Sunday, October 25, 2020

Record Roundup: In Their Prime

Here are four albums from artists who are at least at mid-career - and seemingly at the peak of their powers. Crucially, each album is good enough to serve as an introduction to their work, should you be unfamiliar - as in one case I was.

Fleet Foxes - Shore What are the elements that make fans like me so devoted to this band? First there's the embrace of many acoustic instruments in concert and counterpoint, creating an atmosphere of comfort much like that old cliché, the favorite sweater. Then, there's the heavenly voice of Robin Pecknold, often joined in three- or four-part harmony. Finally, there are the lyrics, which invite you on a quest for resolution and understanding of each other, the world, and ourselves. 

This surprise album, made before and during pandemic lockdown, also positions Fleet Foxes as Pecknold's project, as it includes none of the band members credited on previous albums. He has also said that he had a bigger hand in those albums than we earlier thought. Many of the stunning harmonies, for example, were him and him alone, painstakingly layering his own voice. That's not to say there aren't collaborators on the three earlier albums or here, where members of Grizzly Bear, the horn section known as The Westerlies, and even two of Hamilton Leithauser's children appear, among others. 

Whether a result of the extended process, new partners, or simply a honing of Pecknold's craft, this is the most direct and uplifting Fleet Foxes album yet, often cruising at a celebratory gallop, or (as on Can I Believe You) offering bold dynamic shifts, those gleaming horns seeming to sparkle in ocean sunlight. Few of the introspective convolutions of 2017's Crack-Up - wonderful as they were - are present on Shore. The sense of compassion and empathy is so strong, as on Featherweight when he sings, "May the last long year be forgiven/All that war left within it/I couldn’t, though I’m beginning to/And we only made it together," that it's hard to imagine even Fleet Foxes skeptics not finding Shore a welcome presence in their lives. 

And when you've listened to the album a bit, you could expand the experience by making a playlist of all the artists Pecknold lists in Sunblind, his gorgeous tribute to his heroes. Compiling Richard Swift, John Prine, Bill Withers, Judee Sill, Elliot Smith, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Jimi Hendrix, Chris Bell, Arthur Russell, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others, will make for a heck of a listen, and may further illuminate the sheer artistry and passion of Shore, an album I would prescribe as medicine during these times of multiple stressors on the heart, body, and mind. Take a dose. 

Angel Olsen - Whole New Mess Anyone fascinated by the creative process - and I am - can't help but be intrigued by the idea that this record, primarily made up of earlier recordings of songs that appeared on last year's triumphant All Mirrors, has been in the can since 2018. Artists are often insecure, but it's hard to imaging listening to these sumptuously emotional performances and thinking they are in some way unsatisfactory. I say "earlier recordings" instead of demos, because these stripped down versions, mostly Olsen's guitar and voice with occasional organ from her co-producer Michael Harris, feel complete in and of themselves. The recording, made in a converted church with a resonant natural echo, is tactile and may best be experienced on a "real stereo" so you can feel the weight of her pick against the strings and have her voice move some of the air in your own space. 

On All Mirrors, the songs were presented in maximalist clothing, strings and synths stacked to the rafters. Hearing them in skeletal form only confirms their strength as exquisitely constructed combinations of form and content. Even the 101 strings of the Melachrino Orchestra could not have dimmed the indelible incandescence of these melodies, and Whole New Mess simply confirms Olsen's place as one of the preeminent songwriters of our time. On the title track, one of two new songs here, Olsen declares, "It won't be long before it's really showing/It's every season where it is I'm going," and it's hard to know if she was looking ahead to All Mirrors or even further into the future - either way, I plan to be there.

Michael Zapruder - Latecomers Zapruder is a protean composer of sparkling chamber music, innovative operas, and folk-rock songs with a literary attention to detail. Latecomers is his first collection of the latter in 11 years - and my introduction to his talents. While the album was recorded over many years and includes textures ranging from the acoustic propulsion of the luminous title track to the almost glossy pop of New Quarantine, it still feels like a coherent collection, like having a wide-ranging conversation with a friend. That second song is a dystopian imagining of quarantine as a gated community that was written years before our current news cycle - not the first time an artist has shown an almost uncanny prescience. 

But the strongest songs here - and they're all good - seem more focused on personal matters. Seafaring, a song for which Michael Chapman and Sam Beam would kill to claim authorship, goes for the gut when Zapruder sings: "And then that house in Maryland got cancer in its walls/and we made all those long and sad phone calls." TOO relatable - I think we owe each other a hug. Zapruder's wry, somewhat dry voice, is perfect for delivering the wisdom and wit that abound on Latecomers, maybe no more so that in I Don't Think You Understand, the last track, which has him explaining with saintly patience: "There’s salt in the water of the sea/there’s sugar in the fruit of the land/but if you think there’s an answer in me/I don’t think you understand." So no answers, maybe, but plenty of the right questions, all couched in finely wrought melodies and clever musical settings. Consider me more than pleased to make Zapruder's acquaintance!

Frankie And The Witch Fingers - Monsters Eating People Eating Monsters... On 2019's Zam, their fifth album, this LA-based prog-psych band arrived at a new level of supremacy in their chosen field. On songs like Pleasure, the rhythm section of founding bassist Alex Bulli and new drummer Shaughnessy Starr achieved an almost frightening level of power and precision, and the sound throughout was of a band truly coming into their own, especially singer and songwriter Dylan Sizemore, who owned his vocals more than on previous records. From that new peak, FATWF have only continued to ascend on this latest collection. Even with Bulli having departed, the rhythms achieve a tight looseness (or is it a loose tightness) that is the height of head-nodding immersion. 

The guitar dynamics of Sizemore and Josh Menashe are also something to behold, whether interlocking in dizzying fashion or assembling to deliver hammer blows, like the power chords on Reaper, which give my speakers a welcome opportunity to show off. But there's far more than brute force here, with new textures introduced from cello, synths, and plenty of group percussion jams. The lyrics seem to offer a scabrous view of humanity, with music and other modes of altering consciousness a saving grace of life on planet earth. Whether it's the wah-wah workout on Sweet Freak, the delirious twin-leads of Where's Your Reality, or the near-funk of Simulator, FATWF provide their own best argument that rock and roll can get you past whatever it is you're going through - and in spectacular style, too. 

Find tracks from all these albums - and many more - here or below.


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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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