Sunday, November 29, 2020

Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)

Although "catching up" is an unattainable goal, what follows is a quick multi-genre run-through of things I'm burning to present to your beleaguered attention before the end of the year ruminations and revelations begin.

Wang Lu - An Atlas Of Time After 2018's stunning Urban Inventory, I knew to expect even greater things from this composer and this album exceeds those imaginings in every way. The title piece is a five-movement spectacular, incorporating orchestrations that Bartok would envy alongside electronics and prerecorded material for collage-like effects that will have your head spinning in the best way. It's astonishing in its concision and power and the performance by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with Gil Rose conducting is unlikely to be equalled - but that doesn't mean I don't think others should try, and often, in concert halls across the globe. The album also includes Ryan And Dan, a duet for saxophone (Ryan Muncy) and guitar (Dan Lippel) that manages to combine post-punk, free jazz, art rock, and modernism in a mesmerizing seven minutes, Double Trance for string quartet, played by Momenta Quartet and showing mastery of the medium, Unbreathable Colors, a sparkling and off-kilter piece for solo violin (Miranda Cuckson), and Siren Song, which puts more of her orchestral artistry on display. Fearless, fun, fascinating - and emotionally compelling - the world of Wang Lu is one of my favorite destinations. Plot a course ASAP.

Sarah Hennies - Spectral Malsconcities How you relate to these two half-hour+ pieces may depend on the musical references you find within. For me, the opening section of the title track, played with a casual perfection by Bearthoven, sounds like a fragment from a Tim Buckley session, circa Happy Sad or Star Sailor, with a starring role for Pat Swoboda's woody bass. Then it moves into a something that triggers the PiL/Flowers Of Romance synapse in my brain before entering a period of extreme repetition. To that last point: not everyone will be able to take this level of minimalism, but I love it, finding a kind of tart wit to each iteration. Played by the piano-percussion lineup of Bent Duo, Unsettle shades into an acoustic form of ambient music, with plucked piano strings hanging the air, populating their own resonance. I'm getting Eno/On Land vibes, but as I note above, your results my vary. Curious? There's only one way to find out...

Tristan Perich - Drift Multiply In 2018, I attended the world premiere of this majestic piece for 50 violins and one-bit electronics at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine. It was glorious and I ended my review with these thoughts: "While there is certainly an element of performance or installation art, the whole thing was deeply musical and I hope that logistics don’t get in the way of future performances. There was a video crew and likely audio recording being done as well so I would keep an eye on the Red Bull website to see if they make it available for you to experience at home. Drift Multiply is a triumph of imagination and execution that may just give your living room, or wherever you listen, a touch of the divine." And now we have this recording, made in Amsterdam last year, to bear out my statement. Listen and let it bathe you in sound.

Tracks from these albums and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Classical) playlist.

S.G. Goodman - Old Time Feeling I'm not sure if this debut album was long in the making, but Goodman's voice rips out of the speakers with a captivating impatience, even on the ballads. The production by Jim James foregrounds her remarkable clarion call, which feels drenched in her Kentucky roots, surrounding it with tube-fired guitar, drums, and the simplest of bass lines. The songs are crafted from a deep well of Americana, with country, blues, and folk blended in such a way that the seams are invisible. As the title indicates, Goodman must be an old soul - one listen and she's also an old friend.

Jeffrey Silverstein - You Become The Mountain Pedal-steel infused minimalist mysticism here, with Silverstein your gentle guru. A song title like Cosmic Scene may not sound promising, but such is Silverstein's sincerity that he gets away with it and leaves you wanting more. I put this on and I'm instantly walking in the woods, after rain, smelling leaves and hearing water's gentle movements. It's a trip, alright.

Melody Fields - Broken Horse In 2018, I called this band "Swedish psychonauts who seem to travel through space and time with equal ease," when reviewing their debut album. These four new songs find them in an almost singleminded pursuit of draggy sparkle and shimmer, hitting the mark every time.

Boogarins - Levitation Sessions With the longest track clocking in at under seven minutes, you know this is going to be a different experience than their 2017 epic of the stage, Desvio Onirico, but these are different times. It's no less excellent, however, and finds them blazing through a career-spanning set of songs from their first four albums and Manchaca Vol. 1, their marvelous odd'n'sods collection that also came out this year. Platinum-sellers in their native Brazil, Boogarins will always be on my hit parade!

Tracks from these and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) playlist.

Vibration Black Finger - Can't You See What I'm Trying To Say Percussionist and keyboard player Lascelle Gordon has come a long way since 1985, when he was a founding member of the Brand New Heavies, a group which always struck me as superficial. But everything here is 100% REAL, whether in abstract explorations like the title track or the furious groove Acting for Liberation, Pt. 1, which seems to incise itself on your mind and body more deeply with each passing moment of its expansive 10-minute length. Surely one of the most authentic progeny of the spiritual jazz movement, VBF are not fooling around.

A track from this album and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Jazz, Latin & Global) playlist.

Quakers - II - The Next Wave When I included the debut from this hip hop collective in my list of the 100 greatest albums of the 2010's earlier this year, I was fully convinced it was a one-off. I was even growing a little nostalgic, remembering how it introduced me to both Jonwayne and Guilty Simpson, both of whom I went on to interview, but still feeling a bit stung by its lack of seismic impact. Eight years later they are back and it's as if no time as passed. Eclectic beats, varied rappers, including Jonwayne and Guilty Simpson, and just as much fun. Also a blast is Supa-K: Heavy Tremors, their "beat tape" - 50 tracks in 49 minutes - which had my wife asking, "Is this J Dilla?" Not quite, but it certainly hits that spot very sweetly. Welcome back, Quakers, long may you rock my world.

Tracks from these albums and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Hip Hop, R&B, & Reggae) Playlist.

Elsa Hewitt - Ghostcats This EP is an extra fuzzy excursion from Hewitt, and all the more charming in its graceful electronic distortions. Hewitt's world enters the physical realm with her handmade cassettes and this one was very special - I celebrated it in this unboxing video - but a talisman is not required for the magic to happen. All you need do is push play.

A track from this album and many others can be found on my Of Note In 2020 (Electronic) playlist.

You may also enjoy:
Of Note In 2020: Classical
Of Note In 2020: Electronic
Of Note In 2020: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Of Note In 2020: Jazz, Latin, and Global
Of Note In 2020: Rock, Folk, Etc.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Record Roundup: New Music Cavalcade

The turns of history that have transpired since I started this post are even more head-spinning than the kaleidoscopic variety of music I discuss below. But the fact remains that whatever happens in the world of politics, we will always have artists to inspire us and reflect the world back to us in ways that lend perspective, strength, and solace. With the monumental election now behind us, the end of the year also seems to approach ever more rapidly. However, I will attempt to get one or two more "regular" posts up before we start delineating the best of 2020. Because, yes, there is yet more mind-blowing music to cover!

Tracks from the albums below, and many others, can be found here or below. Click follow to make sure you don't miss a thing.

Ash Fure - Something To Hunt The first time I heard Echoes by Pink Floyd (which was shamefully late in the game), I thought, "This should be played in concert halls around the world." So when I put on this album, the first portrait collection of Fure's music (also shamefully late!), I felt my vision coming to a certain kind of reality. Especially on Shiver Lung (2016), which opens the album, there's a sense of distant observation, narrative sweep, and mounting terror that brings some of the legendary band's sounds and structures into the realm of contemporary composition most effectively. I'm not surprised to read that it's an excerpt from a longer work, The Force Of Things: An Opera for Objects, as Pink Floyd themselves fruitlessly pursued an album made solely for household objects. As heard here, Shiver Lung is a landmark work of nearly pure sound that makes astonishingly original use of the forces of the International Contemporary Ensemble, who perform most of the pieces on the record. I've probably rung this bell too often already, but if you have some bigger speakers in your house, let it rip on them for full immersion. Something To Hunt (2014) is more recognizable as ultra-modern chamber music, although of a highly distinctive nature, with strings plucked and stroked, and a dynamic architecture that edges towards chaos before pulling back. 

Soma (2012), a reflection on Fure's grandmother's Parkinson's disease, is a restless assemblage of piano notes, rustling strings, and white noises, and would fascinate even without knowing the inspiration behind it. The most stripped-down piece here is A Library on Lightning (2018), which makes the most of a trio of trumpet, bassoon, and double bass, ranging from skeletal stretches to furious conglomerations for a discomfiting 14 minutes. Bound To The Bow (2016) is presented in a spellbinding live recording by the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra and brings us full circle to the sound world of Shiver Lung, with shimmering electronics blending with the acoustic instruments. It's edge-of-your-seat stuff and the perfect conclusion to Something To Hunt, which finally begins to slake the thirst I've had to dive into Fure's music, which, like that of Anna Thorvaldsdottir is highly complex but holds broad appeal. Don't miss it.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Rhízōma Speaking of this Icelandic wonder, her first portrait album, which introduced me to her music nearly a decade ago, has been reissued in a stunning remaster by Sono Luminus, and includes a new recording of Dreaming performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. You have no excuse to miss it the second time around.

Jacqueline Leclair - Music For English Horn Alone Funny how the world converges sometimes. Just today I started catching up with the awesome podcast from TAK Ensemble, listening to Hannah Kendall interview Elaine Mitchener and thinking I need to follow up on both of them. Then I plucked this album off my teetering stack and spotted Kendall's name among the seven composers Leclaire included here. At just over three minutes, Kendall's piece is short but characterful. Called Joe (2006),  and based on the photo of the same name by Richard Boll, it asks more questions than it answers while conveying empathy for its subject. Leclair's technique in this world premiere recording is flawless, as it is throughout this concise collection. There's plenty of variety here, too. In The City At Night (2008) by Jenni Brandon has some of Gershwin's jazzy insouciance, full of dance rhythms and narrative thrust, while Kara Obermüller's different forms of phosphorous (2020) tends towards abstraction, exploring extended techniques. Perhaps most radical is Música invisible (2004) by Cecilia Arditto, which has Leclair removing the reed and bocal to make some very human noises. 

The Obermüller and Arditto pieces are also recorded for the first time, as is Layered Lament (1984) by Faye-Ellen Silverman, which in its use of electronics is at least 20 years ahead of its time. Besides just being a good listen, such advocacy and archiving make Music For English Horn Alone, which also includes fascinating works by Meera Gudipati and Lisa Bielawa, a truly important release and one that will define this repertoire, for years to come.

Dominique Lemaître - De l’espace trouver la fin et le milieu This gorgeously recorded collection of Lemaître's cello music, played with mastery and a deep connection by Dan Barrett, was my introduction to the French composer. Based on these jewel-toned pieces, which often tingle the spine and always engage the mind, I'm ready to deepen the friendship. The album opens with Orange and yellow II (2013), in a transcription from the original two-viola version, making full use of the eight strings as Barrett duets with Stanislav Orlovsky. Inspired by Mark Rothko and written in tribute to Morton Feldman, the two cellos pursue a dialogue that is as riveting as listening in on a conversation by dazzling intellects. Like many of the pieces, the highly resonant acoustic is almost another instrument, with notes hanging in the air and echoing in the distance. 

Mnaïdra (1992) and Plus haut (2018) are the two solo works here and a good measure of how Lemaître's work has developed over the years. The former is lyrical and almost folk-like, with gentle strums and tidy melodies, while the latter is an epic of abstract yearning, ending with a series of piercing repeated notes ("higher" - as implied by the title) that will stay with you for some time. Pianist Jed Distler is on hand for Stances, hommage à Henri Dutilleux (2015), which has single notes from the keyboard decorating long, ruminative lines from the cello, like sunlight sparkling on water, and you would likely not need the title to recognize Lemaître's debt to his fellow French master. The album also includes Thot (1994), which has Barrett playing with clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki in a wonderfully hushed exploration of woody textures. Read the notes and you will find that Lemaître is, in some ways, what you might expect from a cultured French composer: elegant, well-read, well-traveled, and with phenomenally assured technical skills. But that doesn't mean that this music isn't quietly surprising and the fact that it is surpassingly excellent is likely a result of all those qualities. There's something to be said for new music made old school!

Brooklyn Rider - Healing Modes This high-concept album interleaves the five movements of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 with five new pieces commissioned by Brooklyn Rider from some of today's most notable composers. While Beethoven's 250th anniversary was obviously an impetus for putting the album together, along with the world's desperate need for healing, there's no way the group could have predicted just how much healing when they commissioned these works a few years ago. I'm also fairly certain the group was not expecting Beethoven to become a flashpoint in the ongoing quest for social justice in classical music. While celebrating his "genius and humanity," as violist Johnny Gandelsman puts it, is a valid point in every year, whether the concept ultimately works for you will depend on your patience for listening to Beethoven. For me, I'm just not in the mood - and not for ideological reasons but for musical ones. I have shelves of the stuff, after all, and it just felt too familiar, even in their lapidary performance. So after a couple of listens, I teased out my own playlist of just the new works and...WOW. This is some of the best string quartet music of recent years. 

Matana Roberts' borderlands... opens the album in cinematic fashion, with indistinct voices, "Psycho" jabs, intricate and angry pizzicato, and the occasional moment of calm. By the time the players started spitting out "We hold these truths! To be..Self Evident!" I was almost on my feet. Reena Esmail's Zeher (Poison) seamlessly combines the sinuous melodies of Indian classical music with brusque chording for a bracing and beautiful eight minutes. I was reminded of her lovely piece on Nicholas Phillips' Shift and once again have a whetted appetite for more. The third new piece on Healing Modes is Gabriela Lena Frank's Kanto Kechua #2 and, based on this commanding and incantatory work, she is someone about whom I need to know more - and here's the perfect place to do just that. 

Then we get i am my own achilles heel, a mesmerizing 12-minute piece from Du Yun, which maps out a wide dynamic range, from airy whispers and pensive melodies to gnarly tangles of sound. She can do no wrong. The final new piece is by Caroline Shaw, the tuneful, Americana-infused Schisma, ending the album on a perfect note of hopefulness, although in no ways uncomplicated. By all means, follow the program and listen to Healing Modes as programmed by Brooklyn Rider. But if that's not hitting the spot, find your way to these wondrous new works through other means. 

Another hint of the depth of talent in Brooklyn Rider is violist Nicolas Cords' new album, Touch Harmonious, which mixes new works by Anna Clyne, Dmitri Yanov Yanovski, and Dana Lyn with older pieces by Britten, Handel, Bach, and other, all played with the same burnished tone and emotional engagement he displayed on Recursion, his solo debut from 2013. Gandelsman also has a new album, following up his complete recording of Bach's Solo Partitas, this time assaying the master's Complete Cello Suites transcribed for violin, including the first-ever recording of the 6th suite on a 5-string violin. It's a fleet-fingered take, emphasizing the Baroque dance rhythms embedded in each movement. Gandelsman's technique is flawless yet imbued with personality, making you hear these oft-played works anew. Now, if I could just get cellist Michael Nicolas to give me a sequel to Transitions, my life would be complete...for a little while, anyway!

Chris P. Thompson - True Stories & Rational Numbers Though inspired by the fearsomely complex player-piano works of Conlon Nancarrow and some deep thoughts about just intonation and Hermann von Helmholtz’s book On the Sensations of Tone, these nine piano pieced gleam with off-kilter charm, like a futuristic blend of Aphex Twin, Roger Eno and Erik Satie. Put it on and the sparkle will fill your room, like mirrored mobiles spinning around themselves, as you hear the piano in a whole new way.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Strings And Things
The Inspired Viola Of Melia Watras
Jace Clayton's Call To Conversation