Sunday, October 04, 2020

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 3

Continuing from last time, five further albums representing the neverending, ever-expanding universe being created
 right now by living composers. Sample tracks from all of these and those in Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 here or below.


Christopher Cerrone - Liminal Highway I don't want to hang too much verbiage on this piece, which for 16 mesmerizing minutes gives us a whole world of sound created by flute - brilliantly played by Tim Munro - and live electronics. I will simply say that since its inception as a slender bamboo reed in the Zhou Dynasty nearly 3,000 years ago, to the addition of keys in 18th century London, to Varese's groundbreaking solo Density 21.5, the flute has been reinvented many times. And so it is again. For the full experience of Liminal Highway, which was premiered in 2015, be sure you watch the video, filmed on the ruins of the SS United States in Philadelphia Harbor, and read John K. Samson's poem of the same name.

Christopher Cerrone - Goldbeater's Skin Originally commissioned and premiered by Third Coast Percussion in 2017, this gorgeous song cycle for percussion and soprano finally gets a recording by Sandbox Percussion and Elspeth Davis. They do a wonderful job of it as well, creating an atmosphere either diaphanous or almost mechanical, as directed by Cerrone's imaginative orchestration, which has them playing horizontal guitars at times, amidst the bells, vibraphones, marimbas, etc. Davis appears to be completely absorbed in the melodies, which set the words of poet G.C. Waldrep in a way that feels wholly natural. Goldbeater's Skin also comes with a beautifully filmed performance video, which may be the ideal way to first experience the piece. Between this, Liminal Highway, and High Windows, which appeared on the String Orchestra of Brooklyn's Afterimage earlier this year, Cerrone is having a heckuva year!

Stara: The Music of Halldór Smárason Featuring world premiere recordings of three string quartets, two chamber works, and a piece for solo guitar and electronics, this is a deeply involving introduction to the sound world of a young Icelandic composer. The performances, by the Siggi String Quartet, an ad hoc ensemble (Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir (flute), Geirþrúður Ása Guðjónsdóttir (violin), Helga Björg Arnardóttir (Clarinet), and Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir (piano)), and guitarist Gulli Björnsson, are stylish and expert, and the Sono Luminus recording captures each knock, breath, twang, swoop, and glide, with warmth and clarity. Smárason excels at tension and release, but with the naturalism of a great storyteller rather than a showy romanticism, drawing you in with fragmentary glimpses of melodies in dramatic fashion. I'm continually finding new textures and moments to love here, turning them over in my mind like dark gemstones. Embrace the glitter and gleam.

Third Sound - Heard In Havana In the now-halcyon days of 2015, this kickass NYC chamber group traveled down to Cuba on a grant from the American Composers Forum to present the first concert of contemporary American music since Castro's revolution. There was exchange of ideas, meetings between Cuban and American composers, and a sense of the world moving past some of its long-held disagreements. Of course, much of that is but a memory in 2020, but at least we have this gloriously varied collection of music by ten composers ranging in age from 63 to 31, all of whom make use of the forces in their own unique ways. My taste has me most attracted to the edgier works, like Spencer Topel's four-movement Details On The Strasbourg Rosace, which finds him applying much the same ideas of his electronic work to the acoustic setting, or Christopher Wendell Jones' A Crowd Of Twisted Things, which constantly seems in danger of sliding right off the sheet music in a tumble of delicate notes, or the spooked theatrics of Mieko by Kai-Young Chan. I'm also glad to have Ingrid Arauco's Fantasy-Quartet, which I called "sparkling, astringent, and colorful," when I heard it at the Miller last year, available for on-demand listening. If I had one minor complaint, it's that Patrick Castillo, the founder of Third Sound (and my colleague in Hotel Elefant), didn't include one of his own works. I've heard too many sweet chamber pieces by him just once and they deserve to be preserved in a recording as wonderful as what we have here. Note: while this music was all "heard in Havana," these recordings were made in New York the year following Third Sound's trip. Here's to a future where such cultural transport is commonplace.

Jacob Cooper - Terrain Like Ted Hearne, Cooper's music is so comfortable with seemingly the whole world of sound, ancient to the future, that it can be hard to locate at times. For some that might be discomfiting, but I'm all about it, sensing a representation of a musical mind not unlike my own, where disco lives alongside spectralism and serialism alongside psych-rock. Unlike Hearne's blazing maximalism, however, Cooper's polyglot is sleek and streamlined, here full of stainless electronic textures combining with long lines from Ashley Bathgate's cello. She's just one of Cooper's collaborators on this lushly emotional album, which features three long pieces that still operate as songs. Theo Bleckman, whose extraordinary singing was a highlight of The Pieces That Fall To Earth, last year's collection of Cerrone compositions by Wild Up, brings a comforting humanity to the glitched sonics of Ripple The Sky. And speaking of Wild Up, their member Jodie Landau also contributes vocals on Terrain, warmly intoning Dora Malech's text on Expiation and blending marvelously with Bleckman in space-age counterpoint on the title track. 

For all the futuristic qualities of Terrain, the overall sensation is one fraught with memory, yearning, and a kind of hopefulness. It's not hard to imagine Thomas Jerome Newton, the character David Bowie played in The Man Who Fell To Earth, losing himself in these suites as he thought about his family marooned on a dying planet. Bowie himself would also likely be on Cooper's wavelength, enjoying Terrain's seamless blend of electronics, vocals, and cello, like a proposed side three of Low. Perhaps I go too far with that one, but if it nudges you to listen, I'll consider it a leap worth taking. Your turn.

There's more where all of this came from in my Of Note In 2020 (Classical) playlist - click "follow" to see what the future holds.

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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 2

Continuing on from last time, here are six more albums from the vast universe of contemporary classical music in 2020. As promised, the playlist has grown...and will keep growing!

Grossman Ensemble - Fountain Of Time This powerhouse chamber ensemble, founded by composer and educator Augusta Read Thomas, has been growing in Chicago for the last few years, already amassing a portfolio of 36 commissioned works. Featuring five works from their first season, each one the result of a uniquely collaborative process directed by composers Anthony Cheung and Sam Pluta, it's hard to imagine a better introduction to their virtuosic interplay than this debut album. I'm sure it helps that all the players, including Tim Munro (flute), Ben Melsky (harp), Daniel Pesca (Piano), and the Spektral Quartet (strings) are brilliant on their own, but their sense of unity is a rare thing indeed. This is also no doubt aided by the spectacular recording, warm and nearly three dimensional, and the conducting of Ben Bolter, Michael Lewanski, Jerry Hou, and David Dzubay. 

The music ranges from Shulamit Ran's picturesque Grand Rounds, with its splashy percussion (played by Greg Beyer and John Corkill), and Cheung's supremely colorful Double Allegories, to the occasionally spectral PHO by Dzubay and the skeletal soundscape of Tonia Ko's Simple Fuel, which has some of the tension and release of a Lalo Schifrin score. The album ends with David Clay Mettens' Stain, Bloom, Moon, Rain, as spare and dramatic as the Japanese poems which inspired him. Kudos to Thomas for kicking this thing off and to the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition and the University of Chicago for giving it a home. Thanks to this spectacular album, the Grossman Ensemble is no longer solely the property of the windy city.

Páll Ragnar Pálsson - Atonement Quake, Pálsson's piece for cello and orchestra, was a highlight of not one but two albums in 2019, Vernacular by Saeunn Thorsteindottir and Concurrence by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, so I welcomed this opportunity to go deeper into his music on his first collection since 2017's Nostalgia. These are all chamber works, performed by Iceland's Caput Ensemble, and most feature voice, either the soprano Tui Hirv or poet Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. These forces combine in sympathetic performances that manage to give equal weight to the darkness Pálsson evokes through his harmonic invention and the sparkle he creates through his orchestration, which often takes on a form of serial interaction, with piano sparking flute, which in turn triggers violin, and so on. Hirv's rich voice is the perfect foil for the instruments on Atonement, Stalker's Monologue, which takes its text from the Tarkovsky film, and Wheel Crosses Under Moss, while Gunnarsdóttir recites her own poem for Midsummer's Night. The theatricality of the music in that last piece, combined with Gunnarsdóttir's understated delivery, makes for an enthralling experience - a feeling that will grow more familiar with repeat listens to Atonement.

Sarah Frisof and Daniel Pesca - Beauty Crying Forth: Flute Music By Women Across Time Literally a breath of fresh air, this album expertly compiles music composed by women for flute and piano (mostly), stretching from Clara Schumann's Three Romances (1853) to Shulamit Ran's Birds of Paradise (2014). Tania León's Alma (2007), brightly sets the tone of the album, which is rarely less than sunny. The one exception is Kaija Saariaho's Cendres (1998), which adds cello (Hannah Collins) to Frisof's flute and Pesca's piano. With wild flutterings from the flute and hard-driven cello, often slicing into harmonics, Cendre is a mysterious knockout, like a smoky cocktail that forces you to lay down and contemplate the inside of your eyelids. Pour me another!

Bára Gísladóttir - Hīber If you fell in love with the sharp sound of Saariaho's cello on Cendre's, you will be enraptured by Gísladóttir's blazingly brilliant song cycle for double bass and electronics. Taking her instrument to the limit, with whispering harmonic highs and grinding lows, she creates a universe that pulls you in from the start. Titles like No Afterlife Thanks and Fists Clenched give an idea of some of the emotional realms she's drawing on, but just listening will give you all the clues you need to get there. And get there you must - even if it means signing up for your first streaming account, as this is only available on those platforms. You'll want to be prepared for her upcoming release on Sono Luminus...

Patchwork This debut album for the saxophone and drum duo of Noa Even and Stephen Klunk goes a long way toward establishing a repertoire for a combo that is surprisingly versatile. Featuring five commissioned pieces by Osnat Netzer, Hong-Da Chin, Eric Wubbels, Erin Rogers, and Dan Tramte, and recorded in an appealingly dry acoustic, which allows every pop, tick, and scrape their own moments in the spotlight, it's an entertaining ride, too. Rogers' Fast Love is a perfect example of what Even and Klunk can do. If you've ever seen Rogers play, you know how brave it was for Even to assay a piece by her! But, in Even's hands, Fast Love sounds remarkably tossed off and spontaneous, especially during the wild fourth section, full of gutbucket honks and Desi Arnaz grunts. Klunk distinguishes himself throughout, up for any challenge thrown his way - check him out in Tramte's G®iND, inspired by a YouTube clip about wind-up toys. It's a nifty, inventive piece and as good a proof of concept as anything on this inspiring collection.

Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1 Since 2018, National Sawdust has been running this mentorship program for "outstanding trans, female, and nonbinary composers in the early stages of their careers," which provides a cash prize, guidance from established composers like Du Yun and Angélica Negrón, and a live performance led by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. Having managed to miss every one of those performances, I'm thrilled to have works by the first six winners available for on-demand listening. Eclectic in both conception and sound, works like the tremulous and lyrical Openwork/Knotted Object/Trellis In Bloom/Lightning Ache by inti figgis-vizueta or Casual Champagne + Cocaine by X Lee, with its iPhone noises and scrabbling violins, make a clear case that what may now be on the margins needs to move closer to the center. In addition to the two composers mentioned above, remember the names Kayla Cashetta, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Emma O’Halloran, Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, not to mention those of the 2020 winners (Flannery Cunningham, Jimena Maldonado, and Sonja Mutić), who have yet to be recorded. What National Sawdust is doing here is certainly noble, but there is nothing academic or appeasing about the music they're ushering into the world. Let it open your mind and your ears.

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 1

As we enter autumn and the FOURTH QUARTER of 2020 is staring me in the face, I'm attempting to catch up with classical releases stretching back over the last few months. Prepare to be dazzled - and make sure to subscribe so you don't miss Vol. 2...and maybe even Vol. 3! 

Sample each of these albums in this playlist, which will grow with each volume of reviews.

Michi Wiancko - Planetary Candidate I've written in the past about instruments as a form of technology and Wiancko's new collection is a perfect example. Whether combining her violin with her voice or shimmering electronics, the blend is so natural it can be hard to separate the constituent parts. Over eight tracks, including commissions from Christopher Adler, Paula Matthusen, Mark Dancigers, Jessie Montgomery, and William Brittelle, Wiancko deftly navigates a wealth of expressive possibilities. From the mantric minimalism of her own title piece to Matthusen's dense, knotty Songs of Fuel and Insomnia, and on to the exposed single line of Danciger's Skyline, her commitment is absolute. William Brittelle's So Long Art Decade pays homage to the icy and adventurous grandeur of David Bowie's Low, and is just one highlight on an album that represents a new peak of achievement for this protean musician.

Clara Iannotta: Earthing  - JACK Quartet Thank goodness for Spotify, because none of my other sources alerted me to this extraordinary collection of Iannotta's string quartets. Over four pieces composed since 2013, Iannotta turns the awe-inspiring JACK into a psychedelic tone generator that could soundtrack an Italian giallo. Dramatic, startling, and truly consciousness-altering, Iannotta amazes time and time again here. I loved her piece on andPlay's Playlist, but this is the most concentrated dose of her music since her 2016 portrait debut, A Failed Entertainment: Works 2009 - 2014, and I still want more.

Gyða Valtýsdóttir - Epicycle II The sequel to her 2017 album, which featured unique interpretations of music from 2,000 years of history, Epicycle II is almost all world-premiere work, much of it existing in a liminal, luminous space where art rock, ambient music, and contemporary classical not just coexist but cohere. It is also peppered with Icelandic all stars, with contributions from Jónsi (Sigur Rós), Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Ólöf Arnalds, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (of my beloved Nordic Affect) and others, to the point where only Björk seems to be missing. But the primary sounds are made by Valtysdottir's cello and voice, and the whole collection is suffused with her dark, sensual personality, creating a world unto itself. Book a trip - you will find her itinerary most enticing.

Tomás Gueglio - Duermevela My introduction to this Argentine-born composer was his piece After L'Addio/Felt on Ben Melsky's marvelous New Music For Harp, which is also included here among a kaleidoscopic array of his other chamber works. JACK Quartet's Austin Wulliman kicks it off with Mil Panaderos for solo violin, a spiky, spicy rush of plucks and scrapes that serves as a tonic for the ears - tart and bracing. Some of the same material is repurposed for a sextet, Apostillas a Mil Panaderos, played with flair and nuance by Latitude 49, before things slow down slightly for 1901: Un Oiseau, a duo for bass flutes with some impish vocalizing. Ending the album is Cancion en Duermevela for four guitars, given an assured performance by the Nuntempe Ensemble, a shimmering piece that seems to turn the quartet into one large instrument, not unlike a harp. Duermevela is a Spanish word that can refer to the line between sleeping and waking and also means "restless sleep" - and there is a restlessness to Gueglio's music, a refusal to take instruments at face value and a need to keep moving. This excellent collection is an invitation to take the pulse of his creativity at a moment in time. When we next check in with Gueglio, he could be somewhere else entirely.

Kaufman Music Center - Transformation These times of social distance and remote learning have engendered much creativity, such as this delightful album created by the 10th grade class of the Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School in collaboration with Nathalie Joachim, their Artist-in-Residence for the 20-21 year. Working together over email and Zoom, these students have created a brief oasis full of bright colors and sonic adventure. Texture is a key element of each piece, whether all electronic, like Digital Tears, or acoustic, like the violins of Singing Summer, which seem to overlap and move apart as you listen. Soon is almost a pop song, with a drum machine groove and some jazzy chords, and its mood of chill melancholy is a place I in which I would like to spend a lot more time. Transformation is a fascinating window into developing musical minds and I hope I hear about it when these young composers make more music. If you're looking for hope about the future of contemporary composition and performance, look no further.

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Record Roundup: Songs And Singers

What is it about a song - an idealized, often compact blend of melody, harmony, rhythm, and words - that can lift you up, comfort you, and put language to your inchoate emotions? Find your answers where you may, I prefer to embrace the mystery of one of humankind's greatest achievements. Here, then, are some masterful examples of the power of song on albums could help you get through the hellscape of 2020.

Jenny O. - New Truth Jenny O. is a major artist around my way, her pensive and tuneful indie rock always a highlight of any year she puts out something new. In fact, her first full-length album, Automechanic, was on my list of the 100 best albums of the 2010's. Now we have her third album, and first without Jonathan Wilson in the producer's chair. This time around she's working with Kevin Ratterman, who's been in the trenches for years as a band member (Wax Fang), mixer, masterer, engineer, and producer, and who also plays drums on most songs. Almost all the other instruments are played by Jenny herself, along with the layers of background vocals that enrich some of the tracks. But the new collaboration has done nothing to impede her growth as a songwriter and singer, with her melodies sounding more inevitable than every and her voice at its most confident and relaxed. 

Her lyrics have the same conversational, relatable quality that's distinguished her work from the jump. A song like Small Talk is a perfect example: "Case you didn't notice, I been suffering/Some days are better, others are OK/It doesn't matter what you say/I know you're suffering too, like everyone/Tell me how you feel/How'd your brother die?/How you doing now?/Small talk, small talk." There's also a new dreaminess in the bossa-psych of Color Love, with it's aching melody and distorted guitar. And then you get a song like Even If I Tried, a jangle-pop wonder which should be played on public radio stations across the land - at any other time it would be a huge hit. And if you go to her Bandcamp ASAP, you can still grab a copy on beautiful "Professor Plum" vinyl. When it arrives, just do as Jenny says in Color Love: "Put on a record, let it move you and turn it over/Listen to it all the way through."

Richard Aufrichtig - Perfume Cigarettes
"Take my hand, for a minute/If you can/There's a world in my pocket/And I cannot stop it," Aufrichtig sings in Fragment, which kicks off this companion album to last year's Troubadour No. 1, and there may be no better metaphor for his seemingly endless ribbon of creativity. Consider the fact that all of these songs were drawn from a pool of 400 songs Aufrichtig wrote in his 20's! Like Troubadour No. 1, Aufrichtig worked on Perfume Cigarettes with Josh Kaufman, the genius multi-instrumentalist and producer who is also one-third of Bonny Light Horseman, and the symbiotic relationship between song and sound is as complete as it was on the earlier album. This one is slightly more relaxed of vibe, however, with spare arrangements that mesmerize on their own while highlighting Aufrichtig's warm, wise vocals. Take So Far Gone, for example, which is just bass, drums, and a reverb-drenched piano played with the wide-splayed power of Dylan warming up in Don't Look Back while Aufrichtig takes us to a church built of memories. The whole album is a journey, touching down in New Mexico, Paris, California, on to New York City and "that holy sound," as Aufrichtig sings in RNK 3, which ends the album on a reflective note in an ambient cloud of wordless vocals and and echoing drum machine. Let this album osmose into your soul, which will be forever enriched in the process.

Caitlin Pasko - Greenhouse Speaking of ambient clouds, Pasko's whole album is essentially a formation of sky-sailing soft events, mostly made up of synths and with her voice floating through the haze. A cross between art song and electro-folk, Greenhouse is an album made for lying in the grass and watching the chiaroscuro of life go by your closed eyelids. 

The Dead Tongues - Transmigration Blues While this might be more conventional than the haunted Appalachia of Ryan Gustafson's earlier work, it's also his most assured - and even lush - album yet. It's one long woodsy swoon, with a touch of Keith Richards swagger, full of memory, yearning, and regret. Sheer beauty, and when that tube-driven guitar solo leaps out of Nothingness And Everything it's a startling reminder of the deep well Gustafson draws from for his music.

Alex Rainer - Time Changes I know Alex mainly as a member the team at Unison Media, who keep me in the loop on things like what the JACK Quartet is up to - or that amazing Miyamoto Is Black Enough album that I reviewed recently. But he is also an exceptionally fine folk singer/songwriter and Time Changes, his first album in four years, is loveliness itself. While Nick Drake or Robin Pecknold might come to mind when listening to his intricate finger-picking and slightly husky voice, there's an emotional ease here that is worlds away from Drake's haunted searching or the existential questions of a Fleet Foxes track. Beneath the calm surface, however, lies hidden strength that you can draw on as you navigate these difficult times. If your steps are faltering, take Rainer to heart when he sings on Take One: "Don’t waste what you’re given/Just do what you got to do/And don’t worry, good things/will come to you soon." Good things, indeed - like this wonderful album. Let it come to you soon.

Emma Swift - Blonde On The Tracks That Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the 20th and 21st centuries needs no further proof than this marvelous collection by Swift, an Australian transplant to Nashville who released an EP of limpid Americana in 2014. Everything I said above about the power of song seems to have been what attracted Swift to this material as she struggled though her own dark times and she sings each one as if it were her own. Much of the album was recorded in the last few years, aided by the sensitive production and musicianship of Pat Sansone, and a band of Nashville all-stars: Jon Radford (drums), Jon Estes (bass), and Thayer Serrano (pedal steel). But it wasn't until the combination of her tour being cancelled ("I lost my job," as she puts it - correctly) and Dylan's release of I Contain Multitudes that Swift was able to summon the impetus to release the album, quickly recording her own version, which reveals the song as an all-time great even beyond the original, and Simple Twist of Fate to fill out the track list. Living with cult legend Robyn Hitchcock, who has been Swift's musical and romantic partner for several years (here they are performing Dylan together in 2016), and who also contributes guitar, no doubt helped get these last tracks done. 

But the true star is Swift's voice, clear as an Appalachian spring, or whatever the Australian equivalent may be, as that is from whence she hailed before settling in Nashville. She seems hardwired into the emotional through-line of each song, whether stone-cold classics like Queen Jane Approximately or neglected gems like Going Going Gone. Perhaps even more audacious than jumping right into I Contain Multitudes is Swift's magisterial take on Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Her singing is both finely concentrated and at ease throughout its length, jaw-dropping when you think about it. Swift is far from running out of gas with Dylan, either - when she performed the album live at Grimey's a few weeks ago, she added a deeply affecting take on I've Made My Mind Up To Give Myself To You, another track from Rough and Rowdy Ways. I'm hitting refresh on Bandcamp, hoping she releases it as a single. Unlike many covers albums that arise from a place of contrivance, this album carries with it the weight of something that simply had to be. If you're looking for "folklore" from someone named Swift, look no further than Blonde On The Tracks.

Christopher Trapani - Waterlines Avid readers of AnEarful will be familiar with my rhapsodic response to Trapani's brilliant piece, whether in concert or on record, connecting instantly with his collage-like approach to old blues and country songs. So I'm like a kid in a candy store as I absorb a second world-class recording, this one by Belgium's Ictus Ensemble featuring Christie Finn, an American soprano. Their version differs somewhat from Talea Ensemble's world-premiere recording and may even have benefited from their example in that it's a bit more naturalistic. If you didn't know Trapani was behind it, you could almost think this was just a group of supremely skilled musicians who had an unusual approach to these songs that they loved. A bonus on the Ictus album is Trapani's Two Folksong Distortions, which has him deconstructing Wayfaring Stranger and Freight Train to remarkable effect. As sung by Liesa Van der Aa who also plays violin, accompanied by Tom Pauwel's guitars, they have a wonderfully hazy quality, like a photo printed out of register. This is my first exposure to Van der Aa and now I want to hear her interpret Dylan! In the meantime, I'll enjoy her work here while also exploring her album, Easy Alice, released this past February. It's so rare that the cream of contemporary composition gets more than one recording. Show your appreciation for this embarrassment of riches by diving deep into both versions of Waterlines.

Billie Eilish - Live At Third Man Records Billie Eilish became as famous on eBay as she is everywhere else when Third Man Records released the first pressing of this acoustic show in-store only. As I don't live in Nashville or Detroit, nor have infinite funds, I bided my time and, voila, look what Record Store Day brought me! So was the 10-track LP worth the wait? Mostly yes. While I could tell that her songs (co-written with her brother Finneas, who accompanies her here) had the bones to be presented in any number of arrangements, it's nice to be proven right by these stripped-down arrangements. Bury A Friend, Come Out And Play, and I Love You probably work best but there's no sore thumbs here. Her stage presence is great, too, warm and slightly bemused by all the love she's getting from the audience. The only caveat here is the audience, in fact, as they are very loud in their appreciation and when they sing along. This works a treat in my bootleg from Sydney's Horndern Pavilion in front of 5,500 people, but in this setting it seems a little...extra. This could have been helped in the mix, but part of the point of these Third Man recordings is that they are raw and uncut. As a souvenir of Eilish's first flush of stardom, I think this will only accrue value, and I don't mean monetarily. That's possible as well, with all 17,000 copies of this pressing already in the hands of either happy owners (like me) or resellers. If you're a fan, it's a must.

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Saturday, August 29, 2020

Record Roundup: Vox Humana

From choruses to individual singers, there is something about the sounds of other people's voices that can elicit strong emotions - and make us feel less alone. In sorting through the flood of new music from the last few months, I found my attention drawn by several albums that put the focus the human voice, making them perfect for these times of isolation and limited contact with others. 

Roomful Of Teeth - Michael Harrison: Just Constellations It's easy to take this vocal ensemble for granted, such is the consistency of their excellence. But they continue to push into new territories and this EP, reflecting a deep collaboration with the composer, is a great example of how their preternatural skill can translate into a heavenly listening experience. The difficulty of the piece, sung in just intonation and designed to be heard in the extremely resonant space of The Tank in Rangley Colorado, is all under the hood, as the results sound as natural as breathing. Read their notes to go deeper into the La Monte Young influence and look at Harrison's titles to pick up the poetry behind his conception, but neither is necessary to be transported by this remarkable work.

Roomful Of Teeth - Wally Gunn: The Ascendant Based on the evocative, high modernist poetry of Maria Zajkowski, this enigmatic work shows the range of Roomful, both stylistically and in terms of octaves. The deep bass and higher notes are knit together by the metronomic percussion of Jason Treuting of SO Percussion, which also lends a sense of ritual occasion to the piece. There's a barely banked wildness to The Ascendant, like a placid landscape where nature's violence is hidden only by distance from which you're viewing it. In short, it's furiously compelling, and the power of the piece is even greater than I imagined based on the three parts sprinkled throughout Roomful's 2015 album, Render. It's easy to see why the vinyl edition of this (and Just Constellations) sold out in short order!

Lorelei Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail (Version for Women's Chorus) 
Quince Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail
This beautiful work from 2012, which weaves legends of Tristan and Isolde from various sources with short stories by Lydia Davis, was originally recorded in 2014 by those masters of the Medieval, Anonymous Four. Now, we have two new recordings, with one being a reworked version for more voices, which Lorelei premiered in 2016. The Quince Ensemble display more verve and warmth than Anonymous Four, making their recording the new go-to in the original scoring. But it's the Lorelei Ensemble, and Lang's brilliant use of harmony, that fully illuminates the haunting power of the piece, giving it a spacious 3-D quality that is truly immersive. A triumph on every level, lot least in the way the percussion is integrated into the sound world, which neither of the other recordings seem to get quite right. That two note refrain in the last movement, played on tuned bells in, takes on a burnished weight that lingers long after the music stops. While all three recordings are more than worthwhile, it's to the Lorelei's version that I will be returning most often.

Michael Hersch - I hope we get a chance to visit soon There's so much positivity around "fighting cancer" in American culture that it is unexpectedly satisfying to hear it addressed as being as awful as it really is. Which is exactly what Hersch does in this painfully searing and intense work. Drawing on letters between him and his friend Mary Harris O’Reilly, some writtenwhile they were both being treated for cancer, and weaving in poems by Rachel Elson, the piece is as unflinching in its text as it is in its scoring. The music, is sharp and fragmentary, sometimes adjacent to the words and sometimes acting as an anguished Greek chorus. Hersch's mastery begins with his conception, which is scored for two sopranos (Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy, both outstanding), with one singing the poems and the other speaking the letters in a halting and slightly horrified tone that perfectly captures the way the mind protests the mere fact that you've been diagnosed with cancer. Like all of Hersch's work, I hope... is a very serious work of art, but the dignity and compassion he brings to this lacerating material elevates it to a point where anyone who has suffered loss in their lives (which is everyone, right) will ultimately find it a balm for their wounded soul. We owe Hersch a debt of gratitude for never turning away from subject matter that would make other artists uncomfortable. Kudos, too to the Musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tito Muñoz, who find the perfect emotional balance between restraint and rage in this beautifully recorded live performance.

Sarah Kirkland Snider - Mass For The Endangered While at first this felt a bit traditional for my taste, it is so sincere and eloquent in its absorption of the great masses of the past by Bach, Palestrina, etc. - and so sheerly gorgeous - that it is undeniably uplifting. The text is by Nathaniel Bellows, the poet, musician, and artist (he also did the album cover art) with whom Snider worked on her lush and dramatic song cycle Unremembered, which was released in 2015. The "endangered" in the title is all the flora and fauna put at risk by human activities, and the mass appeals, in Snider's words, " a higher power--for mercy, forgiveness, and intervention--but that appeal is directed not to God but rather to Nature itself." But even without those details, the sublime counterpoint and expert architecture, all perfectly executed by Gallicantus, an English ensemble conducted by Gabriel Crouch, would be enough to reward full immersion in the piece. May it be performed in many houses of worship - and elsewhere - when in-person gatherings are again safe and people themselves no longer feel endangered.

Miyamoto Is Black Enough - Burn / Build This incendiary album comes on with such elemental force that at first I was repelled. But upon revisiting, I leant into the heat and let it cleanse me. Catharsis. It also helped that as I was trying to grasp what was going on, I made the connection between Roger Bonair Agard's vocal approach and that of the great Linton Kwesi Johnson (whose Bass Culture celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year). Both are poets of Caribbean origin who worked in spoken word before combining their talents with music. Agard also has a little of Johnson's quality of rage - restrained, vaguely amused, but ready to explode if just one more ember lands on him. The musical backing is quite different from the roots reggae Johnson employed, however, which also stopped me in my tracks. Centered around Andy Akiho's steel pans and Jeffrey Zeigler's cello, and anchored by Sean Dixon's drums, bass, and electronics, it references reggae and hip hop, but is also angular and post-punk, ending up sounding like nothing else. The subject matter, including songs about Blackness and gentrification, is firmly on the pulse of our moment and served up with the immediacy of a status update yet with the craft only a true poet can deliver. If you're curious about the name they chose for the group, Google "Ariana Miyamoto" - but whatever you do, don't miss this album.

Missy Mazzoli - Proving Up While I've seen parts of Mazzoli's first opera, Song From The Uproar, I've managed to miss both of her other collaborations with librettist Royce Vavrek, Breaking The Waves and Proving Up. Fortunately, we now have a complete recording of the latter, and it is a revelation. A compelling exposé of the lie behind the American dream told through the stories of Nebraskan homesteaders in the 19th century, it puts many of Mazzoli's virtues on display - the forward motion, the sleek embrace of darkness - while foregrounding some new ones. As much of her music as I've heard in the last eight years, I was not prepared for something that was as utterly American as Aaron Copland and as cannily theatrical as Benjamin Britten. I'm sure Vavrek helped with the latter, but without the libretto in front of me (or performers on a stage, for that matter), I'm enjoying it mostly as a musical experience with a strong narrative thrust. While the baritone of John Moore is a standout, the singing is uniformly fantastic, as is the playing by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, ably conducted by Christopher Rountree. Proving Up is easily the best new opera I've heard in years and further proof of Mazzoli's mastery. Hope we get a recording of Breaking The Waves soon.

Du Yun - A Cockroach's Tarantella We hear a lot about "resilience" in these quarentimes, and there is no better symbol of resilience than the lowly cockroach, a survivor's survivor for over 350 million years. In this piece, which Du Yun completed a decade ago, the wonderfully imaginative composer goes Kafka one better, arriving at a complete mind meld with the titular insect. And her roach is a true individualist, sick of lugging around her eggs and longing for human emotions. For all the times when our feelings are a burden, consider seeing 20 of your children exterminated and not being able to feel anything. Du Yun, as committed a performer as she is a composer, delivers the roach's tale in a tart, conversational fashion, in both English and Chinese, not overselling the fantastical nature of the piece. If this all sounds a bit abstract to you, get a gander at Julian Crouch's wondrous short film, and all will become clear.

In this recording, miraculously made just a month or two ago, Du Yun is given the perfect accompaniment by the JACK Quartet, who navigate the dynamics of the piece perfectly. They also shine on Tattooed On Snow, a 15-minute piece for string quartet from 2014 getting its first recording here. It has a cinematic sweep and no small amount of insectile sounds of its own, making for a compact introduction to Du Yun's sound world. The album is bookended by two short pieces,  Epilogue and Prologue (in that order), with the former featuring field recordings from Wuhan's market just after the lockdown was lifted. While the subjects of alienation and feeling uncomfortable in one's own skin are evergreen, this is an album that will help us locate what it meant to human in 2020. 

Listen to selections from these albums in this playlist or below.

You may also enjoy:
Concert Review: Shadows And Hope At Carnegie Hall
Three Portraits: Cheung-Trapani-Du Yun
Focus On: Contemporary Classical
Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations
Missy Mazzoli: Lush Rigor
Skylark's Liminal Journey
Best Of 2017: Classical
Conversing Across Centuries, Part 2: Italia

Sunday, August 23, 2020


We had plans in 2020, didn't we? One of my plans, before the virus laughed in my face, was to feel my way into being a concert promoter, having often dreamed of seeing "AnEarful Presents" on a flyer for a concert by one or more of my favorite artists. Then I heard BLK JKS, the South African band whose After Robots was my #1 record of 2009, was planning a return to full activity after a quiet decade, and I started to imagine possibilities. When they announced their return to SXSW on IG, I put in a comment to the effect of, "How about New York?" This led to an email exchange and to me putting on my event planner's hat and sending out emails to venues, one of which responded eagerly. 

While the finances were somewhat in question, amazingly enough it looked like this could actually happen. The venue was on board, BLK JKS were on board, we had a date that fit with their Austin, TX travel plans, and my excitement was building. We all know what happened next: the cancellation of SXSW and then the complete shutdown of concerts everywhere, not to mention the limitations placed on international travel. The band must have been even more devastated than I was, but there was still a new album to look forward to, right? Well, yes and no. Deciding to reset their trajectory, BLK JKS started planning for SXSW 2021, also postponing the wide release of Abantu/Before Humans to coincide with those critical concert appearances. I say "wide release" because they did announce a vinyl-only release in South Africa but also available via mail order. After Googling the exchange rate for Rands (380R = $22.15USD), I clicked submit. And waited. 

When the package finally arrived, I celebrated the occasion with a slightly giddy unboxing video and then set out to listen. The handsome package, including vinyl in an otherworldly blend of green and black, also indicated that the trio of Mpumelelo Mcata (guitar), Molefi Makananise (bass), and Tshepang Ramoba (drums), who founded the band with Linda Buthlezi, remain, joined by trumpeter Tebogo Seitei and a variety of guests. But the first thing to know about Abantu/Before Humans is that it is ambitious, and seems to draw on a larger vision. There's a hint of this in the album's subtitle: "A complete fully translated and transcribed Obsidian Rock Audio Anthology chronicling the ancient spiritual technologies and exploits of pre-historic, post-revolutionary afro bionics and sacred texts from The Great Book On Arcanum by Supernal 5th Dimension Bound 3rd Dynasty young Kushites from Azania." 

There's at least a dozen rabbit holes to explore in that sentence, but a quick look tells me that Azania was the name the Romans used for southeastern Africa at least as early as the first century, AD. The name was revived by the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania when its founders split from the African National Congress in 1959. Kush was an ancient kingdom in Nubia, whose capital was known by the Greeks as Aethiopia. This makes me think of the "Ancient to the Future" philosophy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as any number of Afrofuturist works by Sun Ra, P-Funk, or Samuel R. Delaney. So far, so up my alley. But what stories would the needle tell when dropped into the groove? 

Yela Oh! begins the album with with a hypnotic ostinato bass and ritual chanting, drums burbling underneath. After an ominous riff, Running - Asibaleki/Sheroes Theme explodes into THAT sound, busy drums, soaring horns, bass driving ever onward. Unlike the songs on After Robots, however, all reverb and haze (wonderful as it was) has been stripped away, leaving an attack that is crisp, precise, and lethal. iQ(w)ira - Machine Learning Vol 1 is a slow burn, almost acting as a prelude for Mme Kelapile, an epic that expands from minimalistic to anthemic, then back again, with the drums growing more expressive, with Ramoba edging into "Steve Gadd on Aja" territory. Side One ends with Harare, which was released in 2019 and features BLK JKS protege, Morena Leraba on vocals. Cannily combining folk, rock, and hip hop, it ends up feeling almost like a pop song, but that might be the familiarity talking.

Side Two begins somberly with Human Hearts, arpeggiating guitars combining with a gorgeous horn arrangement. You can almost imagine an alternate timeline where Bob Marley takes the stage to its dignified strains. Next comes Yoyo! - The Mandela Effect/Black Aurora Cusp Druids Ascending, the one stumble on this magnificent album. It's just overstuffed, it's punky rage party coming across as ill-fitting and cliched lyrics such as "Treat me like a yoyo, make me go up and down," don't help, nor does the clinical production, which is so effective elsewhere. Fortunately, Maiga Malie Mansa Musa, which has special guests Vieux Farka Touré and Money Mark, puts us solidly back in BLK JKS's sweet spot. It opens like a folk song, but it's mournful horns are soon joined by an insistent post-punk bass line, eventually merging seamlessly into Mmao Wa Tseba - Nare/Indaba My Children, which crosses over into spiritual jazz with some wonderful tenor sax. The last section ends the album in a sound collage of field recordings - we hear the cheery sound of an ice cream truck and children at play with the muted sound of the band in the background. 

Abantu/Before Humans is a fascinating new chapter in the tale of BLK JKS and an album that is already an essential part of my year. I hope it gains the audience it deserves when it hits wide release in 2021 and that New Yorkers will have an opportunity to see them in concert before or after SXSW. But mostly I hope I don't have to wait 11 years for more of this powerful, mysterious, and utterly original music. There is only one BLK JKS - ignoring them would be like letting an entire genre of music pass below your radar. Don't let that happen. 

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Sunday, August 02, 2020

Movie Night: Blasts From The Past

We can't go to movies. We can't go to concerts. We can't even invite that loquacious and knowledgeable friend over to sit on the couch with us and watch something. We also might spend more time scrolling through choices on Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and Apple TV+ than we do actually watching anything! I am here to propose at least two solutions to these problems, which though decidedly "first world," are definitely having an impact on people's coping skills as we live through these perilous times. If you have the ability to play Blu-ray discs, here are two cracking suggestions to get under the laser ASAP.

Go Go Mania AKA Pop Gear (1965) This collection of colorful clips is a visual hit parade direct from the British airwaves of (mostly) 1964 to your living room. Don't get too, too excited, however, as that timeframe puts us just on the cusp of the revolution started by The Beatles. So bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, or The Zombies are nowhere to be seen. But besides the opening and closing clips of The Beatles playing She Loves You and Twist And Shout from their 1963 Royal Command Performance, these are all studio clips shot in eye-popping colors by world-class cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, Cabaret), so even the duff acts look spectacular in this spiffed up edition from Kino Lorber. Their fine work also makes those Beatles clips practically leap off the screen, with the Fabs locked in the groove heard around the world, Ringo swinging like a sledgehammer.

Besides the remastered visuals, Kino Lorber has also invited entertainment journalist Bryan Reesman and songwriter/journalist Jeff Slate to provide audio commentary, to which I highly recommend listening after your first pass at the flick. While I wasn't always sure which one of them was speaking, it's a great conversation - they both know their stuff and point out a wealth of fascinating details.

Beyond The Beatles, the rest of the "performances" - they're all mimed - are of a highly variable quality. Here are notes from me along with some tidbits I picked up from Reesman and Slate (R&S).

Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas: Despite their connections with Lennon & McCartney, they still sound like the saccharine side of the 50’s, leading to a barely memorable appearance here. Slate has met Kramer, however, and asserts he is a true Liverpudlian wit.

Susan Maughan: I never heard of her or this song (Make Him Mine) but it’s pre-Fabs fluff. The set is awesome, even if it looks like it cost 10 pounds 5. R&S confirm that she never made an impression in the U.S. as she was too traditional ("We already had Doris Day.").

The Four Pennies: Their first song, Juliet, is sappy sappy sappy! They redeem themselves later with a fairly cracking version of Leadbelly's Black Girl, which you likely know from Nirvana's Unplugged In New York as In The Pines. R&S point out that they did write their own material, still a rarity back then. They also note how they weren't camera savvy, something which was also far from a given back then.

The Animals: They MEAN IT, even though they’re lip-syncing The House Of The Rising Sun, and Burdon plays to the camera like a natural actor. Camera blocking is also fantastic. When they return later on to play Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, it's a great relief after all the pap in between their performances. Slate has also met Burdon and affirms he's still an archetypal rock & roll bad boy.

The Fourmost: They at least sound post-Beatles but bubblegum and undistinguished. R&S explain they were a Merseybeat band managed by Brian Epstein, as were several of the acts in Go Go Mania.

The Rockin’ Berries: He's In Town is a decent Goffin/King song, with a folk influence and interesting arrangement by these guys - worthy of investigation. R&S also note how gorgeous their instruments are, all American, which were expensive and hard to get in the U.K. in those days.

The Honeycombs: Have I The Right is not a great song and their singer is irritating, but look! A female drummer: Honey Lantry, who looks like she can really play. All the boys are playing exotic and beautiful Burns guitars and basses, a feast for the gear-head's eye. I wonder if they had a sponsorship deal? The second song, Eyes, is truly terrible. R&S relate that they were a Joe Meek project, which at least adds interest to the sonics. Can't save those songs, though.

Sounds Incorporated: Rinky Dink is an apt name for the first song played by this Bar-Kays rip-off that not only lacks soul but is smug AF. R&S fill in the picture - Epstein-managed, they were the warm-up act for The Beatles around the world.

Peter and Gordon: I haven't listened to these guys in years and just read an interview in Tape Op with Peter Asher so I was curious - and pleasantly surprised how good World Without Love is. Great set, like a thrift-store Calder. I needed R&S to remind me that it's a Lennon & McCartney gem, mostly cooked up by Paul while he was dating Peter's sister Jane.

Matt Monro: This Sinatra-lite seems out of place, but he gets nice scenery. Walk Away is not his best song, either - check out My Kind Of Girl, used so effectively on the Scandal soundtrack. Mama, his second song, at least has a haunting quality but it is unqualified dreck. By the time he returned to sing the Pop Gear theme song, I hit fast-forward - sorry, not sorry. R&S wisely framed his presence by explaining he could make mom & dad comfortable after sitting through all that teen pop. They also reveal that he recorded three albums in Spanish, which may be the most progressive thing he did in his career.

Herman’s Hermits: At least I'm Into Something Good (another Goffin/King number) is catchy, making it stand out amongst much else here. Peter Noone was a good frontman but his teeth looked way better when I met him in a photo studio in the late 80's.

Tommy Quickly and the Remo Four: This tune, based on nursery rhymes, is an insult to audiences then and now. R&S have some interesting backstory but somehow fail to mention how godawful it is.

Billie Davis: She's quite mesmerizing, with a distinctive voice, well matched to Whatcha Gonna Do, the bluesy song she does here. Turns out she was a fashion icon as well.

The Spencer Davis Group: It's practically a cliché to say this, but when "Stevie" Winwood, all of 15 years old, opens up those pipes - WOW. As R&S point out, you can hear the future of the 60's a bit with these guys.

Nashville Teens: Immediately distinguished by a great rhythm section, this is a banging take on Tobacco Road, a very old song. I immediately wanted to hear more, then they returned with the lousy Google Eye. R&S give some interesting details on their career backing up legends of early rock & roll, from Jerry Lewis to Chuck Berry. They definitely had the chops.

There are also two dance sequences that are quite cringe-inducing if amusing in an Austin Powers-esque way. Worst of all is the presence of known pedophile and sex abuser, Jimmy Savile, who serves as master of ceremonies. Even if he didn't turn out to be a truly venal man, he's a bizarre presence.

Reesman and Slate fill out their chat with some fun riffing on The Eagles representing the death of rock and roll and a shout out to director Frederic Goode, who pulled this whole thing together on likely a shoestring budget. One of them also has a fine last word by stating, “This is what MTV was going to become, which is remarkable when you think of it.” Indeed - and a fun watch, but you'll probably skip through to the good stuff if you watch it again without the commentary.

That'll Be The Day (1973) I've long heard of this movie, starring David Essex (of Rock On fame) and Ringo Starr, but this was my first viewing. It's a knockout, sort of a blend of British kitchen sink drama (Billy Liar, etc.) and American Graffiti. Essex gives an understated performance, often pictured as an observer of the societal changes happening as the 50's came to a close. Ringo is even better, completely convincing as a carnival tough who shows Essex's character the ropes, including how to scam patrons of the bumper car ride where they work, which later has disastrous consequences. After a few minutes of Ringo's performance I pretty much forgot he was one of the most famous musicians in the world and just got into the character. Rosemary Leach, in her film debut, is also terrific. It's a quietly tough film, with fine direction from Claude Whatham and great cinematography from Peter Suschitzky, who later shot The Empire Strikes Back. I was absorbed completely in the drama, which had the ring of truth and the archetypal resonance of fable.

Kino Lorber's restoration is again beautifully done, although the sound is not as strong as the visuals. Reesman also gives a commentary track on the Blu-ray of That'll Be The Day, this time solo. While he talks very quickly, especially at the beginning, he is full of intriguing background, from the film being partially inspired by Harry Nilsson's 1941, to the history of the Isle of Wight and other locations, and on to pocket biographies of the main players. He puts the film in the context of the "20-year itch of pop culture nostalgia," cogently explaining the differences between the exuberant, almost cartoonish American take on the 50's (Grease, Sha-Na-Na) and this more downbeat approach. I certainly hope Kino Lorber brings him back should they decide to reissue the sequel, Stardust.

So, there you have it: the real 60's and the reimagined 50's, each providing a fine escape hatch from 2020.

You may also enjoy:
Fela On Film
Beats, Rhymes, Death & Life

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Record Roundup: Unclassifiable

"The classical period is certainly, visually, one that is very structured, with gilded moldings and perfection naturally associated with that - and we need to totally get rid of that. So even as fundamental as the language,  not calling it "classical music" and then "other music" or "classical" and then "world music," which is the most ridiculous distinction you could possibly have. Just very much with language, what are we including as being representative of the's "common music" or "music of the people" that we present, as opposed to classical music as a thing. So trying to think at the root what we are trying to classify as a representative art form of the people, which is how classical music started, by being popular music of the people, right?" - Ashleigh Gordon, co-founder, Artistic and Executive Director, and violist of Castle of our Skins on Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.

Just leaving that there, knowing that Gordon is speaking mostly about the work Castle of our Skins is doing to make visible the work of Black creators, who are only minimally represented below. I'll also say that I use genre terms to help readers find their way to the music they want to hear most quickly, recognizing that not everyone wants to listen to everything. If there's a better term than "classical" I am so ready to put it to work. That said, many of the records below mix and match genres and techniques so freely as to be essentially unclassifiable. Take the leap and listen even if you don't know exactly what to expect, beyond the few impressions I can convey in a few brief words.

Wet Ink Ensemble - Glossolalia The latest grand statement from this band of experts gives an opportunity to focus on the compositional talents of two members, Alex Mincek and Sam Pluta, both of whom put their colleagues through some extraordinary paces. Whether it's the power and precision of percussionist Ian Antonio in the Isonomy movement of Mincek's title work and the On/Off section of Pluta's Lines On Black, or Kate Soper's searing vocals in Pluta's Lines On Black, everyone burns bright. There's also a great deal of wit here, as in Duo, which opens the Pluta piece, with the interplay between Erin Lesser's flute and Josh Modney's violin even recalling some of Ennio Morricone's wilder moments, all puffs and pops, swoops and glides. Cycle, the fifth part of Lines On Black, could even be the soundtrack to a particularly abstract - and very kinetic - video game. Any one section of either of these major works of ultra-modern chamber music could serve as a calling card for the ensemble, the players, and the composers. Taken as a whole, the 65-minute album is a nearly overwhelming infusion of pure creativity.

Jobina Tinnemans - Five Thoughts On Everything Wildly inventive stuff from a Dutch-born composer who seems to resonate with some of the directions coming out of Iceland over the last decade or two. In fact, the second piece, Djúpalónsdóttir & Hellnarsson, features recordings of the South Iceland Chamber Choir in those two locations (along with some seagulls), with Tinnemans then bending their singing to her will for a dislocating experience of another kind of glossolalia. The Shape Of Things Aquatic alternates field recordings of a Welsh coastline and and Icelandic waterfall for a sort of mental vacation. Most fun of all is Varèsotto, Hinterland of Varèse, commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Edgard Varèse's Poeme Electronique. The great man himself would likely enjoy this  funhouse of synthesizers, bird calls, and manipulated vocals. Perhaps most important, however, is the firm hand Tinnemans keeps on the tiller as she pulls you through nearly uncharted territories, following tributaries from the 20th century's avant garde to their natural conclusions.

Amanda Gookin - Forward Music 1.0 Upon first listen, Nathalie Joachim's Dam mwen yo ("my ladies"), which opens this debut album, almost felt too familiar, yet another combination of cello, voice, and loops, but I stuck with it and soon became hypnotized by the textures and metronomic rhythm. Stolen, by Allison Loggins-Hull, comes next and gives you full immersion into Gookin's wondrous tone, which is then taken into twilight territory by Angelica Negron's electronics in her Las Desaparecidas. Both works take inspiration from tales of human trafficking, lending their restraint even more elemental power. Gookin commissioned all seven pieces here from female composers at various stages in their careers each with their own approach to themes around the power, challenges and pain of women in the world today. The final piece, Jessica Meyer's Swerve, brings joy and lyricism into the equation, a perfect send-off perfectly played by Gookin. Rest assured that everything here exists on a level of glorious musicality, with access to the artists' intentions not a requirement for listening. But once you know, you will be even more floored by what Gookin has achieved here. You'll also be on high alert for recordings of works commissioned for Forward Music 2.0, which premiered last year, and 3.0, set to be performed at National Sawdust on November 1.

Ning Yu - Of Being The three pieces here, by Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki, and Emily Praetorius, were all written for Ning over the last two decades and get first recordings on this debut solo album from one of the pianists in Yarn/Wire. The compositions are full of drama and intrigue, but it's the title track, by Praetorius, that hangs in the air long after it ends. Made up of fragments and silences, it constantly threatens to coalesce into something you can grasp - but then it slips through your fingers again, demanding further listening. Ning's playing throughout is as lethally elegant as the album's design, making this one of the finest piano albums of the year so far.

Andy Kozar - A Few Kites Trumpeters around the world owe Kozar, also a member of loadbang, a debt of gratitude for commissioning ten count'em TEN terrific new pieces for trumpet and electronics. Kozar and his collaborators push the trumpet into realms of expressiveness not heard since Luciano Berio turned his attention to the instrument in 1984 for Sequenza X. Whether it's the first movement of Ken Ueno's Quentin, which literally deconstructs the trumpet, or Blister by Quinn Collins and on the imagined relations of night sounds (and silent darkness) by Paula Matthusen, both of which use field recordings and found sounds to interact with Kozar's gleaming tones, the variety here is simply astonishing. It's a well-sequenced album, too, reaching a perfect conclusion with Eva Beglarian's ruminative Osculati Fourniture, its use of modes from Persian classical music giving it a quality both ancient and modern. Let's hope other trumpeters pick up Kozar's torch and put these pieces into concert halls as soon as we're able to gather for live music again.

Dai Fujikura - Turtle Totem This expansive collection puts Fujikura's expertise in nearly every setting - from chamber to orchestral - on full display. Each piece is so assured, with architecturally solid structures, inventive melodies, and innovative instrumental approaches, that he makes everything sound fresh. Even something as hoary as the horn concerto gets a new injection of life from Fujikura's dedication to never taking the easy way out. The first piece, THREE, for trumpet, trombone, and electric guitar, is also a lot of fun, with Fujikura reveling in the sonic possibilities of each instrument. It was commissioned by Ensemble Three, an Australian group whose work I'm now looking forward to exploring. His hand is also sure when it comes to electronics, as on Obi, where he samples the sound of the sho, a traditional Japanese mouth organ played by Tamami Tono, creating drones and echoes to accompany the instrument. A quick look at his discography finds that Fujikura is remarkably prolific as well. Start here and then dig further into what's sure to be a rich seam of music driven by emotion and skill.

Collage Project - Off Brand Dan Lippel never ceases to amaze me. Even as he tirelessly enriches the musical universe with his work for New Focus Recordings, he finds time to make music as fantastic as this album, a collaboration with old friends, Aidan Plank (bass) and Dan Bruce (electric guitar), and guests. From the first track I knew Off Brand would be essential listening for any fans of Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, or others exploring Venn diagrams where jazz, prog-rock, and classical meet and meld. Lippel's For Manny combines his tart and swinging nylon string acoustic with Bruce's fiery electric, driven hard by Nathan Douds' splashy drums. It's a knockout, and the rest of the album, whether improvised or composed, remains at that high level while exploring different moods with an overall lightness of touch that's very inviting. All the playing is great, but Off Brand is especially a feast for lovers of the guitar in all its multifarious incarnations.

Matteo Liberatore - Gran Sasso Speaking of feasts for guitar fans, Liberatore's second solo album is made up of a single 20-minute piece that finds him dishing out a kaleidoscopic array of techniques. Virtuosic, yes, but all in the service of a melodic narrative at times reminiscent of Nino Rota's work for Fellini films and just as delightful. The title refers to the largest mountain in the Apennines, in central Italy, but Liberatore's piece is more like an absorbing walk in the forest rather than a difficult ascent - and it's a journey you'll want to take often.

Sreym Hctim - Turn Tail Perhaps most unclassifiable of all are the five surrealist sound collages on this second album from "Sreym." In fact, this stuff could almost be the endpoint of all music, period. Once the boundaries between sound, song, style, emotion, structure, and sensibility have been erased, it might sound like the work of Mitch Myers (read it backwards). While much of what Myers is doing here is wildly original, it does rhyme with some things from the past, such as Pere Ubu's Dub Housing or New Picnic Time, if you removed all song form, or Varèse's Poeme Electronique, if it had been made by a digital native rather than a pioneer of magnetic tape composition. But as Varèse himself famously said, "I experiment before I make the music," and one thing that makes these pieces work is Myers absolute confidence in his process. Give yourself over to it and you will likely follow my lead and order the expanded edition. Released on cassette, it includes a live set performed on WNYU, which even shows Myers weaving in strains of Top 40 pop and avant R&B. Get to Turn Tail to get on the pulse of what comes after what comes next.

Find samples from all these albums in this playlist - and remember, since the concert industry is shut down right now, consider buying anything you love to help support the composers, performers, and labels that make all of this magic happen.

You may also enjoy:
Of Note In 2020: Classical
Record Roundup: Contemporary Kaleidoscope

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Best Of 2020 (So Far)

Typically, the way I make these lists is by scanning through my posts from the year, looking at Spotify playlists, and then dragging songs or pieces into a draft playlist. If it's more than 25 tracks long, I begin the process of narrowing it down. The main criteria is not "excellence," as that's where I focus my listening and my writing, but rather more a question of survival. To what music am I cleaving in order to get through the year? In times of strife, which is a polite way of describing the shit-show garbage fire that is 2020, many turn to the music of old and I have certainly spent some time with Bowie, The Beatles, Bob Marley, and Young Marble Giants, among others. But I have this engine inside that propels me towards the new and this year has been as generous as any in that regard. I am at a loss for words to describe the appreciation I feel toward any artist who has pushed past inertia and given us sounds that nourish us. Some of them are listed below. P.S. As usual, if I've covered the album before, just click on the title for more information.

Listen as you read here or below!

1. Bob Dylan - Rough And Rowdy Ways There may yet be a shelf of books written on this almost overwhelming expression of creative fecundity. As Tim Sommer pointed out recently, the Never Ending Tour deserves its own place among Dylan's artistic achievements, but it should be noted that, like the three albums of Tin Pan Alley songs he's released since 2012's brilliant Tempest, that is an arena for interpretation rather than creation. So when he sings, "I'm falling in love with Calliope/She don't belong to anyone, why not give her to me?" in Mother Of Muses, you get a hint of the hunger he might have been feeling to get the plug back in the socket and start writing new songs. But who knows? There's a vagueness about when these songs were written or recorded. When he dropped Murder Most Foul back in April, catching the world by surprise, he coyly noted, "This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting." Coy, and the understatement of the year. These songs are all "interesting," at the very least, not to mention funny, smart, and displaying a full palette of emotions. They are also eminently quotable, from the ur-braggadocio of "I’m first among equals - second to none/I’m last of the best - you can bury the rest/Bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold/Put ‘em six feet under and then pray for their souls" (False Prophet) to the stark reality of "I can see the history of the whole human race/It’s all right there - its carved into your face" (My Own Version Of You), but while this is a wordy album, the sound of it is just as notable. Unlike Tempest, with its lapidary attention to each instrument, Dylan's production this time around often turns the band into a single unit, either dealing out blues riffs so elemental as to be platonic or creating a tapestry of delicate tones and textures, creating the perfect backdrop for his singing. And what singing, displaying nuance or power as appropriate and able to convey wit or heartbreak with masterful subtlety. Just listen to the way he caresses the words and toys with the tempo when he sings "A lotta people gone/A lotta people I knew" in I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You, one magical moment among many on this album. Even if Dylan weren't DYLAN, Rough And Rowdy Ways would demand your attention - but only Dylan could have made it.

2. Bonny Light Horseman - Bonny Light Horseman

3. Molly Joyce - Breaking And Entering

4. Jonathan Wilson - Dixie Blur

5. Ted Hearne & Saul Williams - Place

6. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist - Alfredo After last year's triumphant Bandana, I would have forgiven Gibbs for taking the year off. But he's a man on a mission, so there was no time to wait. After working with Madlib, almost any other producer would have been a comedown, but The Alchemist is fully up to the challenge of goading Gibbs to new heights. The results never fail to entertain or inspire, with the latter best represented by the most apropos lines of the year: "The revolution is the genocide/Yeah, my execution might be televised" - words being worn right now on a t-shirt at a protest near you. Gibbs once more defines the moment and it is highly unlikely there will be a better hip hop album in 2020. Maybe he should square off with Dylan and let the sparks fly!

7. Hamilton Leithauser - The Loves Of Your Life See also his charming Tiny Desk Concert.

8. Matt Evans - New Topographics

9. Ocean Music - Morsels

10. Miro Shot - Content

11. Yaeji - What We Drew

12. Jay Electronica - A Written Testament

13. Makaya McCraven and Gil Scott-Heron - We're New Again: A Reimagining

15. Aoife Nessa Frances - Land Of No Junction

16. Car Seat Headrest - Making A Door Less Open

17. Frazey Ford - U Kin B The Sun

18. The Strokes - The New Abnormal

19. Tak Ensemble - Scott L. Miller: Ghost Layers

20. Wire - Mind Hive See also 10:20, a brilliant collection of strays and older songs reimagined.

21. John Craigie - Asterisk The Universe This is primo Americana and Craigie's most assured and varied album yet. It's his ninth studio album but don't feel bad if you never heard of him - I was in the same boat, a situation I detail in my interview with Craigie in Rock & Roll Globe. It's a rich catalog, too, but the smoky production, warmly cohesive band, and sharp songwriting here should put him in front of an even bigger audience. 

22. Honey Cutt - Coasting

23. Soccer Mommy - Color Theory

24. Them Airs - Union Suit XL I was pointed towards these New Haven art punks by Tracy Wilson's Turntable Report, which has quickly become an essential filter. Led by Cade Williams, Them Airs' website is a delightful trip into their aesthetic, including a highly editorialized list of all their gear. With their own liner notes referencing both Wire and "spicy no wave sax," you should be aware of what you're in for on this spiky blast of irreverent fun. Though they've been recording since 2017 and playing out since 2018, they have yet to play in NYC. I hope to be there when it happens!

25. Nadia Reid - Out Of My Province

What's been in heaviest rotation in your shelter?

You may also enjoy:

Best Of 2019 (So Far)
The Best Of 2018 (So Far)
Best Of 2017 (So Far)
Best Of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 1
Best Of 2016 (So Far), Pt. 2
The Best Of 2015 (So Far)
2014: Mid-Year Report
The Best Of 2013 (So Far)