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. 

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Electro-Humanism
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
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!

You may also enjoy: 
2 Nights 4 Trios 1 Duo
Jack In The Crypt
Best Of 2018: Three Concerts