s a looser, more collective vibe here, too, as if Taylor and his road band knocked these songs together at soundchecks and in rehearsal studios, driven by his relentless desire to get some positivity into a world filled with dark currents. Of course, when your band includes Brad and Phil Cook (bass and guitar, respectively), Josh Kaufman (guitars), Darren Jessie (drums) and people like Tift Merritt and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig on backing vocals, you’re talking Americana royalty, people who can get into a heartfelt groove on a moment’s notice. The horns are a nice touch as well, filling out songs like the re-recorded John The Gun, originally a haunting bit of solo folksong on the deluxe edition of Levee. 

The themes, melodies, rhythms, and instrumental touches will all be familiar to fans of Dylan, Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Michael Chapman -  if you want to call this “dad rock,” I think Taylor would wear the badge proudly. And this father of three connects instantly with Hiss Golden Messenger, something I can’t say for The War On Drugs, which others have embraced under that label. Maybe if my dad listened to Don Henley and Dire Straits, that would be different! 

Taylor continues to be one of the best songwriters around, and if a line like “Step back, Jack, from the darkness,” (from When The Wall Comes Down) is a little more on the nose than usual for this supremely literary lyricist, that may be what the times demand. Just as his use of "patriotic" motifs in the marketing for the album seeks to reclaim something too often associated with repressive parts of our society, a radio-friendly “classic rock,” or even “southern rock” gesture like Domino (Time Will Tell) may be a point of unity among groups who have lost the ability to converse easily. 

That may be too much weight to place on an album that contains, overall, Hiss Golden Messenger’s most effervescent music. And I can't completely ignore the fact that Hallelujah Anyhow does not cut as deep as my favorite from him, Lateness Of Dancers. But when so many American verities seem on the verge of blowing away, there’s more than enough integrity here to stand on as you wait out the storm. Catch HGM on the road - it's always a great night.

Beck - Colors As long as we’re talking politics and music, I think it’s funny that many people have predicted a great punk revival in the Trump era, as if that was the only movement that pushed against the harsher inclinations of the 70s, and I’m like, “Remember disco?” Bringing people together on the dance floor was just as radical an act as igniting a mosh pit, and maybe ultimately more effective. So I don’t think it’s any accident that Beck released his “Fuck art, let’s dance” album in 2017, even though it’s been in the works for years. 

Nothing is simple, though, and this may be Beck’s most divisive record yet, with people turned off by everything from the hyper-compressed production to the relentless cheerfulness of the thing. But if you give yourself over to the bright, shiny candy-colored surface - and Colors is almost all surface, like a James Rosenquist painting - it’s hard to stop smiling as the songs whirl past. Beck and his producer-in-crime Greg Kurstin (who also gets songwriting credit on most of the record) cook up each song for maximum enjoyment, each track filled with as many surprise and delight features as a concept car at the auto show. 

I hear echoes of Breton, Stewart Copeland, Benji Hughes, and The Beatles, all absorbed into Beck’s pop smoothies, each song sounding, somehow, unmistakably like no one other than him. That’s partly due to his distinctive, vibrato-free tenor, which is still as versatile as it was 20 years ago - he even raps a little, for the first time in several albums. While a downcast sincerity has been a hallmark of his folk-based work (Sea Change, Morning Phase), ironic detachment is a common mode for his upbeat, chopped and screwed side. That’s not the case here, as an open-hearted happiness infuses most of the album. But if irony is absent, there’s still plenty of sly surrealism. I would pay good money for a video of the moment in the studio when he inserted all those “Giddyups” into Wow - I look forward to them every time I listen. 

Unlike the great Morning Phase, however, Colors is not a perfect album. Fix Me is a half-baked song, ending the record on an ellipse when it should have gone out with a bang. Even if that had I'm not sure Colors ever would have been as good as his best work. Kurstin is just too white bread (if you can still say that) a collaborator. It's notable that Wow, which may be the best song here, is the one he is least involved in, with Beck getting a major assist from Cole M.G.N. But as I said to a friend, Colors is a party album - let's all have more parties! 

While it remains to be seen how he will integrate the new material in concert, there’s also no doubt that Beck will have a blast busting out all his best moves when he takes Colors on the road. Giddyup. 

Iron & Wine - Beast Epic I’m not one of those who greeted the eclecticism of the most recent albums by Sam Beam and Co. with a sigh, yearning for the bedroom intimacy of modern classics like The Creek That Drank The Cradle. Not only did I find his incorporation of funk, soul, jazz, and dub captivating, I listened in astonishment as Beam became one of the best singers alive. Hearing him sing Sade’s Bulletproof Soul On Sing Into My Mouth, his way underrated covers album with Ben Bridwell, sealed the deal. But I also became concerned about his songwriting inspiration, especially when he followed up with another collaborative project, this time with Jesca Hoop, which contained few memorable songs. 

Now, four years after the last I&W album of all original songs, Beam has given us a Beast Epic, not a return to his stripped-down indie folk, but a reclamation of some of that woodsy territory nonetheless. The production is no less complex than something like The Shepherd’s Dog, but every song has an acoustic center, whether big-chord strumming or hypnotic finger-picked patterns. Beam surrounds those guitars with strings, marimba, piano, reeds, brass, and percussion, creating the atmosphere of a sophisticated jam around the campfire that, varied as it is, feels as warm as an inherited Hudson’s Bay blanket. 

The songs are all solidly constructed, with melodies as natural as breathing. The lyrics have arresting koan-like nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout, such as “Nothing makes silence like experience/There’s a message in my eyes/You better love yourself/‘Cause I tried,” from Bitter Truth, and ”For all the love you left behind, you can have mine,” from Call It Dreaming, which is an instant Iron & Wine classic. There are also little bits of eccentricity that add tooth to the album, calling out to art song, the sardonic theater music of Brecht/Weill, or even the cracked Americana of Harry Partch. Hearts Walk Anywhere, one of two brief bonus songs available on vinyl only, pushes this even further, pointing in possible new directions. Theater? Chamber music? There are no limits to what Sam Beam can conjure when he's inspired and he is surely inspired on the gorgeous tapestry of Beast Epic. Let me know if you make it to one of the shows!

Coming in Part 2: The Clientele, Historian, and Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band

To find cuts from these albums and others in similar veins follow AnEarful: Of Note In 2017 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) on Spotify.

You may also enjoy:
Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood
Beam & Bridwell's AOR Utopia
Beck's Next Phase