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 written while 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 blistering 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.

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Fela On Film
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