Like a drone in the intro to Painting With John (essential viewing, btw), I have flown free of 2020's music only to crash in a dense thicket of 2021 releases. And it's not that I haven't been listening, it's that I've been listening to SO MUCH. Where to begin? For this first post, I'm going to wend my way instinctively through what has captivated me the most for a multi-genre celebration of the year so far. I'll catch up with more later!
Tak Ensemble - Taylor Brook: Star Maker Fragments “All this long human story, most passionate and tragic in the living, was but an unimportant, a seemingly barren and negligible effort, lasting only for a few moments in the life of the galaxy." Only the most arrogant among us would argue with this sentiment from Star Maker, the 1937 science fiction book by Olaf Stapledon that provides the basis for this latest gem from Tak and Brook. But I will say that if this "barren and negligible effort" we're all living through includes sublime art like this album, I'm good.
From the off-kilter clarion of the opening chord, it's obvious that you're in the hands of a masterpiece - and one that's masterfully performed. The toughest part for others to imitate will be Charlotte Mundy's delivery of the spoken word excerpts from the text. Her voice is both perfectly controlled and naturalistic, with enough musicality that you can let your mind touch down on the content or just let it become part of the sound world. Brook's ingenuity in scoring is critical, too, of course, and you will marvel at how he "plays" the ensemble (Laura Cocks, flute; Madison Greenstone, clarinet; Marina Kifferstein, violin; and Ellery Trafford, percussion) like more keys on his synthesizer, eliciting novel blends of sound at every turn. In 2016, I sang the praises of Ecstatic Music, which was a remarkable collection by these same collaborators, but I was still slightly unprepared for how great this is - don't say I didn't warn you!
Sid Richardson - Borne By A Wind This captivating debut portrait album from Richardson also features a piece inspired by literature. In this case it's the poetry of Nathanial Mackey, whose radio-ready narration enlivens the five-movements of Red Wind. The words are as evocative as the music, which moves in cinematic fashion through different scenes and moods. The performance by Deviant Septet could not be improved and Richardson's writing for jazz in a classical setting is the equal of Shostakovich's, except it swings a little harder. The album also includes There is no sleep so deep, and elegiac piece for solo piano, played here by Conrad Tao, and LUNE, for violin and fixed media, including field recordings of loon cries, which are perfectly integrated into the sounds of the violin. Lilit Hartunian's performance is deeply engaging. Finally, we have Astrolabe, a sparkling piece for six instruments given a dazzling run by the Da Capo Chamber Players, who gamely shout and whisper the excerpts from Chaucer and Whitman sprinkled throughout. I note that the most recent recording here is from 2017 so all gratitude to New Focus for bringing this remarkable music to light.
Susie Ibarra - Talking Gong While I'm distressed to see how much I've missed from this marvelous percussionist and composer (including an album with genius pianist Sylvie Courvoisier in 2014!), this album ruthlessly dispels negative thoughts. Whether through minimalist, modal or even romantically lush piano (Alex Peh), playful flute (Claire Chase), or inventive percussion - or all three at once - there is much bliss to be had by immersing yourself in Ibarra's intersectional vision.
Patricia Brennan - Maquishti Despite its gentle sonic profile, this is a bold album that will likely define the vibraphone and marimba for our current era. Like Michael Nicolas's Transitions did for the cello in 2016, Brennan's music both exemplifies the qualities of her instruments and moves them into new territory. For the latter, look no further than Episodes, in which woozy electronics transform the vibe's tones into gooey lozenges of sound that you may find yourself reaching for in the air. For a more classic, er, vibe, the opening cut, Blame It, seems to pick up where Dave Samuels left off, for a deeply chill exploration of hanging notes, meandering chords, and glittering arpeggiations. While each piece is no longer than your average indie-rock song, Maquishti adds up to an hour-long sound cycle that rarely flags in interest and provides a much-needed oasis in these anxiety-ridden times.
Adam Morford & Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Yesterday Is Two Days Ago In which stellar violist Lanzilotti collaborates with Morford, guitarist and creator of the Marvin series of sound sculptures, for a series of improvisations that are unafraid of the dark. The title track is a droning and atmospheric epic that conceivably could have inspired Scott Walker to follow up Soused by working with these two. Never less than fascinating, this shows off a side of Lanzilotti's interests that feels completely new and one that should attract listeners from an array of genres - I know it hits more than one of my sweet spots.
Amanda Berlind - Green Cone A hazy combo of low-fi piano, electronics, voice, and field recordings, this reminds me a bit of Elsa Hewitt - but in all the best ways. There's also a visual album and a comic book - feast your eyes - and a bonus track commissioned and played by the Bang On A Can All-Stars that explodes into jazzy instrumental pop (albeit with loud birdsong), further proof that Berlind is one to watch.
Foudre! - Future Sabbath With a title like that you may be expecting starlit drones to accompany some new, previously unimaginable ritual. And you would be dead-on, as this band of European electronic experts (including Nahal founder Frédéric D. Oberland and Paul Regimbeau of Good Luck In Death), improvises their way into a gleaming web of sound. It also seems tailor-made for a space travel epic, especially one populated by murderous machines or alienated astronauts. You may want to keep the lights on.
Madlib - Sound Ancestors Selected and sequenced by electronic musician Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), this is as cogent and concise a representation of Madlib's divine madness as we're likely to get. And by that, I mean it's wonderfully all over the place, weaving together everything from obscure psych-rock to the Young Marble Giants and field-recorded urban chants, for a more than persuasive rattle around the master's head.
Shame - Drunk Tank Pink Shame made a splash across the pond and in my world with their 2018 debut, Songs Of Praise, which hit my Top 25 for that year with its canny update on post-punk. Three years later, their confidence has grown and they are now able to dig into and expand on their angular grooves in a way that's even more deeply involving. While the lyrics sometimes seem simplistic ("What you see is what you get/I still don't know the alphabet" is the opening line of the album), there is character and conviction in Charlie Steen's vocals as he seeks to pare communication down to only the essentials. No sophomore slump here - Shame seem to be in it for the long haul and, on the back of this terrific album, they are even higher on my list of post-pandemic must-see bands.
Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview Of Phenomenal Nature Jenkins has a dusky, intimate voice and seems to be singing to one person at a time on this gorgeous and, at 31 minutes, too-brief album. With production (and most playing) by Josh Kaufman, the sonic environment is sensitively built around Jenkins' singing and songs, with the instruments forming an almost distant bed of sound. Her melodies are sturdy enough that no more is necessary to define these personal vignettes. But as personal as they feel, the spoken-word of Hard Drive serves as a reminder that Jenkins is at heart a storyteller. As Stuart Bogie's sax wends its way through the changes, Jenkins talks us through her day and the people she encounters, gradually building to an incandescent finish. This whole album shines quietly.
Fruit Bats - The Pet Parade People are saying this is a high watermark in the 20-year career of Eric D. Johnson and Fruit Bats. I wouldn't know as I have allowed myself to remain only dimly aware of his progress over the years. I'm not really sure why - maybe it was the name, or maybe I heard an early song and couldn't get into his quirky voice. It wasn't until I fell desperately in love with Bonny Light Horseman, the alliance between Johnson, Josh Kaufman (him again!), and Anais Mitchell in 2020, that I was like, this is him, the Fruit Bats guy? So, when the first single was released from The Pet Parade, I was on it and loved it right away. Kaufman's production could not be more beautiful, with rich skeins of acoustic guitars, dazzling instrumental touches (the guitar solo on Holy Rose is a tiny, intricate wonder), and, only when called for, a certain grandeur.
Johnson's songwriting draws from a deep well of Americana and British Folk, but his melodies feel both fresh and completely inevitable. Lyrically, he manages to convey a lot with a few words, as in the opening of Cub Pilot: "She is looking out the living room window/Watching Saturday become Sunday/Coyotes by the garbage cans/Howling in the driveway." He is also unafraid of going right for the gut, as in this verse from On The Avalon Stairs: "Today a little further from the shore/And maybe tomorrow/Into the volcano you go/It's hard to say, but all you know/Is that you got no kids to take/Your ashes to the lake." As for his voice, it's still highly distinctive, but he is in complete control and his inventive phrasing makes nearly any words intensely moving. For a perfect example, listen to how he turns "Gullwing doors" into an incantation in the song of the same name. I can't speak for his previous albums (give me time), but Johnson takes a firm place in the front ranks of American songwriters with The Pet Parade.
Find songs from all these albums and follow along with my 2021 listening in these playlists:
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