Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best Of 2019: Electronic

Even though I attempt to craft my posts to reflect my listening throughout the year, I heard way more electronic music than I wrote about this year. Something to work on for 2020! However, four albums that could easily fit in this category, Thom Yorke's Anima, Daniel Wohl's Etat, Drinker's Fragments, and Elsa Hewitt's Citrus Paradisi, were in my Top 25, so make sure you catch up with those ASAP. Now, on to all of the plugged-in things I've waited to tell you about, from ambient excursions to more aggressive explorations. At the top is a playlist so you can listen while you read - if you haven't already beaten me to these stellar records, I hope you find new worlds of transporting sound within.

Fennesz - Agora If you read the backstory, about Christian Fennesz losing his studio and moving all his gear back into the bedroom of his Berlin flat, you might expect something spare and lo-fi. Spare yes, with slowly building slabs of sound created by his guitar, laptop, field recordings, and the human voice. But also sonically magnificent, with rich, enveloping bass and sparkling highs. The approach is mostly ambient, but when the elements of melody emerge on Rainfall, it hits like warm sunshine. One imagines Fennesz's editing talents are as good as his recording skills to arrive at these four perfectly calibrated tracks. Let's hope we don't have to wait another five years for the next one! Note: Fennesz is on tour and will be appearing in New York on March 14th as part of the Ambient Church series - should be quite a night.

Seabuckthorn - Crossing Here we have another master of the guitar + electronics micro-genre, except Andy Cartwright uses mainly acoustic instruments to make his music, lending an organic feel to his soundscapes. Crossing comes just a year after the excellent A House With Too Much Fire and finds him moving away from the epic towards the gently hypnotic. There’s still some drama here, especially he when uses a bow to create flanging shafts of sound. Cartwright is just one of the most singular musicians working today and I highly recommend finding him in his niche. 

Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan - New Rain Duets I had to do a Google to confirm that this is that same McCaughan who leads Superchunk and founded Merge Records - indeed, it is! He must have been developing his synth skills in private as I never would have expected him to be such a sensitive partner for Lattimore’s harp. That instrument is the star, however, and the atmospherics and treatments amplify all of its glittering qualities, so surely expressed by Lattimore’s deft hands. The result is simply lovely. 

Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima, & Satsuki Shibano - FRKWYS Vol. 15: serenitatem This series creates meetings of the minds that usually have me wondering how they could have ever been thought of, much less executed, such as the classic collab of California electronic gurus Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras with Jamaican harmony trio The Congos, which came out in 2012. This one is more of a straight line, with Visible Cloaks (Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile) displaying the influence of both Japanese ambient masters on their sublime Reassemblage in 2017. But just because it makes sense on paper doesn’t mean that serenitatem is any less surprising in how gorgeous it is.  In fact, even more so than any of their individual achievements, this album arrives at what seems to be a form of chamber music, one in which a collective memory or dream of what that could be provides the guiding force. It just sounds right, as if synthetic and acoustic instruments had always coexisted and there was no higher state of listening than to hear them together. Just fantastic and a new landmark in this remarkable series. 

Arp - Ensemble: Live! That exclamation point suggests that following up last year’s excellent Zebra (#18/25) with a live album seems to have surprised Arp mainman Alexis Georgopoulos as much as it surprised me. But those songs translate marvelously in this studio session performed by him and four other musicians. There are also new songs, giving us a snapshot of Georgopoulos’s methods almost as a work in progress. While Zebra remains an artistic peak for him, the delicious noodling here hints at new buds about to blossom on his creative vine. 

Daniel Lopatin - Uncut Gems Original Soundtrack I can’t tell you how someone who hasn’t seen this high-intensity movie would experience this soundtrack. But I can easily say that Lopatin (who usually records as Oneohtrix Point Never) made an enormous contribution to the film with these rich, pulsing, and occasionally bombastic tracks. Best thing he’s done and maybe he should borrow the emotional narrative from film more often. I doubt you’ll be able to turn it off - just as you can’t look away from Adam Sandler’s astonishing performance. 

Adam Cuthbért & John Adler - Scarlet Rising Moon Speaking of soundtracks, someone hand these two a script, STAT. Adler’s gleaming trumpet tells stories all on its own, and supported by Cuthbért's analog synths and dense beats, it’s a gripping tale indeed. Paging Blade Runner 2075 - your score awaits. Until then, I’ll make up my own interstellar epics as I listen. BTW, if you buy the nifty USB edition, you get 14 further minutes of this stuff plus a variety of intriguing extras. 

Elizabeth Joan Kelly - Farewell, Doomed Planet On her last album, Kelly was seeking escapism from the grind of long lines at the DMV. This time around, she has bigger problems on her mind. If that moment of exile comes, I can imagine watching the big blue marble disappear in the porthole while listening to her loopy melodicism and watery textures, which brought both Eno’s Apollo and David Torn’s guitar to mind. By the time we get to the chillier confines of Cosmonaut Chorus, however, our current home, with all its flaws - or more precisely, flawed inhabitants - starts to seem a little more welcoming!

Caterina Barbieri - Ecstatic Computation The title gives a hint of Barbieri's retro-futurist approach, which finds her putting Buchla modules through their paces to make melodic and immersive pieces that make the idea of synthetic music seem brand new all over again. The ecstatic part is maybe a reminder that electricity lives within us - as do mechanics - making for music that is strikingly human.

Suzi Analogue - ZONEZ V.4: Love Me Louder Speaking of ecstasy, whenever I can stop moving to her music, I sit in wonder at how she takes such simple elements - a kick, a snare, some pinging keyboards - and assembles them to create songs that are wickedly kinetic. Analogue occupies a wonderful *zone* all her own, adjacent to hip hop, r&b, and dancehall, but 100% electronic. Even such collaborators as RP Boo and Mike Millionz become mere ghosts in her machine - or fuel for the fire that will burn long after these tracks are ringing in your ears. P.S. Being that this is "The Audio/Visual Moodboard of Suzi Analogue," I would be remiss if I didn't point you in the right direction for some fun videos.

Hyperion Drive - Hyperion Drive This is a new collaboration between some old friends, Alice Tolan-Mee and Ethan Woods, who sometimes performs as Rokenri. This is a bit of a switch from the "chamber-freak-folk-tronica" I enjoyed on 2018's Mossing Around EP, being altogether sleeker, synthier, and sexier than that earlier collection. Tuneful, too, and unafraid to be just a bit weirder than the average electro-pop. Be the first on your block to own the cassette - unless you live on my block ;-).

Miro Shot - Servers This collective germinated in some of the ideas - both sonic and philosophic -  put forth by Roman Rappak when he was in Breton. Combining catchy melodies with dense electronics and lyrics that inquire about how technology, globalization, and our struggling planet serve to simultaneously bring us together and drive us apart, the four songs here are also part of a bigger plan to bring VR and AR to the concert experience. So far that has only happened in Europe, but this Breton fan doesn't need bells and whistles to be damned excited about what I've heard so far. More to come in 2020. Join the Collective - you just may find yourself contributing to their next video, as I did to this one.

Carolina Eyck - Elephant In Green/Elegies For Theremin And Voice/Waves (With Eversines) Eyck marked the centennial of the theremin with three releases giving an overview of her trajectory as she develops a repertoire of songs and sounds that combine her bell-like voice with the instrument. I had the privilege of seeing her in concert, which not only exposed me to her uniquely engaging stage presence but also gave me window into the structure of her music. While I'm not as taken with this direction as I was with her stunning collaboration with ACME (11/20, 2016), she's still doing something melodically, sonically, and emotionally that I can't find anywhere else.

Emily A. Sprague & Lightbath - full/new  While I've been familiar with the RVNG label for some time (see FRKWYS above), I only recently became aware of their space on the lower east side known as Commend. When I went there in November to see sets by Adam Cuthbért and Phong Tran I found a jewel on Forsyth Street, a small record store and performance space perfect for intimate performances like the one captured here. Sprague is also the singer-songwriter behind the charming Florist but has been traveling into ambience for a couple of years. Beautiful stuff, too, with stretched out chords supporting outgrowths that hint at the melancholy song-craft of Florist. Lightbath, the project of Bryan Noll, sparkles with the underwater hypnotism of early Eno instrumentals, which means I swoon as I listen. I think you will, too.

For more goodies in this vein, dial up my Of Note In 2019: Electronic (Archive) playlist and follow this one to see what 2020 will bring.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global

This is undoubtedly my most conflicted category. When it comes to jazz, I can be very contrary even about the most highly rated albums, noting, “that sounds a lot like jazz,” which in my world is not really a compliment - unless I’m referring to a record from the 20th century. I don’t claim to know where this quest for newness comes from and can only say that I know what I like. As for “Latin,” it’s far too a reductive term for music that originates in traditions as disparate as Mexico, Brazil, and Portugal. Also, I continually feel like I’m missing the best stuff. Feel free to share if you know of a good source for any type of Latin music. Then there’s “Global,” which is my attempt to corral music with roots from everywhere but the US, UK, and the places associated with Latin music, while avoiding the much-abused term, “World Music.” But the point isn’t so much of what things are called but how they sound and that’s what makes this group work. With that in mind, the playlist is organized not by region or style but for maximum listening pleasure - at least I think so!

Note: As always, if I’ve covered something previously just click the link to find out more.


Mark de Clive-Lowe - Heritage and Heritage II

Producer, arranger, and keyboard whiz Mark de Clive Lowe had a banner year, with no less than five albums bearing his name and/or critical involvement. Besides the Heritage albums, there were these gems. 

Mark de Clive-Lowe - Church Sessions Even more collaborative than the two albums above, this album arose out of club nights of the same name. MdCL invites rappers and vocalists to the party, but the musical personality is all his. Synth swoops, dubbed out production, flashes of drum’n’bass. Heads were made to nod to music like this. And keep an eye on Todd Simon - his trumpet solo on Esss (Love The Space) is a supercharged flight of fancy. 

Ronin Arkestra - First Meeting and Sonkei These two albums find MdCL leading the cream of Tokyo’s jazz crop, including Shinpei Ruike, Kohei Ando, and Wataru Hamasaki (horns), Hikaru Arata and Nobuaki Fuji (drums), Tsuyoshi Kosuga (guitar), Sauce81 (electronics), and  Shinju Kobayashi (bass). The result is not unlike an update on the riff-based soul jazz of the late sixties, with bold themes, energetic soloing, and deep grooves. The keyboard playing is spectacular but MdCL gives everyone a chance to shine. First Meeting was their first recording and the confidence level must have been high as they even assay a credible take on A Love Supreme. Sonkei feels a little more lighthearted, even shading into a flavor of pop-jazz at times. But it all comes across as an authentic expression of brilliantly skilled and inventive musicians.

Mark de Clive-Lowe will be making a fairly rare NYC appearance on January 12th at Drom - I'm going to try to get there. 

Sylvie Courvoisier and Alfred Vogel - Pulse Last year, Courvoisier made a record with her trio called D’Agala that put her firmly on my list of jazz people to whom attention must be paid. This year, I was rewarded with this knotty series of duets with percussionist Vogel, who seems to match Courvoisier’s every twist and turn at the keyboard with a few of his own. Besides making for an invigorating listen, Vogel’s inventive and incredibly detailed work at the kit has put him on the list as well. Courvoisier also released Time Goes Out, more duets, this time with violinist Mark Feldman. It’s an album more to admire than to love, but expecting more than one of those per year would be greedy!

Resavoir - Resavoir After London and Los Angeles, Chicago is probably the place people are looking to for evidence of a jazz renaissance. Maybe it should be first, because this wonderful album hits my sweet spot more firmly than The Comet Is Coming or Kamasi Washington, two avatars of those respective scenes. Led by composer, producer, and arranger Will Miller (also responsible for sampler, trumpets, and keys), this sparkling collective creates an organic soundscape that grabs you without seeming to try too hard. Call it ambient jazz if you want, or just wonder at how rich an atmosphere they create whether or not you’re paying close attention.

Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise This sprawling, often pissed-off epic is equally defined by the spidery cello of Lester St. Louis as it is by Branch's trumpet, which gleams as much when muted as when screaming to the sky. Chad Taylor's work on mbira and xylophone also adds enough texture to be almost tactile, with Jason Ajemian's bass keeping things from floating into the ether. "We got a bunch of wide-eyed racists!" Branch shouts as the refrain for Prayer For Amerikkka Parts 1 and 2 and, as satisfying as it it to yell along with her, you also get the idea that she's just as confused about how we got here. As always, I'll seek answers in the music, such as the busy staccato of Nuevo Roquero Estéreo, which puts me in the same mood as one of those shambling latter-day epics by Charles Mingus. I think he'd want to sit in.


Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 - Joia! Careful observers might wonder how many people of Welsh descent live in Brazil. That’s unclear, but you would be correct if you assumed Carwyn Ellis came from those foggy environs west of England. He also founded a band called Colorama and has worked with St. Etienne, Edwyn Collins, and The Pretenders. It was Chrissie Hynde, in fact, who spotted Ellis's affinity for Brazilian sounds and introduced him to Kassin, the legendary producer and multi-instrumentalist, who then connected him to some of the finest musicians in the country. The big surprise is not how nimbly they navigate cumbia, bossa nova, tropicalia, etc., but in how seamlessly Ellis’s Welsh language vocals blend with the breezy sounds. If you didn't listen too closely, you might just think it's Portuguese. Whatever the lyrics, this is just a delightful album with enough variety to serve as a party mix. Put it on at your New Year's Eve shindig and see if you agree!

Sessa - Grandeza Then again, if it's Portuguese you desire, sung in a warm tenor full of character, Sessa is your man. The settings are organic, too, a blend of samba, bossa, tropicalia, and folk, making for a lush canvas of a record. Sink in.

Ana Frango Elétrico - Little Electric Chicken Heart Elétrico (not her real name, I assume) is another poly-stylistic Brazilian adventurer, with an urban sophistication that is utterly captivating. There are some angles to this brief collection that are almost cubist - your head will be spinning in the best way - but always couched in a wistful tunefulness that makes it all sound so easy.


Elito Revé y su Charangón - UEA! Founded by Elio Revé in 1956, and led by his son Elito since 1997, this band is an icon of Cuban salsa and they are in very good form here, with an exuberance that would be almost cartoonish if the clavé rhythms weren't so tight. Translation: fun. There are a number of guests, most notably Telmary, who sounds like she's having a blast on La Guagua - you will be, too.

Telmary y Omara - Puras Palabras This single puts Telmary, a legend in the making, alongside Omara Portuondo, a true legend of Cuban music, who will be 90 years old next year. She's semi-retired now and most of the precision and power is gone from her voice, but the way she floats it out over the updated groove is brave enough to move the stoniest heart.


Mdou Moctar - Ilana (The Creator) "Desert blues" has become shorthand for guitar-driven music from West Africa, and once in a while I think the musicians themselves have taken that shorthand too much to heart. Yes, a certain hypnotic repetition is part of what makes the music feel so good, but that shouldn't be accompanied by complacency. On his latest album (and first with a live band) Moctar is the antithesis of complacency, pulling each fiery guitar line seemingly directly from his soul and often ending songs in a furious swirl of sound. His sheer shreddability and inspired use of power chords has also broadened the base of interest in Tuareg music - at least if the classic rock Facebook group I'm in is any measure. If the "double denim" crowd is getting the memo, you might want to climb on board, too.

Tinariwen - Amadjar One way this venerable Tuareg band has dealt with a tendency towards sameness in their sound is by mixing up where they record - and with whom. Their latest, most of which was recorded on the road through the Western Sahara, adds Noura Mint Seymali, a Mauritanian griotte, into the mix, along with westerners Cass McCombs and Warren Ellis. Recording in the wild, so to speak, has leant a welcome campfire warmth to the texture of the album, with the group vocals arising from the grooves with real spontaneity. Just like the nomads who were their ancestors, Tinariwen just keep moving along. We're lucky to be along for the journey.


Alogte Oho & His Sounds Of Joy - Mam Yinne Wa Arising from the same Frafra tradition as Guy One - and also working with producer/impresario Max Weissenfeldt - Oho very nearly didn't get to make this breakthrough album after his motorcycle collided with a car. Recuperation became a creative wellspring and every song here bursts with the sheer appreciation of being alive. Weissenfeldt's canny production adds rich analog synths to the soundworld, adding a touch of swirling surrealism to the horn and percussion-driven grooves. Reggae and Latin rhythms also come naturally to all involved and only add to the delight. Between this and Guy One, I would keep a close eye on the Philophon label as they don't seem to put a foot wrong.

The Polyversal Souls - Singles Case in point about Philophon are the string of singles by this multi-generational band of highlife and Frafra all-stars. Horns blare, drums stay deep in the crease, vocals chant mesmerizing lines of melody, while guitars and saxophone vie for dominance. In short, we're talking about all the things that make Ghanaian music so fantastic all in a few neat little packages. East also meets west when they team of up Ethiopia's Alemayehu Eshete on a few songs, finding common ground even with thousands of kilometers separating Accra from Addis.


BLK JKS feat. Morena Leraba - Harare After putting a toe in the water of new music with last year's tribute to Hugh Masekela, the genre-busting Johannesburg band is now threatening their first new album since 2009's After Robots. This single, with its acoustic textures, hip hop beats, and haunting melody, has anticipation running high among those in the know, which should now include you. The delay continues, however, with a new release date for Abantu/Before Humans now set for February 2020. What's another few months after a decade??


Elaha Sooror & Kefaya - Songs Of Our Mothers After winning Afghan Star, Sooror got the heck out of Dodge (or, in her case, Kabul) and landed in London, where she connected with Kefaya. This duo of Giuliano Modarelli, an Italian guitarist, and Al MacSween, an English keyboard player, has a preternatural skill with combining various traditions with contemporary production techniques in a way that seems authentic, likely due to their deep collaborations with other musicians. The backing they construct for Sooror pulls against her sweet, flowing vocals in all the right ways, adding synths to the sitars and somehow never sounding cheesy. The songs are all adaptations of Farsi folk songs so they've likely been through more dramatic changes than whatever these guys can throw at them. The result is a deeply involving album that's obviously a passion project for all involved. Let's imagine a future where they could take this music back to Afghanistan and play it for all who wanted to hear it without retribution.

For more listening in these areas, check out the Of Note In 2019: Jazz, Latin & Global (Archive) playlist and follow this one to see what 2020 will bring.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2019: The Top 25
Best Of 2019: Jazz, Latin, and Global

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Best Of 2019: The Top 25

“Where there is doubt, there can be no doubt,” Robert De Niro said in Ronin and that becomes my guiding principle around this time of the year as I confront the conundrum of what ends up on this list that wasn’t on the mid-year Top 25 - and what drops off. Much of it comes down to what I listened to the most, usually a sure sign that it belongs here. But there were a couple of things I played over and over, hoping they would connect fully, eventually admitting they were mostly excellent, even life-giving, but they had a moment or two that caused doubt. And where there is doubt there can be no doubt.

Looking back, I’m somewhat surprised to see three-fifths of the list coming out of the realms of rock, folk, pop, etc.,  but I just have to accept that that’s what I needed to get through. There's also a clue in the fact that 305 of the 812 tracks - nearly 40% - I put into my general Of Note playlist were sorted into the Rock, Folk, Etc. playlist. To anyone affronted by what dropped from that July list, I will firmly say, It’s not them, it’s me. And don’t forget, there are many "Best Of" lists yet to come as I try to pay homage to another great year for music. 

Listen to selections from each album here or below. As usual, if I’ve previously written about a record, click the link to learn more about why it’s here. 

9. Angel Olsen - All Mirrors Funny how you can still be surprised by how much an artist can surprise you, even when they have traveled as far from their roots as Olsen did between Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014, #15/20) and My Woman (2016, #17/20). But that was the case when I first heard the audacity of All Mirrors, still a jaw-dropping experience these many listens later. Connecting with two composer/arrangers, Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt, who both straddle the worlds of classical, rock, and soundtracks, was a genius move as they contribute wildly creative string arrangements that dominate a number of songs. Babbitt co-wrote all the music with Olsen, which is the first time she has collaborated to that extent, and played a good number of instruments on the album. Producer John Congleton does a fantastic job of blending all the organic and synthetic sounds. 

Olsen doubles down on her retro-futurist torch singer persona, coming on like Julee Cruise’s cyborg progeny, hyper-emotional, and with a superhuman power. She has found new dimensions to her voice as well, wielding each tone, texture, and timbre with astonishing control. Like all of her albums, All Mirrors  touches on elemental subjects of love, friendship, and self-actualization, making for a richly immersive song-cycle that seems to only expand as it grows more familiar. A triumph for Angel Olsen and a wonderful addition to what is already one of the most rewarding discographies of the decade. 

11. Starcrawler - Devour You That part of the thrill provided by the short, sharp, shriek of their debut was untapped potential is firmly proven by Devour You, which succeeds even beyond my wildest expectations. The LA quartet were no doubt helped by producer Nick Launay (Bad Seeds, Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, etc.), far more skilled in the studio than Ryan Adams. Time on the road has lent both solidity and swing to the rhythm section of Austin Smith (drums) and Tim Franco (bass) - listen to them groove on “You Dig Yours” - while wunderkind guitarist Henri Cash now has the most exciting riffing hand in the business. But he also has developed the musicality to create layered parts full of fine detail and raw power. Then there is Arrow de Wilde, who shows herself equally at home fearlessly snarling out sarcasm as she is sending a soaring ballad(!) like “Born Asleep” into the stratosphere. The variety in the songwriting shows not only ambition but a deep engagement with the history of rock. Unlike an earlier generation of punked out rockers, they don’t want to burn it all down - but they do want to light a little fire under a genre where introspection may be easier to find than instigation and inspiration. But don’t get it twisted. While Starcrawler may be showing signs of maturity and nuance in concert they’re still the same filth-peddling, blood-spewing circus they’ve always been. On Devour You, the combination of those primal urges with a bit more sophistication is nothing short of intoxicating. 

24. Kanye West - Jesus Is King Back In 2004, I put one foot in front of the other to Jesus Walks. The fact that I got to work ready to do my job every day I owe at least in part to the strength I got from West's classic track and the album it came from. Then, in 2010, after a string of good albums (interrupted by 808's and Heartbreaks), he gave us My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in the running for album of the century. It pulled me through a long winter and, while I can't remember what was stressing me at the time, I know MBDTF helped the situation. The point is, when you connect with the work of an artist on these levels, you give them the benefit of the doubt. Yeezus was another stunner, angry shards of glass aimed at every target in sight, including himself. The Life Of Pablo, scattered as it was, gave us hints of strength among the sorrows and lousy laugh lines. Then came Ye, undoubtedly the worst project West ever put his name to, only partially redeemed by Kids See Ghosts, his collaboration with Kid Cudi from the same year. Despite all the self-instigated click-bait madness that accompanies West everywhere, I still go back to those old records and get what I need. Now we have converted Kanye, not an automatic deal-breaker even if there are references to “prosperity gospel” that rub this atheist/socialist the wrong way. After all, I have included gospel music in my listening since I was hooked by a Mahalia Jackson LP I pulled out of the stacks at my local library almost 40 years ago. 

I don’t feel I have to defend what I like to anyone, so I’ll just say that I get some of the old West fire on Jesus Is King combined with the inspiring energy of the African American gospel tradition. While this is not a straight-up masterpiece like Dylan's Slow Train Coming, the listening experience - for a West fan, anyway - is not dissimilar. Part of the energy comes from what seems to be a disordered mind, like the way the first song, Every Hour, starts just a tad in progress, as if someone un-paused the tape recorder after the song began. There are other weirdnesses (“Chick-Fil-A”??) and hints of the under-cooked quality that has become an unfortunate signature of West’s work since Pablo. On the other hand, Jesus Is King contains some of West’s finest vocal work ever, whether rapping tight to the groove of Follow God or emoting soulfully on God Is. As for guests, the most impressive is the team-up of a reunited Clipse with Kenny G. on Use This Gospel, the kind of left-field combo that is the glory of the best hip hop since the Bronx schoolyard days. I am drinking deep from this cup, taking the bitter with the sweet, and wondering where the journey goes next. 

If I’ve introduced you to something you didn’t know you needed, let me know! Don’t see your favorite here? Tell me all about that, too. It just may be on an upcoming genre-specific list. Stay tuned for the whole series, encompassing:
But not necessarily in that order, which will only add to the fun. This is supposed to be fun, right?!?

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Record Roundup: Contemporary Kaleidoscope

Before the Best Of lists begin, here's one more “regular” post, a quick run through just a few spectacularly colorful recent releases in the contemporary classical arena. Push "play" on this playlist to listen along in real time.

Zosha Di Castri - Tachitipo Color. Texture. Emotion. Craft. All those virtues are fully on display on this stunning portrait debut from Di Castri, a Canadian composer with whom I was completely unfamiliar. If you’re in the same boat, paddle over and climb aboard a luxury liner packed with talent. In the engine room are Di Castri’s compositions, which demonstrate an astonishing facility with a variety of forces, from vocal group to string quartet, and from solo piano to chamber ensemble. Then, you have the staterooms, appointed with such luminaries as Ekmeles, Talea Ensemble, JACK Quartet, Julia Den Boer, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and Yarn/Wire, each one performing at the top of their game. That’s no mean feat when you consider something like the opening track, The Animal After Whom All Other Animals Are Named (2013), which has Ekmeles dishing out all manner of vocal effects while engaging in a fractured duet with glitched-out electronics. It’s a gauntlet thrown and one ably picked up by Cortège, which has Lorraine Vaillancourt through a dark funhouse of tension, release, and smart orchestration. 

String Quartet No. 1 (2016) is like raw steak tossed into the JACK’s cage: they attack the score with gusto and make quite a meal for all of us. While deeply connected to the tradition, Di Castri also approaches it with a disarming freshness. May it be played often by string quartets everywhere. Dux (2017) also gives Den Boer a lot to chew on, whether it’s the keyboard spanning runs or techniques seemingly derived from Cage and Nancarrow. Unlike those two masters, however, Di Castri seems to be leading with her heart more than her head. La Forma Dello Spazio (2010), performed by ICE, is next, all flashing swords and lances, like knights on skittish horses. The percussion part adds atmosphere and the inventiveness continues to the very last note.

Yarn/Wire, a quartet of two pianos and two percussionists, now have, in the title track (2016) a new piece that should long find a place in their repertoire. Named after a brand of typewriter, it’s a showpiece for both players and composer, full of wit, charm, and moments of limpid beauty. And if all of this variety has you wondering if there's is anything she can't do, witness Diego Espinosa Cruz Gonzalez performing How Many Bodies Have We To Pass through, a deep exploration of percussive possibilities. The name Zosha Di Castri is memorable all on its own, but this knockout album guarantees it will be on the lips of anyone who loves new music. Shell out for the CD - it comes in a letterpress package by Kiva Stimac that is the ideal visual and tactile companion to the sounds within. Dare I say it's the perfect stocking stuffer?

Mario Diaz de Leon - Cycle And Reveal Both Talea Ensemble and ICE appear on this latest collection of works by Diaz de Leon, each the result of long collaborations between artist and performer going back at least a decade. The four works here find Diaz de Leon using space and silence in new ways without losing the sense of wonder and ceremony that I have come to expect from him. Sacrament (2017) opens the album with the beautifully rounded sounds of the marimba (played by Alex Lipowski) combined with flute and eventually clarinet and electronics, moments of dense sound synthesis alternating with fragmented sections, the instruments seeming to chase each other around the room.

Labrys (2017), composed for and performed by ICE bassoonist Rebekah Heller, also has a fragmented feel, with plenty of air around the expectorations of the reed instrument and the bright synth tones. Part of the fun is putting it all together in your head an effort which comes to a crashing halt when the commanding tones of Mariel Roberts's cello digs into the opening notes of Irradiance (2016), a cavernously involving piece. Diaz de Leon as master of darkness and electronics (and deeply informed by pop and metal) comes to the fore here, releasing startling images in my mind such as a black rose crushed into diamonds, glinting with all the colors of the universe against a velvety night sky. It must be heard to be believed! The ICE trio of Heller, Claire Chase (flute), and Joshua Rubin (clarinet) finish the album with Mysterium (2016), which lives up to its name with the narrative tension of a great Lalo Schifrin score. If you haven't been tracking Diaz de Leon's career thus far, Cycle And Reveal is a ideal point of entry.

Tak Ensemble - Oor This no-holds-barred group debuted in 2016 with Ecstatic Music, devoted to the compositions of Taylor Brook and one of the best classical releases of that year. They dedicated their second recording to Diaz de Leon for another remarkable excursion into his sound world. If those weren't proof enough that they were ready for anything, Oor will convince you that nothing is too wild or wooly for Tak. Naturally, Tyshawn Sorey is an ideal co-conspirator and Laura Cocks (flute) and Carlos Cordiero (clarinet) easily meet the demands of his aggressive and witty Ornations (commissioned by Tak in 2014), which I had the privilege to see Claire Chase and Josh Rubin perform at the Miller Theatre earlier this year. That's not even as much fun as album closer, The Colors Don't Match by Natacha Diels, who puts vocalist Charlotte Mundy (who also sings with Ekmeles) through her paces as she she recites the names of notes ("D flat...E...E flat") in a variety of attitudes while the rest of the band tries to keep pace. Def puts Diels on my radar. 

David Bird's works shone on AndPlay's wonderful Playlist so it's great to hear his talents applied to the wider palette of Tak, who take his ball and run with it a long distance. Ashkan Behzadi, who also had a piece on Playlist, takes full advantage of Mundy's adventurous spirit in Az Hoosh Mi..., almost casting Marina Kifferstein's violin as another vocalist in an investigation of a modern piece of poetic Persian erotica. The album also includes Erin Gee's Mouthpiece, which gives Mundy even more space to play, and Anne Cleare's Unable To Create An Offscreen World, a colorfully harsh fantasia with some splashy moments for percussionist Ellery Trafford and guest cellist Meaghan Burke. Equally as exciting as Oor itself is the fact that it was released on their own Tak Editions label - perhaps a hint that their is much more to come from this extraordinary bunch of players.

Jessica Meyer - Ring Out In which supremely talented violist Meyer reveals herself as a delightfully varied, and emotionally connected, composer. Not surprisingly for someone who only began composing five years ago, many of the most assured works are for strings, whether the headlong rush of cello (played by Andrew Yee of Attaca Quartet) in Released (2014), or the skillful intertwining of violin and cello, played by Miranda Cuckson and Caleb van der Swaagh respectively, in the Rumi-inspired three-part suite, I Only Speak Of The Sun (2018). But Meyer also branches out beautifully in a song cycle, Seasons of Basho, written for viola, countertenor (Nicholas Tamagna), and piano (Adam Marks), and Ring Out, Wild Bells (2017), composed for the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, and taking full advantage of the unique resonance of the TANK in Colorado. Bringing together the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson,and field recordings of Parisian church bells, it spins off many possibilities for Meyer's future as a composer. If you listen to Ring Out you'll likely be waiting with bated breath for more.

Ted Hearne - Hazy Heart Pump Composer/performers don't come much more polyglot than Hearne, who is equally at home deconstructing Madonna songs or composing a choral dissection of the Citizens United ruling. But I think his personality (personalities?) as an artist have never been as searingly committed to a single album as they are here. You can almost visualize the funnel going into his brain, with Charles Mingus pushing past poetry (Saul Williams and Dorothy Lasky) and jockeying for space with David Lang and, say, Bela Bartok, where it's transmuted into his own particular art. The wonder of this album is in the full package, too, thanks to the liner notes from Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, which not only describe their friendship but also superbly explicate the background to each piece. Lanzilotti is present as a performer as well, adding her viola to Hearne's piano and the violin of Miki-Sophia Cloud for Vessels (2008), which employs alternate tunings and muted strings to arrive at a chopped and screwed vision of Neue Weiner Schule serialism. At least that's what happens in my head - your results may vary.

The album kicks off with For The Love Of Charles Mingus (2016), which finds Cloud layering six violin parts for an oblique response to the universe of the great jazz bassist. Williams joins forces with the Mivos Quartet for The Answer To The Question That Wings Ask (2016), a series of questions ("What time is it? Who set the clock? Who coded/decoded time? Are there different ways of keeping it?) with the Mivos either following or competing with the poet's intense recitation. The four jagged and funky parts of Furtive Movements (2015) will have you questioning why more works aren't written for cello and percussion - then again, not everyone has Ashley Bathgate and Ron Wiltrout at their disposal to make those dreams a reality. Nobody's (2009) is wisely at the center of the album, a short bit of shattered Appalachia for solo viola (Diana Wade - and her stomping feet) that leads perfectly into Vessels. The album closes with the Argus Quartet's reading of Exposure (String Quartet No. 1) (2017) and you would be correct in thinking that the subtitle indicates a confrontation with the storied tradition of string quartets. Hearne's pen is more than up to it, too, resulting in a piece that should be played far and wide in halls big and small. Trust me, Hearne's latest will have your heart pumping in ways that are not at all hazy.

Daniel Lippel - Mirrored Spaces Even if Lippel never released another album under his own name, we would all owe him a debt for his wise and generous steering of the ship that is New Focus Recordings, which issues a seemingly endless stream of great albums each year. And that's not to mention his superb work within many ensembles, ICE and counter)induction among them. But here he has followed up last year's remarkable ...through which the past shines with yet another gift, a vast collection across the possibilities of guitar music as sprawling and adventurous as the White Album, featuring pieces by Orianna Webb, John Link, Kyle Bartlett, Douglas Boyce, Ryan Streber, Ethan Wickman, Christopher Bailey, Dalia R. With, Sergio Kafejian, Karin Wetzel, Sidney Corbett, and Lippel himself. From solo acoustic gems like Wickman's Joie Divisions to electro-acoustic works like the alternately sparkling and serrated Like Minds by Link, Lippel wants us to hear it all, feel it all, and marvel at it all. 

The project has its roots in a 2008 performance, represented here by a live recording of Lippel's own Scaffold for electric guitar, full of moody string-bending, feedback and distortion, which will echo in your head long after the album ends. I'll leave it to the sociologists to look into why, after a peripatetic series of collaborations, premieres and recording sessions, Mirrored Spaces comes to us in the same season as All Mirrors by Angel Olsen or mirrored heart by FKA Twigs, but I will say it is as vital a reflection of our times as either of those fertile and exploratory journeys into the heart of pop expressionism. I will be listening to, and taking nourishment from, Mirrored Spaces for quite some time. I suggest you start now.

Dither - Potential Differences If it's more guitar goodness you seek, don't, er, dither about grabbing on to this third album from a most versatile electric guitar quartet made up of Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore, and Gyan Riley. Whether exploring various techniques and tones in Jascha Narveson's marvelous four-movement suite, Ones (2011) or going full atmo-prog in Mi-Go (2012) by Lopes, these guys can do it all. Each of them contributes a piece, in fact, with Riley's hypnotic The Tar of Gyu (2013) and Levine's post-punk freakout, Renegade (2013), being especially memorable. We also get more Ted Hearne in Candy (2010), which is filled with patterns and textures you can imagine David Torn contributing to a Bowie album. Maybe we can get someone to commission a guitar quintet and have Lippel sit in with Dither...a person can dream. Until then, I'll just continue enjoying the ride. 

There's something for all tastes and occasions above - let me know which ones move you the most.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: String Theories
Concert Review: JACK In The Crypt
Record Roundup: Past Is Present
Record Roundup: Composed, Commemorated, and Beyond
Glints In The Darkness: Mario Diaz de Leon

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Record Roundup: American Harvest

It’s at this time of the year, when the dark falls early and the sweet aroma of dead leaves is joined by the smoky hint of fireplaces being put to first use, that you may seek the sounds of that elusive genre known as Americana and other folk and country infused music. As I did in last year’s Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana, here’s a quick roundup of albums and EP’s that fit the bill - all of them, except for one spectacular reissue, recent releases. Like the earlier post, a playlist is included for your listening pleasure. This time I’ve put it at the top so you can press “play” and then read along.

Hiss Golden Messenger - Terms Of Surrender For someone who crafts emotionally resonant lyrics sometimes informed by great literature, it should never be forgotten that M.C. Taylor’s best work is often accompanied by a wicked backbeat. It’s that groove that drew me into Lateness Of Dancers, the masterpiece that was my gateway drug into his wonderful oeuvre - it was also my number one album of 2014. Drummer Matt McCaughan is an essential part of that hypnotic rhythm and he is in such fantastic form on Terms Of Surrender that it might have been my favorite Hiss album since Lateness even if the songs weren’t so terrific. But they are: richly melodic ruminations on family, work, and the endless conflicting demands between the two. Granted, these are the rows Taylor has been hoeing for some time, but the heat has brought that familiar pot to a rolling boil. Even if you didn’t know Taylor was writing himself out of a dark year, you would feel his burning need to get to the light. The production overall is also fantastic, burnished to a 70’s FM radio sheen yet not sanding down some of those eccentricities that made the early Hiss albums so striking, mixing dub and Appalachian folk into a distinctive blend on tracks like Cat’s Eye Blue and Whip. Guitar/keys/harmonica polymath Phil Cook and his brother, bassist Brad Cook, are no doubt worthy of our gratitude for much of what sounds so wonderful. Finally, it must be said that Taylor’s voice has never sounded better, one benefit of all those nights on the road, singing for his family and wishing he were with them. Concert dates are here.

Tyler Ramsey - For The Morning It’s been eight years since the last album by this fine singer-songwriter so if his name is familiar it’s likely you noticed it in the credits on an album by Band Of Horses, with whom he was active until 2017. Those years were probably good for his craft, not only to hone it but to focus him on what was important just to him, rather than the compromises of being in a band. The sound he has settled on is rich with layered guitars and loaded with atmosphere, surrounding his high, clear tenor and supporting songs that take hard-won personal truths and transmute them into the universal. For The Morning is an involving listen and a great return to solo work for this indie stalwart.

Elana Low - Loam These three haunting songs are a wonderful calling card for Low’s monolithic brand of dark folk, which finds her honeyed contralto accompanied by the mesmerizing drone of her harmonium. The self-penned tunes seem to come from the earth itself, with melodies the ancients would recognize and claw back as their own. Low is channeling something very special, creating a mood which is nicely reflected in the handmade packaging for the CD. So order one up and see if you don’t put it on repeat while idly checking her website and counting the days until you can see her in concert and take a deeper drink from her river of song.

Andy Jenkins - The Garden Opens A great song tells a story through its melody and chord changes as much as its lyrics. On these four sweet numbers, from the finger-picked wonders of Starfish Fever to the wry self-deprecation of Don’t Dance, Jenkins once again proves his mastery of the form. After having his debut album, Sweet Bunch, on repeat for much of 2018, what a delight it is to have more from Jenkins!

Ryley Walker and Charles Rumback - Little Common Twist Walker is a supremely talented acoustic guitarist, one of the best around, and a reliably witty Twitter presence. However, our interests have diverged, especially on the lyrical front, since the gloriously sun-dappled jazz-folk of Primrose Green in 2015. But I’ve always kept a close eye, seeking that album’s warmth and depth. Somehow I missed Walker’s first collaboration with avant-jazz drummer Rumback (Cannots from 2016) but I am fully on board for this one. Little Common Twist finds the duo in symbiotic pursuit of texture, melody, and emotion, each making ideal use of their instruments. But there is no sense of display, just the creation of an immersive little universe in sound, and one to which I look forward to returning often.

John Calvin Abney - Safe Passage It may seem a damning with faint praise to focus first on the frame rather than the picture, but Abney devises such perfect settings for each of his songs that I am compelled to mention the production on this album right up front. The first song, I Just Want To Feel Good, has the sense of an overture, just two finger-picked guitars and the chorus plainly stated like a mantra. Kind Days follows and the details keep adding to the atmosphere, whether the yearning pedal steel or the shimmering vibraphone. Both of those are played by Abney as well, proving he can take care of himself when it comes to executing his ideas. He does get help from others, however, including Shonna Tucker on bass, Will Johnson on drums, Megan Palmer on violin and organ, and John Moreland on guitars. Abney has always been a good singer but here he seems even more comfortable with his warm burr, using it to transit a wide array of emotions, including the sly digs of Honest Liar, just one standout track. Words like “reliable” and “craftsmanship” come to mind when I think of Abney - but don’t take them the wrong way. It just means that he puts in the work so you can have something to depend on in this wayward world - and that’s not something I take for granted.

Courtney Hartman - Ready Reckoner Between you, me, and the lamppost, one reason I like being friends with musicians is because they often clue me into great sounds. That’s how I found Hartman - I was instantly sold when Richard Aufrichtig shared a snippet in an Instagram story. While this is her debut solo album, it comes after wending her way through the both the world of modern bluegrass with the band Della Mae and the back roads of Spain. In fact she wrote some of these songs while hiking the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, the “road of Saint James” that has taken pilgrims to Santiago de Campostela in Galicia for centuries. But the sound she lays down here, much of it driven by her adventurous acoustic guitar, full of woodsy and percussive sounds, feels purely American. It’s only natural that one of her collaborators is Bill Laswell, that master of shimmer and smoke in jazz-infused guitar tones. Their duet on Neglect is deeply moving - and it’s an instrumental. Co-producer Shahzad Ismaily also serves Hartman well, conjuring a warm and spacious surrounding that allows her music to breathe. Her versatile voice ranges from a flighty head sound to a rich mezzo, employed especially effectively on Koyaanisqatsi - bet you weren’t expecting that song title! Just another surprise on this exquisitely crafted and deeply personal album.

Jonathan Wilson - ‘69 Corvette Speaking of “personal,” the title track of Wilson’s new EP takes us on a journey back to where he came from - North Carolina - in a tapestry of music that seems to coalesce under a porch light with a foggy forest as a backdrop. Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian fiddle speaks as profoundly as the lyrics. Whether this is a dalliance away from Wilson’s typically more progressive work, the EP’s two other countrified tracks, make the idea of more of this quite appealing indeed.

Molly Sarlé - Karaoke Angel Sarlé is one third of Mountain Man, the Appalachian-influenced vocal group that also includes Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Meath. While still full of folky chord changes and turnarounds, Sarlé’s own songs mine more of a 70’s pop-rock ethos, aided by a highly detailed production by Sam Evian. But the songs, which convey the thrills and pitfalls of freedom and self-discovery with poetic universality, could stand on their own easily. I’ve always found Mountain Man, though technically impressive, somewhat impenetrable and cloying but Sarlé on her own is a treasure. If you find your way to this album, you will likely hold it close.

Daughter Of Swords - Dawnbreaker This is the name Alexandra Sauser-Monnig chose to symbolize newfound freedom as a songwriter and solo performer away from Mountain Man. Maybe there's a deep message that both she and Sarlé have songs called Human on their debut albums, but I'd prefer to let each occupy its own little plot of land. Dawnbreaker, in any case, is far more of a mood piece than Karaoke Angel, with its ten tracks blending almost seamlessly into a single statement. There's nothing monotonous about it, however, as strong melodies and varied textures abound and each song is a tidy shadowbox of memory and hope.

Tate McLane - Jackpine Savage I found this album when I was looking for something entirely different but I was tempted to give it a try and found myself listening to the whole thing. McLane powers his raspy voice over chugging-train guitars or sweet picking with the gusto of a busker still trying to raise enough to get a cup of coffee and get out of the cold. Personality and passion combine to put over these tunes, which might sound overly familiar in other hands.

Rebecca Turner - The New Wrong Way Full disclosure: I know Turner and my saying nice things about her new album is in no way related to any kind of guilt over my topping her in Words With Friends at a rate of two games to one. It is what it is. But while I can hit a 100-pointer on the triple word score, I certainly can't write a song like Turner - not many can. She manages to find deeply personal little details and turn them into songs so relatable you'll think these things happened to you, like this from Water Shoes: "I borrowed your shoes, and my happiness hovered on the surface of the water." While her voice has its quirks, listening to her delicately swinging take on the old standard, Tenderly, clues you into her solid craft as a singer. Produced by Turner with Scott Anthony, with some of the recording taking place at Memphis's legendary Ardent studios, the sound is warm and inviting, like a house concert to which you'd feel lucky get invited. Give this a listen - you might just feel like you've found a new friend.

Wilco - Ode To Joy There are parts of this album that seem enervated, sere, and barely able to get out of bed, with Jeff Tweedy's voice barely above a whisper and all the instruments taking a back seat to Glenn Kotche's trudging, implacable drums. Depending on my mood, those moments either have me thinking, "C'mon, dudes, get moving! We have things to do! What's wrong with you?" or "Seriously, guys, I get you. And you get me. Thank you for understanding!" We are living in an era of high anxiety and Tweedy is nothing if not a divining rod of the cultural moment. So, sure, this may not be the Wilco album you wanted (which could have been a punchy kick in the pants like Star Wars or an album full of Mondays), but it just might be the Wilco album you need. Either way, listen carefully and you will hear all kinds of comforting Wilco-isms, from the melodies of Everybody Hides and Love Is Everywhere (Beware) to the angular freakout at the end of We Were Lucky or Hold Me Anyway's triple guitars. And if you remain disappointed in Ode To Joy, it's likely the next album will be completely different and hit you where you live the way this one does for me.

Gene Clark - No Other (Deluxe Edition) Gram Parsons was famous for calling his signature blend of country, folk, and soul "cosmic American music." On No Other, Clark, a founding member of The Byrds, almost went Parsons one better by adding funk into the mix. I say "almost" because the funkiest takes of the album's eight songs, cooked up with collaborator Thomas Jefferson Kaye (himself worthy of further investigation), were never released - until now. Disc two of this deluxe reissue comprises a fully alternate version of the album that is arguably superior to what originally came out in 1974 - and if you know how good THAT album is, you will be running to your computer or local record store to get your hands on this. Granted, the clavinet and conga jams Kaye and Clark consigned to the vault were probably too ahead of their time and outside of what people expected to have had any success back then. Then again, considering the fact that Asylum records buried the album because label head David Geffen was pissed that his $100K budget yielded so few songs, part of me thinks, "What if they had gone for broke?" In any case, now we have this embarrassment of riches, which fits in with the other artists on this list with astonishing ease. If No Other hasn't already been in your rotation as a classic album of the 70's, get to it now - it may just help define your current decade in music.

You may also enjoy:
Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana
Autumn Albums, Part 1
Autumn Albums, Part 2
Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood
New Americana, Part 1: Phil Cook
New Americana, Part 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon