Friday, October 26, 2018

Record Roundup: Forms Of Escape

Here are five recent albums from a variety of geographic and generic origins that all have the uncanny ability to transform a hostile or indifferent reality into an oasis for my mind. In these times of daily outrage, I’ve been especially grateful to their creators for the opportunity to escape these musical gifts have provided. 

Domenico Lancellotti - The Good Is A Big God At least since the emergence of bossa nova in the early 60s, Brazil has had a well-earned reputation for delivering musical escapism. One feature many forms of Brazilian music have in common is “saudade,” a Portuguese word with no English equivalent that has been described as “the presence of absence,” a deep melancholy for lost happiness, but one which finds pleasure in the memories nonetheless. Lancellotti, whose last album, the excellent Cine Privé, was released solely under his first name in 2012, is an expert in saudade, bringing a wistful sweetness to all of his songs. 

Cine Privé was notable for combining that Brazilian sensibility with an indie-rock feel, assisted by American musicians like Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. On The Good Is A Big God Lancellotti puts his deep engagement with 60 years of Brazilian music on display, assaying styles from samba to bossa to tropicalia, the late-60’s movement that added a witty psychedelia into the mix. But there’s nothing self-consciously retro going on here as everything from the charming flutes on A Alma Do Vento (The Soul Of The wind) to the squealing synths of Aracne feels as natural as breathing. Lancellotti and his producer Sean O'Hagen also know how effective simplicity can be, as on Logo, which for most of its length is just him and 12-string acoustic guitar, gently adding a drum machine and a burbling keyboard as it goes on. 

The last song, Terra, is an instrumental showcasing some gorgeous harp playing, the perfect way to reflect on what’s come before. You may find yourself sighing deeply, reveling in the saudade, the bittersweet absence of all the beautiful sounds on this glorious record. The best part? If you find the darkness returning too quickly, you can just play it again. 

Dubstar - One This band, now a duo of Sarah Blackwood (vocals) and Chris Wilkie (guitar), specializes in a very British, very refined version of saudade, where regrets, missed connections and the experience of lost love fuel their best songs. On One, their first album in 18 years, they manage to almost hit the heights of their first two, Disgraceful (1995) and Goodbye (1997), with instantly memorable pop tunes led by Blackwood’s diamond-cut soprano. Produced by Youth, who’s having a banner year between this, his work on Hollie Cook’s Vessel Of Love, and Killing Joke’s 40th Anniversary tour, the sound is crisp and clean, keeping the focus on the songs. The occasional grit of Wilkie’s guitar adds some welcome imperfections to the glossy surface. 

Besides the occasional clunky lyric, Dubstar only really stumbles when they aim for unalloyed happiness, as on I Hold Your Heart, which sounds cheap and tinny, like the theme for a failed sitcom. But on songs like Love Comes Late, Love Gathers, You Were Never In Love, et al, they manage to breathe life into the hoariest of forms, the melancholy love song. John Dowland, who basically invented the form during the English Renaissance, would surely give a nod of approval, as will fans of The Clientele, Saint Etienne and Belle & Sebastian. Even those who settle for the committee-constructed fripperies of today’s Top 40 will find a more nourishing, yet no less lighthearted, brand of escapism here. It would be disgraceful if you didn’t give Dubstar a try. 

Mutual Benefit - Thunder Follows The Light It suddenly occurred to me while listening to this, Jordan Lee’s richest, most musically accomplished album yet, that his vision of Americana - and perhaps America - is so pure and warmly emotive that it enters the realm of immersive fantasy. You almost expect to hear the prairie sound effects of the Westward Expansion underlying the sparkling naturalism of the instrumentation. That doesn’t mean there is anything insincere about what he’s doing - the exact opposite, in fact. Lee is a believer, like Aaron Copland was a believer. 

Song titles like New History, No Dominion, and Waves, Breaking even seem to hint at the making of this great country, conveying a sense of optimism that is remarkable considering our current predicament. The images of nature that thread through the lyrics (From Shedding Skin:“Diamond scales upon a rotted log/Cicadas singing from a mountaintop//Blossoms growing on a dogwood tree/Leave behind what you used to be”) might lull you into thinking this is not a political album - and you don’t have to experience it as such - but Lee is definitely concerned about the extremities climate change may force us to undergo. 

By providing such a powerful vision of what we had, what we have, and what we can lose, Lee’s statement is far more powerful than any harangue. Most importantly, the musical experience of listening to Thunder Follows The Light is both lovely and substantive enough to be one you will want to repeat often and share with others. Could there be any better way of spreading your message?

P.S. Seeing Mutual Benefit live is a singular experience - catch them at the Park Church Co-Op on December 8th. I already have my tickets.

Arp - Zebra Music is really the only drug I have used consistently over my whole life, and for adolescent anxiety after the social tumult of a day in high school there was no better prescription than In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. Eno albums like Fourth World Vol. 1 with Jon Hassell or Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror with Harold Budd worked as well. Zebra, Arp’s fifth full-length is one of the few records since then to hit those same calming, meditative zones, where everything seems to fall in place around you. 

The vocabulary Alexis Georgopoulos, who records and performs as Arp, employs on Zebra seems customized for my own bliss: lazy vibraphones, fat analog synths, laconic drums, warm double bass, sparkling Fender Rhodes...sheer heaven. Try Nzuku, in which synths talk in delightful fragments over a vibe pattern, soon joined by an hypnotic bass line and drums that almost subliminally nudge things along. A squirrelly synth takes a brief solo, hinting at dominance before falling back into the opiated surroundings. This is music with umami and you will want to savor every sonic morsel, turning them over in your auditory cortex for maximum flavor. I’ve had my eye on Arp for a while and he’s always been at least interesting. But it’s on Zebra - insert hoofbeats joke  here - where he delivers on his promise. 

Gecko Turner - Soniquete: The Sensational Sound Of Gecko Turner If you’re a regular reader of AnEarful I would hope that the name Gecko Turner is at least familiar if not a regular part of your musical diet. His combination of seemingly every rhythm from funk, reggae, and all forms of Latin music added to sweet and sad songs has made him one of the most reliable purveyors of pleasure in the 21st Century. In case you’re new here, however, this is the perfect time to catch up with Turner thanks to this career retrospective featuring one new song and a selection from his four prior albums. 

The new cut, Cortando Bajito (Cutting Short), is a Clavinet-driven workout that may have you thinking of Superstition but it’s really just a distant cousin. Most importantly, it’s a jam and a half, furiously danceable, and Turner’s understated vocal is like the breeze you need to stay cool enough to keep moving. As for the rest of the collection, you could literally pick 13 songs at random from his catalog and come up with a similarly enjoyable selection since he’s never released a bad song. 

That said, I was certainly happy to see some of my personal favorites making the cut, like Monosabio Blues, its insinuating stutter-step rhythm still driving me wild after hundreds of listens. So simple, so perfect, and played with the kind of insouciance most musicians only achieve in their dreams. Turner’s versatility is also on full display, from the catchy pop of Here Comes Friday to the groovy social commentary of 45.000$ - Guapapasea, which transforms the calls of male hustlers in his native Spain into an hypnotic call and response. Had it been my job to assemble Soniquete, the only thing I might have made room for is one of the fabulous remixes of Turner’s songs that have come out over the years, like Boozoo Bajou’s spacious take on Dizzie. But once you are in with Gecko Turner I think you will be all in and will dig up and discover those for yourself. 

What transporting sounds have been helping you get away from it all lately?

You might also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: Electronic
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 2016 (So Far) - Pt. 1
Gecko's Pleasure Principle
Best Of Ten

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Three Portraits: Cheung-Trapani-Du Yun

Albums by ensembles featuring multiple composers are a great way to focus on a group’s skills, both as curators and players. But the “portrait album” is another thing, giving listeners a valuable opportunity to focus on a range of works by one artist. Here are three of the best from recent months. 

Anthony Cheung - Cycles and Arrows One common criticism of post-modernism when it first became widely known in the 80’s was that it was a movement based on superficialities. For example, when an architect used some vestige of a Greek column in their work it was just there because it looked good or called up certain associations. There was seemingly no reference or understanding about why the ancients might have developed such a form or what mathematical principles lay behind its visual perfection. 

The music of Anthony Cheung is a firm rebuttal to that line of thinking. When you read his program notes for this, his third portrait album, you quickly realize that any echo of past forms or other compositions comes from a place of deep scholarship and musical understanding. Combined with a sureness of orchestration that feels natural and intuitive but is surely the product of much study and experimentation, the result is a delightful array of compositions from the last five years. Take the opening work, written for flute and string quartet and cheekily entitled The Real Book Of Fake Tunes. Over five short movements, the dialogue between the players unfurls with such wit and elegance you almost forget there are five people working together to produce the sounds. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the players are the genius flautist Claire Chase and the excellent Spektral Quartet, who also appear on the angular Bagatelles with pianist Winston Choi. 

So it goes throughout the album, whether combining Chinese instruments with Western ones in More Marginalia (played by the astonishing Atlas Ensemble) or composing for solo oboe in Après Une Lecture, which is cleverly based on notated speech patterns Cheung saw in the notebooks of Leos Janacek and played to perfection by Ernest Rombaut. The International Contemporary Ensemble appears on two pieces, the swaggering Assumed Roles with violist Maiya Papach, and Times Vestiges, which ends the album with a sense of unresolved mystery, like a flashlight’s beam being swallowed by tunnel. Cycles And Arrows is, like Dystemporal from 2016, further proof that Cheung is one of the finest composers of our time. 

Christopher Trapani - Waterlines While it’s usually terrible when visa problems derail a concert, it was actually to my benefit when Talea Ensemble had to shift gears for their slot at last month’s Resonant Bodies festival. Instead of playing a world premiere by a European composer, the group decided to revisit Trapani’s Waterlines. As a board member of Talea, I saw this happening in real time but still had no idea what to expect as I had missed a previous performance of the piece. 

“Home is the pull of a tonic chord,” Trapani writes in his liner notes for Waterlines, “Home is the warm glow of consonance, radiating through a hissing layer of noise.” He then goes on to describe the gestation of the piece, from being in Paris and watching Katrina hit his home city, to seeking solace in the old country and Delta blues records that animate this five-song cycle, especially ones about the great flood of 1927, to finding parallels between those old shellacs and the spectral music of Gerard Grisey and others.

I felt that pull and warmth right from the first strummed dulcimer chords that open the first song, Can’t Feel At Home, a feeling that only increased when Lucy Dhegrae began singing with the perfect combination of real feeling, theatricality and classical control. Waterlines brought me back to the first time I heard Barstow by Harry Partch, to that feeling like it had been with me all my life. All five songs in Waterlines were riveting and I marveled at the fractured vernacular, the lean orchestration, which has a few unusual instruments (fretless Turkish banjo) but no gimmicks, the quotes from Mahler and others that somehow fit just right...before it was over I knew I was in the presence of an instant classic. Dhegrae was fantastic throughout and Talea's playing, led by conductor James Baker, was intricate, powerful, and immaculately balanced. And now we have this recording featuring the same forces and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

There are four other excellent works here as well. Passing Through, Staying Put is a tart piano trio stylishly played by Longleash, who put such a stamp of greatness on Scott Wollschleger's Soft Aberration last year. The JACK Quartet takes on Visions And Revisions, elucidating its harmonic and melodic ties to Dylan's Visions Of Johanna with what sounds like great affinity for the music. There's further magic in the way Marilyn Nonken's sparkling piano in The Silence Falling Star Lights Up A Purple Sky segues into the final work, Cognitive Consonance.

The longest piece on the album, it consists of two long movements for stringed instruments bookending a brief electronic interlude. Talea Ensemble also contributes here and the electronics were crafted at IRCAM, the electronic music incubator founded by Pierre Boulez. The first part, Disorientation, uses a specially modified qanun (a kind of zither), played with extraordinary facility by Didem Basar, to explore a tactile landscape of immersive microtonality. I hung on every pluck and sweep of the strings, taking great pleasure from the way they interacted with the electronic textures. The second part, Westering, is played by Trapani himself on a hexaphonic electric guitar, which has transposition controls for each string, each of which is amplified by its own pickup, allowing for great control of pitch, timbre, etc. But you won't need to think about any of that as you listen - just enjoy the journey, which has no shortage of mystery.

While Trapani's music has been played by many distinguished performers over the years, and included on some fine albums, Waterlines is the first album devoted solely to his work and its display of his scholarship, emotional depth and originality could not be more successful or musically satisfying. I can only imagine what he will do next.

Du Yun - Dinosaur Scar I'm one of those slightly clueless types who actually needed Du Yun to win the Pulitzer Prize (as she did last year for Angel's Bone, her second opera) for me to become fully aware of her music. Seeing her furious concentration as a performer at the MATA Festival last spring was only a reiteration of her talents. Now we have this album, which is probably the most complete overview of her shorter works to date. I could be churlish and point out that six of the ten tracks have been in the can since 2009 - almost a decade, which is far too long for an artist as protean as Du Yun. 

But there are many wonders within Dinosaur Scar, such as Air Glow, which combines five brass players with electric guitar and bass for a sinuous, atmospheric experience that goes on for nearly 11 glorious minutes. The performers are all from the International Contemporary Ensemble, a testament to their 20-year working relationship with Du Yun and an assurance that they are all at the top of their field. Special note must by paid to guitarist Dan Lippel, whose does stunning work all over the record. Claire Chase is also here and in full effect on Run in a Graveyard, which she first included on her debut solo album in 2011. Pitting her alto flute against Du Yun's gnarly electronics creates a unique blend indeed, its strong narrative drive keeping you in suspense throughout.

The title track is the oldest piece, written for solo saxophone in 1999 when Du Yun was a sophomore in college, and played like it was hot off the sheet music by Ryan Muncy. This well-rounded collection also includes two scintillating improvisations, one which features Du Yun on kazoo, toy harmonica and phone, showing her humor. The electrifying and episodic by, of...Lethean ends the album, effectively soundtracking a movie I made up in my mind as I listened. What stories will Du Yun tell you? 

P.S. A number of the works on Dinosaur Scar will be performed as part of Du Yun's Composer Portrait at the Miller Theater on November 15th. Perhaps I will see you there!

Find tracks from all of these albums and other notable classical releases from 2018 in this playlist - and, as always, tell me what I'm missing.

You may also enjoy:

Record Roundup: Electronic Excursions
Record Roundup: Avant Chamber And Orchestral
MATA's Bad Romance At The Kitchen
Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
Best Of 2017: Classical