Monday, April 01, 2019

2019 First Quarter Report: The Albums

Although my posts up until now have been mired - delightfully so - in the glories of 2018, I have been keeping up. The following is quick rundown of some of the things that have compelled repeated listening. Before reading, however, I urge you to follow the playlists below, which will allow you to keep up throughout the year. Apologies to users of Apple Music, a service I hear more good things about these days than in the past. If there is a clamor to repeat these playlists there, I will certainly consider re-subscribing.

So what have I been listening to? Read on to find out!


Bearthoven - Scott Wollschleger: American Dream When Soft Aberration, the first portrait album of music by Wollschleger came out in 2017, I called it one of the best classical albums of the year, noting his exceptional command of structure and orchestration and hearing a composer “planting his flag at a thrilling elevation.” Well, Wollschleger has climbed yet higher on American Dream, establishing an even more distinctive musical voice, which is evident from the first notes of Gas Station Canon Song, the solo piano piece that opens the album. Played with exquisite attention to dynamics by Karl Larson, it’s a brief assay into the mysterious that feels particularly American, like a soundtrack to the classic Michael Lesy book Wisconsin Death Trip.

It slides effortlessly into the main event, the 35-minute title work, which finds Larson and his Bearthoven colleagues Pat Swoboda (bass), and Matt Evans (percussion) executing Wollschleger’s uneasy, synthetic vision with the fierce concentration of a great rock band. I say “synthetic” due to the way he combines the instruments to produce intriguing new sonorities. It’s all so effective not only due to Wollschleger’s sonic and melodic invention, but because of his single minded focus on creating an emotional landscape. As a view of the American Dream, or what remains of it, it is unsparing, a direct reflection of our times. We See Things That Are Not There closes the album on a more hopeful, placid note, Wollschleger using repeating cells like a more chill Julius Eastman. The sense of disquiet lingers, though, as it will even when this brilliant album comes to an end.

Melia Watras - Schumann Resonances Besides having a burnished tone and monster technique, violist Watras has a gift for contextualizing the music of the past. In this case she turns her attention to Schumann’s Opus 113, the Märchenbilder sonata, surrounding a wonderful performance of it with five world premieres, including three of her own compositions. The first is the title track, which literally resonates with Schumann’s harmonic material and introduces some imaginative sounds from within the piano, played here and throughout with a sparkling touch by Winston Choi. The next premiere is Porch Music by Cuong Vu, a well known trumpeter deeply steeped in a vein of Americana after a long tenure with Pat Metheny. It’s a reflective, inward-facing piece with some of Harry Partch’s whimsy spicing it up - and Vu’s horn adding sonic variety.

Watras’ other compositions, the five-movement Source for viola, violin (Michael Jinsoo Lim) and percussion (Matthew Kocmieroski) and Berceuse With A Singer In London for viola and voice (Galia Arad) put her increasing confidence as a writer on full display. While very personal works, I have hopes for a life for them in the concert hall beyond her own recordings and performances. Tertium Quid, a 2015 work in three movements by Richard Karpen played by Watras, Lim and Choi, deconstructs the Märchenbilder even more radically than Watras’ opening piece. By breaking down and reassembling Schumann’s range of pitches, he arrives at a dark and dramatic place, a very 21st Century take on the idea of a fairy tale. Poor asylum-bound Schumann might have found some acknowledgement in its intensity. That’s mere speculation, but there’s no question that with Schumann Resonances, Watras continues to prove herself a curator, performer and composer of unique abilities.

Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir - Vernacular If you think the name is Icelandic, you are correct, but you might not guess that this supremely skilled cellist has spend most of her life elsewhere, including NYC, where she has been enmeshed in the new music scene for quite some time. This is her first solo album and she has curated five pieces by composers who share Icelandic roots but have also had cosmopolitan careers, whether in Estonia, the UK, Italy or NYC. Even so, this album fits right in with recent releases by Nordic Affect and Daniel Bjarnason in its approach, with a combination of sounds that range from exploratory to organic. And it's all created by Thorsteindóttir's cello, save some field recordings on Purídur Jónsdóttir's 48 Images of the Moon. There's a meditative quality to Vernacular overall, and I imagine the experience of close listening it encourages - to the bow swiping the strings in Halldór Smárason's O, for example - will change the way I hear the cello, especially in concert. The recording, produced by Dan Merceruio for Sono Luminus, could not be better, giving a presence even to the air in Thorsteinsdóttir's cello. Just one of many dimensions to this remarkable debut.

Unheard-of Ensemble - Dialogues This group based its core of clarinet (Ford Fourqurean), violin (Mateus Souza), cello (So Sugiyama) and piano (Daniel Anastasio) on Messiaen’s Quartet For The End Of Time. Besides being an extremely versatile combination of instruments, it’s also a wonderful way to honor the legacy of that work, which was, after all, created in a concentration camp. They also are dedicated to performing new music by living composers, which I’m sure the master would have appreciated as well. So, all but one of the works are new commissions and present an excellent overview of their taste and virtuosity. My favorite piece is probably the witty Family Picnic 2008 by saxophonist Erin Rogers, which was "Inspired by the generosity of large banks" and features the sardonic use of what sounds like voiceovers from advertising and news. But Christopher Stark, Reiko Füting, Michael Lanci, Nathan Hudson, and Nickitas Demos all contribute original and involving pieces to the album, with everything from climate change to Renaissance music to a short story (also included here) providing inspiration. Dialogues, which also contains the first recording of Tonia Ko’s scintillating Hum Phenomenon (2008), is a fantastic debut by a group that has been doing more than their part to inject vitality into the new music scene for the last few years. The only question it raises is "what took so long?"

Nicholas Phillips - Shift So much can go wrong when an artist takes what could be seen as a polemical approach to assembling an album. Fortunately, that's not the case here. As Phillips, an enormously talented pianist, points out in his liner notes, this album's title refers to the "exciting - and long overdue - shift in recent years with regard to more diverse and inclusive concert programming." By assembling eight world premiere recordings of recent pieces by women, Phillips is doing his part to contribute to that shift, even if he risks what could be seen as a sort of "eat your broccoli" approach to musical health. But this album is too good to be seen as just good for you. First there is the recording, which is close and warm, without overdoing either quality. Then, there's Phillips' playing, with its virtuosic command of even the densest writing and a remarkable dynamic control. Finally, there are the pieces themselves, ranging from the lovely Ballade by Sarah Kirkland Snider (2000) to the mysterious Aghavni (2009), a major work by Mary Kouyoumdjian, which draws on the experience of the Armenian genocide. Having these pieces, and the others Phillips has so carefully selected, anthologized in such perfect performances makes Shift not only a public service but a wonderful listening experience.

Louis Karchin - Dark Mountains/Distant Lights Considering the "shift" described by Phillips, does the world actually need another collection of modernist chamber works by a white male composer in his 60's who has spent most of his career in academia? The only answer I will give to that is to say that as much as I demand more diverse voices in programming, isn't reducing people to their demographic part of the problem? Either way, this music is exquisite and deserves to be heard. Dark Mountains presents premiere recordings of seven chamber works written by Karchin between 2004 and 2017, in stunning sound and in brilliant performances by Jacqueline Leclair (oboe), Miranda Cuckson (violin) and Steven Beck (piano). Reading his liner notes is also worth the price of admission as he eloquently describes the two ends of his process, from being inspired by poetry or other artworks to collaborating closely with musicians to realize the sounds he's hearing in his head. And now that he's put these alternately tart and rhapsodic pieces out into the world, they are available to inspire others.

Greg Chudzik - Solo Works, Vol. 2 Many is the time I have watched Chudzik and his double-bass on stage with the Talea Ensemble, each time becoming more impressed by his rock-solid musicianship and his deep engagement with the works being played. But that is only a tiny slice of his interests and his accomplishments, as demonstrated by this second volume of solo work, four pieces for bass, sometimes with electronics, that show a great deal of imagination and invention. And not just in the way he structures his compositions but also in the broad perspective he has toward the sonic possibilities of his instrument. I hope other composers hear this and grow the repertoire further.


Elsa Hewitt - Citrus Paradisi Hewitt’s career has so far been marked by charm and delight, whether in her winsome melodies and tactile electronic textures or in the handmade packaging for her cassettes. Her latest does nothing to change that, but I am happy to report a growing sense of extroversion, with her voice occasionally higher in the mix and even some pronounced beats on a few tracks. With each release, Hewitt's unique, self-made universe expands a little, which only means there is more room for you in one of my favorite sonic spaces. Join me.

Hip Hop & R&B

Solange - When I Get Home If I was seeking Sly Stone analogs for the two most recent Solange albums, 2016’s A Seat At The Table would be Stand! and this would be There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Where the former was quite explicit in its agenda, sharing trenchant lessons passed on from one generation to another, this one luxuriates in moods and grooves, with Solange reveling in her creamy soprano. Also like the Sly classic, this one features intricate drum programming and a seamless texture that will have you playing it on repeat. And while I love everything about Riot, I'm not sorry When I Get Home is lacking the sense of dissolution and isolation that emanated from the studio as Sly burrowed deeper and deeper into his psyche. But this is very much an auteurist move, with Solange writing or co-writing and producing every track but one. She may not sell as many records as that other Knowles but I know which one moves me.

C-Bo - Animal It’s not so much that this rapper has learned many new tricks over his 25 year career, it’s that he’s so goddamned good at the old ones. He chews up the mic like the bone of a $65 T-bone steak, wringing every tasty morsel out of his grimy imagination. The beats vary from super-funky to lush to purely functional, but C-Bo never slips. Gangsta rap this filthy may be a niche market these days, but that’s never going to stop me from enjoying a great record.

Rock & Folk

Michael Chapman - True North The metaphors about the qualities imparted by age - when applied to fine whiskey, for example - seem to write themselves when listening to Chapman’s latest classic. Sure, his voice is bone dry, but that’s just part of the flavor profile for this rich dram of song, distilled down over more than 50 years as a recording artist. Wisdom and wit are both in abundant supply whether the songs are new or old. The musical setting is rich as well, with sensitive accompaniment by the likes of Steve Gunn (guitars), Bridget St. John (vocals), Sarah Smout (cello) and the great BJ Cole (pedal steel). With True North and his prior album 50, Chapman is firmly in one of the finest late-career renaissances in recent memory.

Jane Church - Calimocho Molotov! I wish the archivists of the future the best of luck with this band. First, there’s the name, which refers neither to a member of the group or a house of worship, but rather an early demo by Sparks before they were called Sparks. Then there’s the fact that I bought a version of this album on cassette at a gig last year - and it only has three songs in common with this one! A few of those missing songs are available on singles but the rest will remain to be discovered by future generations happy to find some new chips from the master’s workbench.

And, make no mistake, Matt Stevenson, the chief songwriter and singer in Jane Church, is a master of his craft, expertly constructing one wistful and memorable tune after another. He deals in a brand of bittersweet that brings home the fact that each day you live creates a trail of memories that you’re constantly managing whether you realize it or not - no matter how old you are. If that all sounds heavy, fear not: every song on this album is driven by a tight, swinging rhythm section, indelible melodic touches and a rich overlay of guitars and keyboards. When do I pre-order the box set?

Tiny Ruins - Olympic Girls File under “not so very tiny” as Hollie Fullbrook’s project goes widescreen, adding exquisite production touches to her songs while never losing focus. Her limber voice, drenched with feeling, and her intricate fingerpicked guitar are still the foundation for the songs, which are extraordinarily well-crafted. So much so, in fact, that it’s easy to see several of them as new classics, combining words and melodies in a fashion that grabs a firm hold on the hem of Nick Drake’s garment, to mention just one source of inspiration. Take Sparklers, for example, which is introduced by a warm blanket of acoustic guitar before Fullbrook enters with “I write your name in cursive on the air...” sung like a melodic sigh. You may need to catch your breath before she continues. And are you just imagining those drums, so tightly enmeshed as they are with her picking? The chorus, referring to the titular fireworks, refers to “no lasting magic,” but the song will stay with you for days, as will this wonderful album.

Frankie & The Witch Fingers - Zam Like Jane Church, this Los Angeles quartet is on Greenway Records, which is quickly cornering the market in great rock & roll. Led by Dylan Sizemore, FWF specialize in overdriven but tightly structured mini-epics driven by the manic but precise drumming of Glenn Brigman. Sizemore’s voice may at first strike you as thin and not up the task of keeping up with the assault of the guitars (and the horns, keyboards, and a kitchen sink or three) but you’ll soon find yourself hanging on every word - when you’re not shouting along, of course. The songs are rich with dynamics and densely structured segments and one of their signature moves is to hit a new level of intensity just when you think the energy has topped out. Thrills me every time and I can’t wait to see them live. I also note that this is their fifth album and I’m looking forward to catching up.

Hand Habits - Placeholder Since their last album, 2017’s Wildly Idle, Meg Duffy has undergone changes in their life - that pronoun, for example - that no doubt inform the deep well of feeling here. But you need not know a thing about her personal life to find your way into these songs. Also, in those three years Duffy obviously expanded her craft as a writer, guitarist, and singer, and there’s a sense of rightness here - even a kind of serenity - that is nothing but beguiling. While I hope to get to one of their upcoming concerts, I can just as easily imagine finding fulfillment by putting laying back in a grassy field and watching the clouds float by as I listen. Placeholder is simply - or maybe not so simply - a lovely album.

Cass McCombs - Tip Of The Sphere I’ve known the name for years, but it wasn’t until the recent Mojo feature on McCombs that I felt the push of passionate advocacy it can take to get you to listen. It turns out that the article’s description of his music, and McComb’s own words were spot on in making me think I would love this. I feel like I’m passing the test without studying as I still haven’t backtracked through his catalog, but this is a just really great folk-rock album, easily one of the best of the year. All the guitar hypnotism, song-craft, and harmony vocals the term “folk-rock” might bring to mind are here - in abundance. I’ve noted those more expert in McCombs’ music saying this is his finest album, but if his older work is even a fraction as good I have some incredible listening ahead. If you’re a laggard like me, start here.

Julia Jacklin - Crushing Right from the start, with the grave Body, Jacklin’s second album puts her at the front rank of songwriters. Gone are the explicit nods to 1950’s balladry and 1960’s British folk that defined her debut. Song after song startles with arresting images, white hot emotions and committed performances. Read more about this deep work of art in my article for Rock & Roll Globe.

Sunwatchers - Illegal Moves This acid-drenched jazz-rock-freakout band is almost moving too fast to keep up with, following up last year's tumultuous II with this even harder-edged effort. And if you have any questions about what these master instrumentalists have on their minds, just check out the hilarious cover, which just may bring the down the wrath of Kraft Foods, should they ever see it!

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: One Day In 2018

Coming very soon: 2019 First Quarter Report: The Concerts

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