Friday, May 25, 2018

Outliers, Part 2: Seabuckthorn, David Garland

In Part 1, I covered two albums, one inspired by Greek Tragedy and the other by music history. The two records discussed below have more diffuse antecedents but no less musical impact.

A House With Too Much Fire - Seabuckthorn How vast is the world of music that an artist with this much talent and originality could have flown under my radar for so long? For this is the ninth release by Andy Cartwright under the name Seabuckthorn, which, as I have now learned, is a common shrub known for its nutrient-rich berries. Cartwright’s main instrument is the guitar and he usually plays 12-string acoustic or resonator guitars, often applying a violin bow to create drones. On A House... he has added banjo, clarinet, synthesizer and percussion to the sonic landscape, all of which he deploys with restraint and to great atmospheric effect. I have a lot of catching up to do but as far as I can tell, this is his most sophisticated and varied album thus far.

While there are still echoes of the American Primitive school of guitar, Cartwright is more interested in texture now. He rarely calls attention to his virtuosity in these 10 tracks, which are built up from layers of improvised parts and loops. Submerged Past, for example, starts with a finger-picked pattern that’s soon joined by spidery chords left hanging in the background before morphing into a stately ostinato, around which Cartwright develops more layers of picked and strummed elements with occasional strikes on the bell of a cymbal for emphasis. Gorgeous stuff. The spookier side of Daniel Lanois might be a touchpoint here, along with Ennio Morricone, Popol Vuh and even Tuareg desert blues. But Seabuckthorn really sounds like no one else and I hope this album draws more attention to his rich, organic sound world. A House With Too Much Fire comes out on June 1st - preorder it here. Cartwright lives in the Southern Alps but there is the possibility of New York City performance in the near future. Based on this video from March, I want to be there - how about you?

Verdancy - David Garland Starting in 1987, David Garland hosted Spinning On Air as a radio show on WNYC, quickly becoming a fixture on the airwaves and in the culture of New York City. His eclecticism, depth of knowledge and sheer love of music and creativity made it a must listen and often an unforgettable one. While WNYC cancelled the show in 2015, I'm delighted to report that Garland has revived it as a podcast and, based on the episodes I've heard, he has lost none of his curiosity or eloquence - subscribe here.

Over the years Garland has also been putting out his own music, featuring his wry vocals and sounds as much influenced by folk and rock as by classical music of all centuries. Verdancy,  which came out in March, is his first release in four years and may be his most ambitious project yet. It's essentially four albums worth of music, much of it performed by Garland alone on a daunting number of instruments. There are some intriguing collaborators including Iva Bittová (vocals, violin), Kyle Gann (piano), and Yoko Ono. Garland also handled all the technical aspects of recording, production, mixing and mastering. The artwork is his as well, with design by his wife, Anne Garland. Even if the music wasn't as wonderful as it is, Verdancy would be a landmark effort and an inspiration to independent creative people everywhere.

A central feature of the sound across the 27 tracks is an acoustic guitar modified with electronics by Garland's son Kenji. Apparently Sean Lennon is a fan as Garland borrowed one from him to record Verdancy. The hybrid instrument is "genuinely electro-acoustic" and provides washes of tonally rich chords for Garland to build on with the other instruments, often clarinet, which he plays beautifully. Part of the emotional well Garland draws on here is his move a few years ago out of NYC to the Hudson Valley, giving him an opportunity to commune with the natural world. Many of the songs do have an organic feel, seeming to grow from a kernel of an idea into something elaborate and deeply involving.

There are many highlights throughout the four albums, two of which arose out of collaborations across time. Color Piece, the first song, uses words from a 1964 poem by Ono, which Garland sings over a stately melody in a warmly meditative introduction to the world of Verdancy. Later on, there's Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa (The Nymph's Lament), based on a 15th century madrigal, which adapts surprisingly well to Garland's approach. Traveling Doors, a lovely piece for piano, clarinet and electronics, is another perfect point of entry. I could describe more of the beauties that await you but prefer you to discover them for yourself. I will say that out of all the songs here, Dear Golden Deer is the only one I would rather not revisit, as it pushes my personal tolerance for slide whistle past the breaking point. It might be your favorite track - don't let me stop you.

I can't encourage you enough to add David Garland's many virtues to your listening repertoire, whether through the riches of Verdancy or the ongoing inquiry of Spinning On Air. I would suggest both!

You may also enjoy:
Outliers, Part 1: Oracle Hysterical, Thomas Bartlett-Nico Muhly
Words + Music, Part 2: Scott Johnson And Alarm Will Sound
Words + Music, Part 1: Laurie Anderson And Kronos Quartet
Record Roundup: Eclectic Electronics
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge

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