Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Record Roundup: Rock'n'Pop Adjacent

There are number of releases at least adjacent to rock and pop that have been energizing me throughout 2021. Get into these albums (and one playlist) and get all the feels, from raucous to reflective.   

The Muckers - Endeavor Thanks to kick-ass releases by Jane Church and Frankie and the Witch Fingers, I always keep an eye out to see what Greenway Records is putting out, which is how this caught my ear. Led by Emir Mohseni, their sleekly propulsive psych-rock generates excitement at any volume. Between Mohseni and rhythm guitarist Chris Cawley, there's a supple funkiness to much of the riffage, while the bass and drums of Anthony Azarmgin and John Zimmerman keep things moving in tireless and unfussy fashion. I can imagine The Muckers being a complete thrill in a club setting and will find out for myself when the time is right.

Acid Dad - Take It From The Dead I've been keeping a close eye on this band since at least 2016 when  I noted the "riff-tastic garage rock" on their Let's Plan A Robbery EP in my Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.. However, I did feel then, and on their 2019 debut album, that they could push their sound more. And they have! Since they're also affiliated with Greenway I'd like to think that some of Jane Church's expressive melodicism and FATWF's hypnotic power has rubbed off on them, but it's more likely just the sound of a good band getting better. Either way, this is their best album yet, with Vaughn Hunt and Sean Fahey's signature spiraling guitars and drummer and groove-oriented rhythms sounding more confident and involving than ever. This especially comes to fruition on knockout tracks BBQ, RC Driver and album-closing epic Djembe. That last one starts out quietly, with a questing bass line supporting a stately rhythm, and just keeps building in a controlled fashion, inexorably becoming your whole world. Keep'em coming, boys!

Bachelor - Doomin' Sun I loved Jay Som's last album, Anak Ko, but had a little trepidation when I saw her next release was a collaboration with an artist I was only slightly familiar with, Ellen Kempner, who records as Palehound. File the results under: Stop worrying so much. Doomin' Sun turns out to have many of the pleasures Jay Som (Melina Duterte) delivers on her own, namely well-developed melodies, songs constructed with old-school craft, and smart, relatable lyrics. So what does Palehound bring to the mix? Considering Jay Som's last two albums were made completely on her own, there is a jolt of energy and dynamics triggered by their devoted friendship, which seems to involve a lot of laughter. Palehound also brings more guitars, helping some songs build to washes of shoegazey deliciousness, and her higher voice blends beautifully with Duterte's more mezzo tones. The two make a remarkable production team, too - just listen to the sonic details on Anything At All. A side benefit of this terrific album is that digging into Palehound's back catalog made me realize I should have kept a closer eye on her. And whatever Jay Som wants to do next, or with whom, I'm on board. 

Lael Neale - Acquainted With Night Have Omnichord sales increased since this dusky jewel of an album came out in February? I wouldn't be surprised as the combination of Neale's crystalline voice with the plastic sparkle of her Omnichord is pure captivation. Her songs have the sturdy quality of folk music coupled with a haunted quality from the darker side of the girl group sound. There's a sense of privacy here, like a half-finished Nick Drake bedroom recording, that feels almost mythic. But Neale and her Omnichord are very real and no less precious for that.

UV-TV - Always Something I've been a fan since 2017 and it seemed to promise great things for the year in live music when I finally got to see them in February, 2020. Well, I was wrong about that but my ongoing fascination with the sonic vision of Rose Vastola (bass, vocal) and Ian Bernacette (guitar, vocals) has paid mighty dividends on their third album. Continuing the trend from 2019's Happy, the production has improved yet further adding sheen and heft to their taut post-punk and letting Vastola's voice soar over it all. As I secretly wished, she sings on all tracks, letting Bernacette concentrate on what he does best, namely playing guitar, drawing on familiar vocabulary (Johnny Marr, Bernard Sumner) but putting his own spin on it, whether using colorful arpeggios or layering crunchy chords. New drummer Ian Rose fits in perfectly, whether thrashing away or providing a motorik backbeat. If you have yet to tune into UV-TV, now is the time.

Palberta - Palberta5000 Unlike some of the bands included here, I'm a latecomer to the trio of Ani Ivry-Block, Lily Konigsberg, and Nina Ryser, catching the caboose here on their fifth album. So I've missed their whole trajectory from exceedingly lo-fi, ramshackle avant-rock to where we are now: a heat-seeking missile of mathy minimalism with sugary vocals shining brightly over the churn und drang of the music. Some of this story may be informed by the development of Konigsberg as a songwriter, which you can trace on the excellent compilation The Best Of Lily Konigsberg Right Now, which also came out earlier this year. As that title suggests, humor is a part of the Palberta charm, very occasionally becoming self-indulgent. But most of the album is wondrously catchy art-pop. More impressive, many songs barely hit 90 seconds yet still feel absolutely complete, making my head spin at all they pack into those tiny vignettes. Fun, smart stuff - and I definitely won't miss the next one.

Ganser - Look At The Sun This Chicago band's second album, 2020's Just Look At That Sky, gained them much attention and accolades. I listened, too - a couple of times - and admired it while not being totally grabbed. This EP, which finds songs from the album being remixed by everyone from current indie sensation Bartees Strange to shoegaze maestro Andy Bell of Ride (in his electronic guise as GLOK). In the case of the former, Strange strips Emergency Equipment And Exits down to its essence, chopping off a guitar part or two and losing two minutes in the process. The result is a tidy machine of a song, highlighting Alicia Gaines' powerful voice, which takes on an unearthly tone over the chugging rhythm. And so it goes throughout, with each collaborator, including Sadie Dupuis, Algiers, and Girl Band, putting their own stamp on their track while somehow maintaining Ganser's personality. It will likely turn me back to the album and to a new appreciation of their sound and songs. 

Lucy Dacus - Home Video I've been more of an admirer from a distance than a fan of Dacus, a fine singer and songwriter who regularly lands on year-end lists and certainly doesn't need my help to get attention. But I can feel my own attention shifting with this, her third album. The songwriting seems more focused, her voice more expressive, the settings a little more pop oriented, and the production is warm and highly detailed when it needs to be but is never fussy. But those are just words I'm using to try to explain this: Home Video touches me in ways her previous albums didn't. Many of the songs revolve around her coming of age, coming to terms with her sexuality, being confronted with the pain the world can dish out, and learning that you can survive and grow through all of that. In short, most anyone can relate, even if their upbringing and circumstances were different. Home Video represents another coming of age for Dacus, this time as an artist who can tap into almost primal emotions ("I would kill him/If you let me/I would kill him/Quick and easy," she sings in Thumbs, wishing the demise of a friend's deadbeat dad) with a lethal elegance. I saw her open for Jonathan Wilson a few years ago, and she did not quite command the stage. Listening to Home Video, I can't imagine that ever happening again.

LABEL FOCUS: Eye Knee Records This is a new venture founded by expert singer-songwriters Holly Miranda, Amb. Parsley, and Chris Maxwell, self-described as "a homemade label, periodical, co-op and kitchen." Most importantly, it's a way for them to remain completely independent, without any outside influences affecting what they release or when and how they release it. They're also promising to tithe all proceeds from one in every ten releases "back to the community." Now, Holly Miranda is one of the most important artists in MY 21st century, so I'll follow her wherever - and I'm excited by the idea of her having total control over her art. I've also enjoyed Parsley's work over the years, especially in concert, and she is easily as skilled in the studio as Miranda, and Maxwell is a sharp songwriter and explosively talented guitar player. The three of them make a fantastic team, able to put together songs in nearly any style or sound, and the fruits of their labors have been impressive so far.

No albums yet, but the 11 songs Eye Knee has put out range from Let A Wolf, a dark-tinged slow-burner with smoky guitar from Maxwell and coy vocals from Parsley, to Exiled In Alicante, a hushed acoustic song that has Miranda singing with moving restraint, as if holding back a flood of emotion. Then there's Kindness Of Strangers, perhaps the finest song co-writers Maxwell and Parsley have been involved in, and one of the best of the last few years. It's a song that should be sung around campfires unto eternity, deeply human and perfectly constructed. The production by Miranda is equally perfect. She sings backing vocals and plays guitar, drums, and xylophone alongside her regular collaborators Maria Eisen on baritone sax and Josh Werner on bass. Then there's Miranda's devastating take on Bonnie Raitt's Nick Of Time, with nothing but her guitar and Parsley's backing vocals. No one but Holly can take a song that has essentially become background noise and find a way to rip your heart all over again. 

New Setlist No. 2

I got to hear her do that to Van Morrison's Sweet Thing in the open air, at a concert the three of them recently put on at Westwind Orchards in the Catskills, and it was just extraordinary. The whole show put their partnership on full display, with each supporting the others in their own songs. We got to hear  Nothingland, a new song from Maxwell, as well as his cover of Nick Lowe's When I Write The Book and a few from New Store No. 2, his marvelous 2020 album,. Parsley gave us Strangers, Wolf, and a number called Heavy Metal Stacy, which let Maxwell unleash his inner Eddie Van Halen, with the moves to match. And Miranda did some of the new songs but dug deep with classics from her catalog like Until Now, Desert Call, and Waves. There is nothing to replace the sensation of Holly Miranda standing right there, singing for all she's worth and letting it rip with one of humanity's golden voices. I'm on the edge of pretension trying to paint the picture for you, but hopefully that will compel you to get out there if she shows up and a club or an orchard near you.

All of the artists above could learn from this trio's passion, work ethic, and level of craft. I urge them - and you - to buy all the Eye Knee songs, now numbering 11, and put them in a playlist - it's as satisfying a listen as any of this year's best albums. Email me at AnEarful@icloud.com and I will gift you with what I think is the perfect sequence, which I have dubbed The Eye Knee Experience. Since neither Maxwell, Miranda, or Parsley is afraid of a bad pun, I leave you with this: I need more Eye Knee!

Eye Knee Trio Live: Amb. Parsley, Holly Miranda, and Chris Maxwell

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Songs And Singers
Record Roundup: Rock Formations
Holly Miranda's Exquisite Mutual Horse

Monday, July 05, 2021

The Best Of 2021 (So Far)

The year's halfway point is a good opportunity to take stock of the music that has been animating my year, some of which I haven't had a chance to write about yet. As always, what constitutes the "best" is simply what has demanded repeat listening because of the way it connects to my heart, soul, brain, and body, not necessarily due to a higher level of "excellence" than the other music I've written about. Here goes nothin'!

Previously covered albums are linked to their original review. Click play here or on the playlist below to listen while you read.

1. Fruit Bats - The Pet Parade

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Quietly Blowing It

3. Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson - Dark Days

4. Elsa Hewitt - Lupa "Rivers and streams feeding my dreams," Hewitt sings in Car In The Sun, a line that captures everything I love about her music. Part of the reality of flowing water is that it's "never the same twice" - but, just as the Thames is always the Thames, Hewitt's music is always an invitation to a universe of wondrously hazy electronic ethereality, familiar from album to album, but never precisely the same. The fact that I'm quoting lyrics when talking about Lupa is one aspect of what makes it a new step for her: eight of the nine tracks have lyrics, when usually the opposite is true. Often any singing she does is wordless, another texture in the layers of gauze she assembles. While she's still swathing her voice in reverb, you can read along with the words either on Bandcamp or within the j-card of the limited-edition cassette. Just as her music maps out a luscious interiority, occasionally defined by beats, her lyrics have the immediacy of conversation and the intimacy of a journal entry, like these opening words from Howl: "What am I up to?/I'm just upstairs, trying to cope with/Heavy wordless love in my chest/How do I continue? How?" In addition to this extra content, the rhythms are often more intricate and defined than they have been, a drift towards the shiny lights of pop music, and one which feels entirely organic. Squirrelex opens with another lyric that feels like a mission statement: "i am warm but not too warm/i am on a journey that i adore/i am like a shaman on mtv/the cameras obstructed by fog." I adore her journey, too, in all its warmth, chill, and fog.

5. Tak Ensemble - Taylor Brook: Star Maker Fragments

6. Jane Weaver - Flock

7. Domenico Lancelotti - Raio

8. Madlib - Sound Ancestors

9. Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises

10. Sō Percussion and Friends - Julius Eastman: Stay On It

11. Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg

12. Wavefield Ensemble - Concrete & Void

13. Faye Webster - I Know I'm Funny HaHa In my review of her third album, Atlanta Millionaire's Club, I noted that Webster could almost be Natalie Prass's little sister. Now, on her lush fourth album, she inched even closer, recording some of it at Spacebomb Studios and engaging Trey Pollard, their in-house polymath, to conduct some of the arrangements. By leaning further into to her country-soul inclinations she also seems ever closer to her genuine self. One of my favorite songs is Kind Of, which also seems to be a deep cut, at least if Spotify play counts are to be believed. With an organ and pedal steel dueling for the stars and a guiro's ratchet sound driving the rhythm, she ends the song by repeating the chorus, "And I feel kind of tucked away," for over a minute before relinquishing the song to the music. It's as if she casting a spell - and I'm entranced. Kind Of leads into to Cheers, which has a grungy strut yet manages to retain a delirious melancholy, the two songs forming the backbone of her most consistent album yet. And I haven't even mentioned the brilliant Better Distractions, which even managed to attract the attention of Barack Obama, or whoever creates his playlists, when it was released as a single in 2020. I do admit that my devotion to this album is not hurt at all by the fact that Prass hasn't released anything in three years. It's not that one replaces the other - and I hope Prass is OK - but they hit similar sweet spots. And it's one of my sweet spots that needs attention!

14. Mallu Magalhães - Esperança If you want to know what a smile sounds like, listen to Magalhães sing "Chin-chin-chin chin-chin chin-chin-chin" on the chorus of Barcelona from her fifth album. You will soon be smiling yourself, whatever mood you were in when you started listening. As she revealed on Facebook, the album was completed over a year ago, but she just could not see launching it in the midst of the world's troubles. That's a debatable point, but the good news is that we now have this lighter than air confection to propel us through whatever comes next. Recorded in Portugal and co-produced by her fellow Brazilian Mario Caldato, Jr., Esperança finds Magalhães perfecting her sublime blend of bossa nova, fifties-inflected pop, soul, funk, jazz, and folk. Look no further for a direct injection of pure pleasure.

15. Christopher Cerrone - The Arching Path

16. Raoul Vignal - Years In Marble As on his exquisite second album, 2018's Oak Leaf, Vignal's latest finds him generating rainswept bliss with his fingerpicked guitar, hushed voice, and the sensitive drums and percussion of Lucien Chatin. However, Vignal, who also plays bass, synth, sax and bamboo flute on the album, is also coming out of the shadows a bit, with more uptempo songs and an increased dynamism to his sound. To Bid The Dog Goodbye, for example, has flourishes (electric guitar! bongos!) and stopped-tempo moves that evince a subtle drama. But the core of it all is that guitar, which he plays with the off-hand perfection of a Michael Chapman or Nick Drake. After honing his craft for the last three years, Vignal should be top of mind for anyone seeking the finest in contemporary singers, songwriters, and guitarists.

17. Anika Pyle - Wild River

18. Tyler, The Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost With 2019's Igor, Tyler arrived at a new pinnacle of creativity and emotional connection, a trajectory he continues with this kaleidoscopic album. His ability to bare his soul while sailing over a multitude of genres, from synth-pop to RnB to lovers rock, with a casual virtuosity is truly remarkable. Similar to Frank Ocean, who makes an uncredited appearance here, Tyler is trying to reconcile where he is now - and who he is now - with where he came from. But he avoids solipsism by letting in the outside world through well-deployed guest spots, which do nothing to reduce the individuality of his achievement. One key feature is a voice memo from his mother describing her devotion in no uncertain terms: "I'd stand in front of a bullet, on God, over this one." Her concern somehow becomes ours and strengthens the bond between listener and artist. The centerpiece of the album is the nearly 10-minute Sweet/I Thought You Wanted To Dance, in which he transforms two well-traveled songs (this one and this one) into a two-part suite of love and loss that dazzles in all directions. As a producer, Tyler is like a painter who chooses just the right color from a polychrome palette. In addition to the transformed samples, he adds RnB singers Brent Faiyaz and Fana Hues are the perfect surrogate and foil, respectively, to illustrate the story. Tyler's ambition is as massive as his talent and, at this point, it's hard to imagine the former outstripping the latter. After Madlib, this is the hip hop album of the year - and number three is not even close!

19. Ben Seretan - Cicada Waves

20. Patricia Brennan - Maquishti

21. Amy Helm - What The Flood Leaves Behind

22. Adam Morford & Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Yesterday Is Two Days Ago

23. Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

24. Mndsgn - Rare Pleasure Sometimes an artist has to go backwards to move forward. Or something like that. Whatever the lesson, this third album from the composer, singer, and producer Ringgo Ancheta delivers on all the promise in his first, 2014's Yawn Zen in ways I couldn't even imagine, especially after Body Wash, the disappointing follow up from 2016. Richly immersive from the opening seconds, Mndsgn constructs something like the Muzak from a divine elevator, jazzy, woozy, and soulful sounds that seem to beg you to find a hammock immediately and just sway along. While wonderful, Yawn Zen, was just the bare bones of his heavenly vision. Inviting brilliant collaborators like arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to help realize those ideas is just one reason Rare Pleasure succeeds on all levels - and lives up to its title perfectly.

25. Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince

Keep up with all my listening across all genres in these playlists: 
Of Note In 2021
Of Note In 2021 (Classical)
Of Note In 2021 (Electronic)
Of Note In 2021 (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
Of Note In 2021 (Jazz, Latin & Global)
Of Note In 2021 (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
Of Note In 2021 (Out Of The Past)

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2020 (So Far)
Best Of 2019 (So Far)
The Best Of 2018 (So Far)
Best Of 2017 (So Far)

AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Record Roundup: Americana The Beautiful

For the last four or five years, there's been an increasingly bitter battle over what it means to be an American. There are some of those among us who might even have found themselves questioning the whole enterprise, i.e. how good could this place be if it produced those people with those ideas? But most days, the good outweighs the bad, even if the latter can get an unholy grip on the reins for a moment. Turning towards albums like those reviewed below can be a part of both appreciating the good and gathering strength to resist the bad. We must be doing something right if music like this still grows here, alongside those amber waves of grain. Reap the harvest.

Hiss Golden Messenger - Quietly Blowing It The critic's job can be tough when an artist nails it in their own words, as HGM's M.C. Taylor does in his essay, Mourning In America, when he says, "I'm not sure what the difference is between celebrating and mourning. I feel like I was doing both at the same time." There in a nutshell is the array of moods, from joy and sorrow to hope and regret, found here, masterfully distilled and blended into a complex whole, like one of those whiskies made from 12 different barrels of varying ages. In that same essay, Taylor also talks about the difficult journey to Quietly Blowing It, which began in late 2019 when, blown out on the trail and unsure of his purpose, he cancelled his first Australian tour - he hated disappointing people but  says "it felt like the best $10,000 I'd ever spent" - and came home to his family. 

From the outside perspective, part of the conundrum Taylor was confronting is what might be termed the corrosive effect of success, which can burn off rough edges, dispel mystery, and tie up loose ends in the misguided quest for more of the same. When his last album, the beautiful Terms Of Surrender, earned his first Grammy nomination (for best Americana album), perhaps it also allowed some of those voices, both external and internal, to intrude enough for him to doubt his process. But the best defense against that lay in his own remarkable discography, now ten albums strong and stretching back to 2008. That Grammy nom - and the increasing attention that led to it - was arrived at without compromise, in his continual pursuit of realizing songs that combined the personal and the universal while paying homage to his musical forebears and honing his own distinct sound.

Beginning with three hymn-like chords on a keyboard (likely played by Devonne Harris, of Richmond, VA stalwarts Butcher Brown), Way Back In The Way Back welcomes you to the album like an old friend, with chiming guitar joining in and soon that Matt McCaughan backbeat I've rhapsodized about before (or it could be Brevan Hampden, who's just as good). As the song wends its way with a weary strength through lyrics that hint at the exhaustion Taylor described, a pair of saxophones join in, played by Stuart Bogie and Matt Douglas, lending muscle and building a foundation for a guitar solo both stylish and raw (sounds like Josh Kaufman, but the great Buddy Miller is also in the credits), and the sense of a man who knows exactly how to express himself is undeniable before the song is even over. But if he doesn't put the couplet, "Up with the mountains/Down with the system," on a t-shirt I will feel free to question his merch strategy!

Now, last time around, some sought to make hay out of the fact that Scott Hirsch, who had been on many prior albums, was not present. He's back this time, lending his lap-steel and synth expertise, yet Phil and Brad Cook, who were on several albums as well as being in the touring band from time to time, are absent this time. While Brad's sensitive bass playing and Phil's over-driven guitar and harmonica solos and dominating abilities on the organ are always highlights onstage and on album, HGM has always been Taylor's vision and I have seen nothing to indicate that anything interpersonal is involved. Scheduling is a more likely culprit, as both Cooks are busy in many kitchens, including their own. Hell, if Phil makes an album as good as Southland Mission again, I'll be actually happy he wasn't on this one. And never forget that Alex Bingham, who plays bass here, created what Aquarium Drunkard called the "song of the year" in 2019. This is all just to say: Whether you're a longtime Hiss fan or newer to the band and listened before you read the credits, you knew you were in good hands just by the sound of the thing.

The Great Mystifier is a nifty country-tinged mover, with twin-lead guitars tipping their hat to Duane and Dicky, while Mighty Dollar is molasses-slow, with a funky groove for Taylor to preach his anti-prosperity-gospel gospel: "It never fixed a broken heart/It never made a dumb man smarter." Give the man a mega-church for the truly righteous. The song kind of grinds to a halt, leaving a space for the achingly gorgeous title track, limned with Hirsch's lap-steel, to make its mournful way. "The shape of things/Don’t look so good/On the TV there’s a riot goin’ on," Taylor sings, recognizing our recent history while giving tribute to Sly Stone who caught 1970 with as much acuity on that classic album. Curtis Mayfield also gets called into the room on Hardlytown, with its rousing "People get ready" in the pre-chorus. If It Comes In The Morning, a co-write with Anaïs Mitchell, also has a gospel flavor, providing a needed uplift continued by the solid-rock folk of Glory Strums (Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner). Thus bolstered, Taylor feels free to sink into the near despair of Painting Houses, co-written with Gregory Alan Isakov and one of the saddest songs he's recorded. 

Angels In The Headlights, a glorious slice of spaced-out cowboy music that seems barely tethered to earth, fluttering heavenward on Hirsch's steel wings, may be the shortest at just under two minutes, but if Taylor ever plays it live, I hope it goes on for 20. Sanctuary, which ends the album, could almost serve as a mission statement for the whole HGM project, with its perfect opening and closing lyrics: "Feeling bad/Feeling blue/Can’t get out of my own mind/But I know how to sing about it." It already feels like a standard, too, partly because it was released a while ago, but mostly due to Taylor's emotionally engaged craftsmanship, both with his pen and in the studio. The same could be said of Quietly Blowing It as a whole, which Taylor produced solo, arriving at one of the deepest expressions of his art yet released. Careful, dude - keep this up and you just might blow it for real by getting even more successful.

P.S. HGM is one of THE great live acts - if you want a reminder of all we've been missing since March 2020, check the dates to see if they're coming to a venue near you.

Jeffrey Silverstein - Torii Gates As he did on last year's wondrous You Become The Mountain, Silverstein is mapping out a very distinctive territory where tributaries of the New Age river flow into a gentle stream of sun struck Americana. A key element is Barry Walker Jr.'s pedal steel, which seems to take as much from Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks as it does from Nashville. Spare bass from Alex Chapman and Silverstein's guitar and vocals complete the picture, along with an occasional drum machine. Songs seem to emerge out of the atmosphere on repeated listens, and one they do, the mood and the melodies will be tough to shake off. No matter, you can just play it again...and again...

Corntuth - The Desert Is Paper Thin On his debut album, Music To Work To, this Brooklyn-based artist applied a canny songwriting sense to the tools of ambient music for a winning combination that was as good to work to as it was to just listen. Here, he takes us on an imagined journey through the American southwest, adding the organic tones of his own acoustic guitar - often miked extremely closely - and the pedal steel of Pete Finney, who's worked with Mike Nesmith, Beck, and everyone in between, to the electronic textures. The sound is sublime, with the looped nature of the songs making for a hypnotic experience. Between Silverstein and Corntuth, Hiss Golden Messenger has some good company in the spaced-out cowboy music genre - book a flight. The album releases on July 16th but you can pre-save the first single now to hear it on July 2nd - and keep an eye on Corntuth's site, Bandcamp, and Flow State for more information to come.

Amy Helm - What The Flood Leaves Behind The story we tell ourselves and others about why a record works or doesn't work is just that - a story. But the working or not working is a real thing that can't be explained away. So, I could tell a story about Helm's first two albums seeming to come from an obligation to her heritage as the daughter of the legendary Levon Helm, or maybe diluted by producers or music biz affiliations. But who knows? All I can say is that, while the second album, This Too Shall Light, was getting closer, I was not compelled to keep listening. That all changes here, with these ten new songs quenching a thirst I didn't know I had, and it's a drink of which I have yet to tire. I can tell myself story about that, too, about her prodigal return to Levon's studio, home of his rambles and where she may have first raised her voice in public. Or I could talk about Josh Kaufman, who produced and played a half dozen instruments beyond his usual brilliant guitars, and who seems to be able to create a place of comfort for artists, where they can produce their best work. 

And if you're a Hiss Golden Messenger fan looking for Phil Cook, he's here, too, along with expert rhythm section Michael Libramento (bass) and Tony Mason (drums). They're intrinsic to the success of the album, along with Daniel Littleton's electric guitar and the superb horn section of Stuart Bogie (sax) and Jordan McLean (trumpet), who even give some Garth Hudson wooziness to Renegade Heart, the final track. Helm has also come into her own as a songwriter, writing or co-writing seven of the songs here, showing an ease with her history (from Cotton And The Cane, co-written with Mary Gauthier: "My father was a sharecropper’s son/Handed hope and hymns to ease the pain" and "Heroin, I’m locked out again/On the side of the road") and a fine use of imagery (from Coming Home: "Found a picture of her/I framed it in gold now it burns up the room"), making songs that feel simultaneously new yet familiar, personal and universal.

Maybe she learned some of those lessons from M.C. Taylor, whose sterling song, Verse 23, opens the album, applying a Dylanesque resonance and concision to lines like "Some got caught in the wanting/And some lost the feel/Some got lost in their own eyes/And went crazy on the hill." But the true glory of the album is Helm's voice, rich and earthy now, reminiscent of Frazey Ford, and less concerned with conveying words as with carrying emotional weight. Whether on gentle songs like that opening track or the gutsy funk of Breathing, everything she does feels completely natural and from the heart. So take all the stories you've heard or told yourself about Amy Helm and close the book. This is a new volume and one I suspect we will be reading for a long time. It should be great to hear live, too.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: American Harvest
Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana
Autumn Albums, Part 1
Autumn Albums, Part 2
Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood
New Americana, Part 1: Phil Cook
New Americana, Part 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Record Roundup: Novelty Is Not Enough

Some of the hardest work of writing AnEarful is choosing what to share out of the many, many recordings that come my way. As ever, the cream rises to the top, but when interrogating why the cream is the cream, I think I've settled on something: Newness is not enough. While it's certainly admirable to push music forward by organizing sound in a manner that seems to have never been done before, for me to truly love something it must go beyond the merely novel. For example, take The Residents. While I can certainly say nothing else sounds like them and I appreciate the opportunity to hear something so strange, I'm not compelled to make their music a part of my life. Their novelty is something on which we can objectively agree, it's what is lacking for me that shades into the subjective. That said, perhaps some of what I share below may not fit the bill on all levels for you - but I hope you will give it a chance to at least expand your conception of what music can be and do.

Sō Percussion and Friends - Julius Eastman: Stay On It One of the most riveting events of the current livestream era was when Sō Percussion presented their version of Eastman's pioneering piece of maxi-minimalism with a stunning, mind-melting video by MediaQueer (the duo of Phong Tran and Darian Donovan Thomas) as part of their Brooklyn Bound series. I was in the kitchen, listening the chats and music that preceded it while doing the dishes, etc., but when that video started up, I could not look away from their next-level collage of TV ads, street protests, and bits of cultural detritus. I also had the sense that the performance of Stay On It was special on its own, instantly treasuring how the repetitions seemed to build momentum while allowing other themes and sounds to emerge. Now that it has been released as a standalone recording, I'm delighted to be 100% RIGHT. The four members of Sō laid down the elemental groove that drives the piece and then invited some extraordinary guests to add to the flexible structure of the piece, including Tran and Thomas on electronics and violin respectively, Grey Mcmurray on guitar and vocals, Beth Meyers on viola and vocals, Alex Sopp on flute, piccolo, and vocals, Adam Tendler on piano, and Shelley Washington on sax - each one a player who brings their all to any project. What a joy to hear this piece in a committed, well-recorded performance, allowing all the layers of one of Eastman's most accessible and optimistic works to reveal themselves clearly. It's as fresh and revelatory as it must have been in 1973, when he wrote it. Simply put, they've set a new standard for Eastman's ensemble work, and one as high as Jace Clayton's sparkling take on his piano music. There will be more Eastman goodies to come, too, as Wild Up has announced a multi-year project, starting with Femenine - hear an excerpt here.

Kenneth Kirschner & Joseph Branciforte - From The Machine, Vol. 1 Greyfade is a new boutique label prizing sonic excellence on vinyl and in high-resolution digital formats (no streaming) and seeking to present music that arises from innovative processes. In this case, Kirschner and Branciforte have transferred algorithmic and generative techniques from electronic music into the acoustic realm, using software to compose two pieces of austere elegance. The first, April 20, 2015, originally an electronic composition by Kirschner and here arranged for two cellos (Mariel Roberts and Meaghan Burke) and piano (Jade Conlee) by Branciforte,  finds the instruments in dialog, if not quite conversation, sliding around each other in a series of brief phrases. The second, 0123, composed by Branciforte for "low string quartet" (Tom Chiu, violin, Wendy Richman, viola, Christopher Gross, cello, Greg Chudzik, double bass), has the players work their way up an octave by exploring the same four-note cell in a ruminative fashion. Both works generate a mysterious disquiet that I think would exist even if you didn't know there was code behind them and represent a planting of the flag for Greyfade, claiming impressive territory that I look forward to exploring further on their first release, which featured collaborations between Branciforte and vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and their next one with the JACK Quartet, coming in September.

Peter Gilbert - Burned Into The Orange No one could accuse New Focus co-founder Gilbert of using the label to promote his own music - this is only his second release and the last was over a decade ago. But his dazzling command of various forces, from string quartets (both the Arditti and the Iridium are featured) to electronics to solo tuba, makes me hope we don't have to wait that long for more. Each piece grabs the attention like a great storyteller, with Channeling The Waters for flute and percussion (Camilla Hoitenga and Magdalena Meitzner, respectively) being emblematic. Opening with a heavy metal fanfare, it leads you on a labyrinthine journey that never ceases to fascinate, which could be said of the album as a whole. Join the adventure.

Wavefield Ensemble - Concrete & Void This first album from an ensemble launched in 2016 and made up of new music all-stars, including Julia den Boer, Hannah Levinson, Greg Chudzik, and Dan Lippell, was recorded at a socially-distanced concert at a parking garage in Montclair, NJ in October 2020. But you would never know it's a live performance, such is the gleaming perfection of the sound. Presented are five meaty works (the shortest is just over eleven minutes) from composers, including Jen Baker, Jessie Cox, Victoria Cheah, Chudzik, and Nicholas DeMaison, who all collaborated deeply with the players. Pushing through the COVID era restraints (no in-person rehearsals, etc.), the group has arrived at a series of gripping, cinematic soundscapes, with Cheah's A wasp, some wax, an outline of the valley over us a fall being especially involving. Like all the pieces, the integration of electronics and acoustic instruments is seamless and her use of suspense brings to mind Bernard Herrmann's work for sci-fi television or tracks from Nine Inch Nails Ghosts, as she draws you through a series of images in sound. After all of Cheah's tension, Chudzik's Silo washes over you like a hymnal, with his cello surrounded by harmonics and drones. Concrete & Void firmly establishes Wavefield as a group to watch, and I hope I can get to their next concert, especially if it has free parking!

Chris Campbell - Orison Using an array of forces including members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, "hybrid-music" violinist Todd Reynolds, and drummer Dave King from The Bad Plus, Cambell has created a seven-movement work that brings a sense of calm and reflection for its 37-minute length. Reminiscent of some of John Luther Adams' pieces, with high, whispery tones from the violin and swirling harmonics, King's drums (often played with brushes) and repeating piano figures lend forward motion to the piece. "Orison" is a perfect title, but "oasis" would work, too, for the way Campbell's music clears space in the mind. Although there are fewer daily shocks in 2021 than in 2020, this still feels just like what the doctor ordered. During the years of its composition, Campbell came to think of the piece as "a companion" and this listener feels the same. Keep it close.

Various Artists - A New Age For New Age Vol. 3 Eventually all genres of music, from the lauded to the discredited, come around for reconsideration. "New Age" music, which I used to view as sort of the strip-mall yoga center version of ambient, has been having a nice moment over the last few years, whether in the revival of Laraaji's career or ear-opening reissues like Pearls Of The Deep, the best of Stairway. Starting in 2020, the ever-expanding Whatever's Clever label began inviting artists to submit pieces that reinterpret New Age music and curating compilations based on what they received. The first two volumes (and Vol. 4, for that matter) were wonderful, but this is the one to which I keep returning. Partly that's because it has a NEW SONG from Elana Low, which is a precious thing indeed (full disclosure: I suggested she submit something!), but also for the sheer variety that somehow coheres into a satisfying journey. Opening with the supremely witty Serenity Now by shm0o0o, with its "dee-do-dee-do-dee-do...dah!" refrain, we are also given the rain-streaked chamber music of 4385650503, a collaboration between LLLL, Mitsuhiro Fujiwara, and DaisyModern, and the sun-dazed folk of Reliable Feelings by Adeline Hotel among other explorations in mostly electronic tones and textures. Considering Whatever's Clever has released four volumes in the series without repeating artists, they have obviously struck a nerve with creators. Don't miss out on what's exciting them - you may even find a new soundtrack for your yoga practice.

Ben Seretan - Cicada Waves This dreamy series of piano improvisations accompanied by nature sounds would have been HUGE during the original New Age era - it's also the most distinctive and assured music I've heard from Seretan, the founder of Whatever's Clever and a stalwart of the indie-rock/folk scene in the northeast. He just sounds so settled, spinning chords and melodies while rain washes down or crickets sing around him, and that sense of contentment is contagious. For full immersion, watch the videos he's created or commissioned for each song. Good luck getting a cassette, though, as he's already sold out two pressings. 

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BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed

Note: The cover photo includes a detail of Shoshanna Weinberger's installation for the Sunroom Project Space, on display at Wave Hill.

AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Concert Review(!): Hymn To The City

There was a sound. It was coming from over there, traveling through air to me, here. It was music and it was LIVE, being played right in front of me. The fact that it was a quintet made up of players from the New York Philharmonic and they were engaged in a delightful arrangement of Aaron Copland's Simple Gifts was almost immaterial. But it was the ideal way to begin my first live concert since March 2020, the light, lilting refrain giving voice to my gratitude for the opportunity to be there.

And where was there? We were in Green-Wood Cemetery, one of the jewels of Brooklyn on a guided musical tour arranged by the visionaries at Death Of Classical with the grand title of Hymn To The City. By the time we got to the Pilot's Monument, we had already been treated to a spirits tasting that included mezcal, whiskey, tequila, and gin along with some snacks, lending a convivial atmosphere even as we all sought to remain distanced and masked when not eating or drinking. It felt quite luxurious to be sipping on an extraordinary rye from Coppersea, a complex gin from Appalachian Gap, or Madre's full-bodied Mezcal while the sun set. Never let it be said that DOC doesn't know how to take care of people!

Death Of Classical's Andrew Ousley welcomes the audience.

Our next stop was the Brooklyn Theatre Fire Monument, where we were treated to a lovely reading by our tour guide of James Weldon Johnson's My City, a moment that also paid tribute to the first responders and health care heroes who are so critical to the life of the Big Apple. Then, we were off to hear music in a peripatetic journey through locations and styles. Scroll through the following commentary and pictures to get the flavor of the experience. 

The audience on the move.

Along with the sweet strains of Simple Gifts, we also heard a very brief arrangement of Sergio Ortega's El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!, which increased the feeling that we were all in this together. 
On Battle Hill, near the grave of Leonard Bernstein, a brass quintet played selections from West Side Story. The setting and occasion thawed my antipathy to Bernstein slightly and I also enjoyed watching the audience take delight in the familiar tunes. 
The Hill Of Graves is Green-Wood's version of a potter's field, with many first-wave immigrants of no social standing buried there. It was a moving place to hear Paul Simon's American Tune, slightly dated though it is, and Marco Foster brought both restraint and open-hearted sincerity to his performance. 
Café Damas, commissioned by the NY Phil from composer Kinan Azmeh in 2019, is an intriguing piece, in a style that might be called "Silk Road Ensemble," with moods and methods of his native Syria blending with classical rigor. A dancer, who may have been costumed as a 19th century immigrant, lent atmosphere as the sun set.
The preceding rains had moved the next location from the Chauncey Family Mausoleum to this evocative spot, framed by weeping beech trees. The second movement of Florence Price's String Quartet in G Major was a lovely representation of her quintessentially American style and gorgeously played. Baritone Paul Grosvenor sang Over My Head, the traditional spiritual, a cappella, in a commanding if somewhat rhythmically rigid performance. It resonated nicely with Price's melodicism still hanging in the hair.
It was nearly full dark when we arrived at the entrance to The Catacombs, a sort of apartment house mausoleum for the middle class. 
Within was a long narrow corridor with folding chairs set up along its length. Once we were seated, Adam Tendler launched into his astonishing arrangement of George Gershwin's Cadenza on Rhapsody in Blue. He managed to encapsulate all that makes Gershwin's piece so compelling, while moving it firmly into the 21st century with some extended techniques. The man can PLAY and his piano sounded magnificent in the space. 
Next, Lucy Dhegrae, one of the great singers of our time, emerged from a side door to sing Sarah Kirkland Snider's How Graceful Some Things Are, Falling Apart, a rawly emotional homage to New York's resilience after 9/11. As Dhegrae's magisterial voice filled the space, I had a feeling of coming full circle, as she had sung at my last concert in 2020, a shattering U.S. premiere of Toshio Hosokawa's Futari Shizuka with the Talea Ensemble. It seemed only right that she would be a part of my road back to live music 16 months later. The Catalyst Quartet emerged next and played Credo, a piece by Kevin Puts that seemed to put the world right as it stacked consonance upon consonance, building something of limpid beauty in the air. By this point, I really felt I was at a concert and it was glorious. Pure cake icing arrived in the performance of Goin' Home, the song by William Arms Fisher with a melody from Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony. In the arrangement by Noah Luna, with quartet, piano, and Dhegrae all shooting for the stars, it was a masterstroke to end the evening. 
There was still the walk back to the entrance, with iPhone flashlights flickering along the path, which was a nice opportunity to chat with one of my neighbors and contemplate all I had seen and heard. 

With Hymn To The City, Death Of Classical once again proved what an incredible asset they are to the musical life of our city, employing a touch of theater and a sure curatorial touch to put together a truly memorable experience. If you're looking to ease back into concert going, their upcoming events could be just the thing. Long may they reign!

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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Record Roundup: Song Forms

The combination of words and music is as old as language and songs continue to be astonishing transmitters of thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and are limited in form only by their creators' imaginations. Here are a few recent releases mapping out multiple geographies of song form.

Will Liverman and Paul Sanchez - Dreams Of A New Day: Songs By Black Composers You would need know nothing about this album's contents, or even its name, to be immediately struck by Liverman's voice. From the first notes, that we are in the presence of a masterful baritone is immediately clear. He has depth and power to spare, but the transparency and delicacy of his upper range is very distinctive. The contents are special, too, as Liverman followed his passions to present a range of Black composers that takes us from Henry Burleigh, born in 1866, to Shawn Okpebholo, born in 1981. From the latter, we have a world premiere recording of Two Black Churches, commissioned by Liverman, and comprised of a song each for two era-defining acts of violence, the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and the Charleston shooting in 2015. The first is a setting of Dudley Randall's poem, Ballad Of Birmingham, and Okpebholo has constructed a fascinating piano part (brilliantly played by Sanchez), which seems to both fuel and fragment Liverman's steadfast delivery of the words, occasionally seeking a hymn-like resolution. The second somberly sets The Rain by Marcus Amaker, which provides a stunning bookend to an image from the first song on the album, by Damian Sneed and based on Langston Hughes' I Dream A World. Hughes writes of "joy, like a pearl" attending the needs of mankind, while Amaker's view is bleaker: "When the reality/of racism returns/all joy treads water/in oceans of buried emotion." Okpebholo and Liverman have given us a signature piece for our era that will resonate through the future we are building. And that's just a microcosm of what Sanchez and Liverman have accomplished on this crucial collection.

Caroline Shaw - Narrow Sea From the opening words, "I am a poor wayfaring stranger," you may suspect we are in the world of 19th century American song, specifically hymns. But even if you come to it without that foreknowledge, the creamy, deeply felt soprano of Dawn Upshaw will make you feel those words in your bones. Accompanied by Sō Percussion's wild array of instruments that click, clink, and clatter alongside Gilbert Kalish's searching piano chords, Upshaw sounds completely at home in Shaw's deconstruction of these old songs. My only complaint is that at about 20 minutes, this song cycle leaves me wanting more. Even with the addition of Shaw's Taxidermy, a little gem for percussion and spoken word, Narrow Sea makes me nostalgic for the glory days of "peak CD," when Upshaw and Nonesuch were putting out brilliantly curated albums like The Girl With Orange Lips or White Moon: Songs To Morpheus. I can imagine Shaw's cycle being given context among works by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Christopher Trapani - or some of those composers sourced by Will Liverman. Instead of wallowing, I think I'll just make a playlist with Narrow Sea and Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part, Shaw and Sō's next collaboration, which features 10 new song adaptations sung by Shaw herself, coming June 25th. 

Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince This is Aftab's third album but the first for me and I can't help feeling I've joined a trajectory near its apogee. That's just another way of saying: WOW. Her complete command of the eclectic environs through which this album transits is nothing short of amazing. She moves many genres, including art song, folk, and in one delicately devastating moment in Last Night. reggae. All of this is infused with the modes and moods of her Pakistani heritage and blended with such subtlety that any seams are invisible. Her taste in collaborators is as finely honed as her compositions, most notably violin wizard Darian Donovan Thomas, who lavishes Baghon Main with his special brand of liquid light. The album is dedicated to Aftab's brother who died during the early stages of its creation and no matter what losses you've experienced in the last few months or years, there is succor and peace to be found in these remarkable songs. As Aftab sings in Saans Lo, with lyrics by Annie Ali Khan: "There’s no one in this desolate world but you, but at least you have yourself/Breathe."

Domenico Lancellotti - Raio After the years that separated his last two albums, Cine Prive (2012) and The Good Is A Big God (2018), having Vai A Serpente, which opens Raio, slide into my Release Radar was an unexpected delight. Begun following a move from Brazil to Portugal, much of Raio was recorded after the pandemic hit, but you would never know any of it was made by remote collaborators. In fact, it feels even more unified than his other albums, almost a song cycle, with themes and textures appearing and reappearing throughout. He's still mining an encyclopedia of Brazilian sounds, leaning more towards the folky and jazzy sides of his homeland and saving his wackier Tropicalia-influenced side for the wry groove of Lanço Minha Flecha and parts of Newspaper, the instrumental that closes the album. Raio is a wonderful album and can serve as an introduction to this special artist as aptly as the others. Start here, start there, just start!

Jane Weaver - Flock My introduction to Weaver was 2017's Modern Kosmology, an explosion of melodically fueled art-pop that was an instant addiction. Now, nearly 30 years into her career, she's gone even further towards pop on Flock, incorporating the raptures of Goldfrapp and Stereolab along the way. With lighter-than-air synths and danceable grooves, Flock is infused with an inspiring sense of unfettered creativity and zero compromise. There's also not a trace of insincerity in Weaver's breezy soprano, which she often uses as an additional musical element, singing repeated lines and sometimes sampling herself. While fans of the bands mentioned above are likely already onto Weaver, there's absolutely no reason why devotees of, say, Billie Eilish wouldn't also be into this - let's hope the algorithms serve them well.

Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg Delivering completely on the promise of their 2019 EPs, this London quartet continues to find variety and invention in their patented blend of Florence Shaw's interior monologue speak-singing and colorfully angular post-punk played by Thomas Paul Dowse (guitar), Lewis Maynard (bass), and Nicholas Hugh Andrew Buxton (drums). John Parish's production has found the ideal balance, sinking Shaw's voice just enough into the mix and treating each instrument with care. Even if the songs weren't so good, New Long Leg would be notable for the bass sound alone, a rounded throb somewhere adjacent to Jah Wobble's work with PiL or Philip Moxam's in Young Marble Giants. The songs can read like stream of consciousness rambles (from Leafy: "I run a tight ship/Helicopter circling/Kalashnikov to look forward to/It’s a glam musical") but somehow assemble in your mind to become stories of fractured relationships, forensically detailing what's left behind or what an imagined future could hold. Speaking of days to come, I hope I get to see them in concert when such things happen again - looks like fun!

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AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Record Roundup: Chiaroscuro

There are times when unremittingly bleak music can provide necessary catharsis. At other times - like our current moment, I believe - a more nuanced sound world can give us the sound support we need. The five excellent releases below all include some light with their shade. 

Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson - Dark Days Played with deep engagement by Larson, a longtime collaborator, this series of short piano pieces works together so seamlessly you might think they were all part of a longer work. But that's more due to the expert assembly of the album rather than a sameness of tone, texture, or mood. While the bleak outlook implied by the title does leach into that work, the overall sensation is one of quiet yet glimmering contemplation. Although I don't have synesthesia, unlike Wollschleger (who uses the "colors of sound" in his process, I associate the album with iridescent jewel tones that grow more complex the longer you look at them. Pre-release, I spent many a morning with Dark Days, finding it quickly assuming a place in the soundtrack of my 2021. Let it happen for you.

Akropolis Reed Quintet - Ghost Light The sheer sound of this group, made up of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, and bass clarinet, is instantly captivating. There's a sublime smoothness of tone, texture, and ensemble that brings to mind the reed sections of great American orchestras like that of Duke Ellington or Glenn Miller. The Akropolis are sure-handed in their curation and collaboration as well, as the five pieces here interact and relate to each other in thought-provoking ways, exploring everything from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to racial violence in their native Detroit. Their choice of composers - all unknown to me except for Jeff Scott who I know as a member of Imani Winds - leads to a wide variety of sonorities and emotional impacts. Stacy Garrop's Rites For The Afterlife, takes us through the narrative of the Egyptian Book of the Dead with an appropriate sense of mystery and even a little Kurt Weillian wit in the third movement, The Hall of Judgement. Kinds of Light by Michael Gilbertson provides portraits in sound for Flicker, Twilight, Fluorescence, and Ultraviolet in colorful fashion, without leaning on the concept too hard. 

In Niloufar Nourbakhsh's Firing Squad - inspired by the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude - the quartet is mirrored by a recording of themselves, occasionally sounding like an infinite loop. Theo Chandler's Seed To Snag has almost has the whimsy of a classic Disney score as he describes the lifecycle of organic material, adding yet more colors to Akropolis' palette. Scott's piece, Homage To Paradise Valley, closes the album and incorporates spoken word as Marsha Music reads her poems about Detroit's earlier days. Scott's music is tuneful and sparkling, with nods to jazz, and Music's poems are lively and nostalgic, with their tales of her father's record shop and the musical luminaries that put the city on the map. The readings do interrupt the overall flow of the album for this listener and I can imagine programming them out after a few plays, but that's a minor quibble about this powerful artistic statement.

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė - Saudade Given her expert and brilliantly original deployment of small forces on In Search Of Lost Beauty... from 2019, it should be no surprise that this Lithuanian-born composer now presents symphonic works of a similar mastery. Of the four pieces here, perhaps Horizons is the most extraordinary, a gripping and sustained exploration of dynamics and darkness that also highlights the glories of the recording and work of Giedrė Šlekytė and the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra. Hints of past masters like Sibelius are certainly evident but this absorbing and inventive music is in no way retrograde. Yet it is accessible enough that American orchestras should be clamoring to program Martinaitytė. With Saudade as a calling card I can imagine that happening quite soon.

Christopher Cerrone - A Natural History of Vacant Lots and The Arching Path These two releases feature Cerrone at his most contemplative, with hanging chords, decaying notes, and chord progressions that seem to search their way through personal memories and shared histories. Vacant Lots is a brief piece originally written for percussion quartet and presented here as a solo piece for vibraphone and electronics, played by Andy Meyerson. It works equally well in either setting, perhaps even benefiting from the sonic focus of the solo version. 

The Arching Path (due on May 21st from In A Circle Records) includes four pieces from the last decade, with three of them being deeply embedded in place. The three-movement title piece refers to the Ponte sul Basento, a concrete modernist masterpiece in southern Italy, but Cerrone avoids any of the obvious musical tricks that might imply, instead using a chiming and percussive piano (played by Timo Andres) to unfurl melodies that are deeply affecting while avoiding the sentimentality that can mar the work of Nils Frahm. Double Happiness adds field recordings from Umbria and Cerrone’s lapidary electronics to the soundscape along with percussion played by Ian Rosenbaum. The five movements are distinct in their textures while maintaining a general air of rain-streaked reflection.

I Will Learn To Love Somebody, the third piece, sets five poems by writer-provocateur Tao Lin for soprano (a spectacular, gleaming Lindsay Kesselman), piano, percussion, and clarinet (Mingzhe Wang). It pulls the collection in a slightly more dynamic direction, with leaps in range that recall some of Scott Walker’s dramatic flair - appropriate, when you consider the attention Cerrone is paying to every word. The words themselves combine a conversational style with enough ironic distance to keep them from being diary entries with line breaks. Even without close attention to the words, however, these are gripping art songs that are an even more fabulous showcase for Kesselman's talents than The Pieces That Fall To Earth from the 2019 album of the same name.

The final piece takes us to a New York subway station, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, using piano limned with electronics and evoking an air of solitude, as if during a late night transit where the next train can’t come soon enough. I’m already peering down the tracks, looking for more from Cerrone.

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AnEarful acknowledges that this work is created on the traditional territory of the Munsee Lenape and Wappinger peoples.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Record Roundup: Sonic Environments

All of the recent albums below succeed at creating complete environments, whether through music alone, or the combination of words and music. Each one blends genre as well, occupying new overlaps between classical, jazz, electronic, industrial, folk, and pop.

Listen along to excerpts here or below - and if you like something, head over to Bandcamp to support these artists.


Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises Some records you listen to, others you seem to enter into, like a space you can explore. This extraordinary collaboration between composer and electronic musician Sam Shepherd, who performs as Floating Points, and the legendary sax player is one such album. This impression that was likely enabled by the "non-visual" preview hosted by Luaka Bop about a week ago. Along with a password-protected link we were given instructions to dim our computer screen and do whatever was necessary to eliminate distraction from the experience. I didn't need to be asked twice. I entered the password, put on my Grado headphones, pressed play, closed my eyes, heard the opening tone cluster...and was off, traveling in the labyrinth of my mind. Besides that cluster, played on Shepherd's synth or a combination of keyboards and repeated with variations, Sanders' commanding reed playing was my guide, along with the strings of the LSO, at times ruminative and at others, sky scraping.

Considering the rich journey the nine-movement work takes you on, 46 minutes seems concise, with Shepard giving his imagination free rein, yet not being indulgent, like an epic novel where not one word is wasted. Intersecting with ambient music, space rock, spiritual jazz, and even the symphonic works of John Luther Adams, Promises feels like a big tent where people from many musical tribes can gather and find common ground. When I included Floating Points' second album Reflections: Mojave Desert on my Best Of 2019: Electronic list, I noted its "slow-burn intensity that is consistently involving," and remarked that "Shepherd remains an exciting talent, however, and I am sure there is more to come from him." While his last album, 2019's Crush, failed to fully excite me, Promises not only proves me right but serves as a coming out party for Shepherd as a composer and as someone with a vision far beyond the confines of a single genre. As for Sanders, who recorded his parts at age 78 or 79, he sounds completely at home in Shepherd's sound world, vigorous, exploratory, and emotionally engaged. If this turns out to be the capstone of his legendary career, it will not only honor his roots with John and Alice Coltrane, but stand alongside them as a remarkable recording on its own. I needed this in 2021 and I think you will, too.

Mariel Roberts - Armament Like any instrument, the cello is a sort of technology, and one which interfaces with other equipment remarkably well. So much so, that for long sections of this brutal yet engaging collection of improvisations, you will be forgiven for forgetting there's a cello involved at all. Roberts, a co-director of Wet Ink Ensemble who also plays with the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Bang On A Can All-Stars, among others, is a virtuoso at anything she chooses to play. Here she explores a dark view of our current environment, one in which she notes, "so much culture is being weaponized, turned into instruments of violence," by doing the same to her own instrument. Until the final lines, which almost provide the comfort of a Bach sonata, this is more the landscape of lifeless planets roiled by storms of unimaginably destructive power, an arena of texture and tone more commonly explored by the likes of Tool, Killing Joke, or Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. A kindred spirit would also be Mario Diaz de Leon, who often brings black metal into his classical compositions (and vice versa). Whatever your point of reference for the sounds Roberts conjures from her cello and some pedals, don't be surprised if you find yourself reveling in the grind and gleam of these brilliant soundscapes.

Benjamin Louis Brody/Ian Chang - Floating Into Infinity There's some fascinating gear-head detail behind the making of this album, which involves compositions by Brody played by Chang (also the drummer in Son Lux and Landlady) on a kit that's been converted into a "hyper sensitive sampler," giving him the ability to put some physicality behind the creation of electronic sounds. But that all melts away for the listener, who can simply sink into these starlit microcosms without a thought as to how they were made. While there is a bit of percussive drive to Modum, along with dramatic pounding keyboards, these are mostly contemplative pieces, made for scoring a session of staring at the clouds through rain-streaked glass. Sometimes conveying a slippery unease reminiscent of Harold Budd's Lovely Thunder, this music s not always comforting, however, but it is consistently gorgeous and full of invention and adventure.

Angelica Olstad - Transmute One could imagine a quarantined Erik Satie making a recording like this EP, only instead of deconstructing Fauré, Griffes, and Ravel, he would take on his own music, and combine it with field recordings, as Olstad did, including bird calls, sirens, and the shouts of protesters, as a way of soundtracking our current experience. Olstad also shares some of Satie's taste for melancholy, but her concision and inventiveness keep things from getting too much so. Transmute invites you into Olstad's apartment as much as her mind, working as both a pause for reflection and a musical collage of recent history.

Steven van Betten & Andrew Rowan - No Branches Without Trees While this album of chamber folk is often delicate, it's anchored in the sturdy drawing-room hymnals of the string quartet arrangements. Although it hints at some of the emotional landscape of something like Beck's Morning Phase, these songs are more like short stories than memoir, with the narrative distance that implies. There's also a bit of a scrapbook feel to what songwriter van Betten and composer Rowan have put together here, with short instrumentals among the more proper songs. A brief, yet lovely album that leaves me to hope they pursue further collaboration.

Anika Pyle - Wild River Scrapbook, collage, memoir - along with chamber folk and electro-pop - are all folded into this intimate and revealing collection of songs and spoken word, the first solo album from a longtime linchpin of the Brooklyn-Philly pop-punk axis. Delving into deep emotions following the loss of her father, Pyle has pushed her artistry into territory unexpected enough for her that it feels like we're meeting someone new entirely. Her abilities as a writer also keep poems like The Mexican Restaurant Where I Last Saw My Father from being overshares, pulling from the personal to the universal to create something starkly moving, which is true of the album as a whole. A real gem.

Since this is an eclectic roundup, you can also find tracks from all these albums in this playlist along with everything else I'm tracking in 2021.

You may also enjoy:
Collapsing Into Nordic Effect's Raindamage
Witness The Ritual: Music of Pierluigi Billone
You Will Believe: Helga Davis's Cassandra