Friday, December 23, 2022

Best Of 2022: The Top 25

Another tumultuous year on the world stage, another triumphant year for musicians, who battled seeming impossibilities to deliver an embarrassment of riches to my ears and my life. The first half of the year was so strong that it was a challenge to hone things down to incorporate the albums that came on like a flood in the second half. None of the albums that didn't make the transition from the July list will be forgotten, however - keep an eye on this space for the genre-specific lists to come. And while I agree to a certain extent with those who have said "genre is over," I still believe that you can group albums in a way that allows you to quickly find the experience that most closely matches your taste or mood. As always, this list combines all genres, at least in theory. 

Conspicuous by its absence is hip hop, which has been represented on every "Top" list since 2010. Up until almost the last minute, Pusha T's remarkable It's Almost Dry was a lock for the top 10 but when the rubber hit the road it did not sit well with me to so elevate a record with Kanye West as a featured performer. Irrational as it might seem, if he had just lent his still brilliant production talents to the album I think I could have gone with it. But his continuing hateful idiocy along with recent revelations about praise for Hitler going back a decade or more just made it a bridge too far. So apologies to Pusha, who definitely helmed the hip hop album of the year - watch for it on a future list. 

Since I've already written about all of these albums but one, click through to find the original posts - and also press play on this playlist or below to listen while you read. Numbers 12 and 17 are only available on Bandcamp but I assure you they are worth the micron of effort it will take to hear them. 

1. Florist - Florist 

2. Angel Olsen - Big Time

22. Palm - Nicks And Grazes It's been an eventful four years since Rock Island, their genius sophomore album, with forces both within and without putting immense pressure on the quartet of Eve Alpert, Hugo Stanley, Gerasimos Livitsanos, and Kasra Kurt. But rather than giving up, they took the opportunity to both hone and explode their sound, with instant Palm classics like Parable Lickers (those rhythms! the electro-steel drums!)  sitting alongside the mostly washy Away Kit and almost pure expressions of musique concrete like Suffer Dragon, which itself resolves into a sentimental chord sequence out of a Miyazaki film. Ultimately, Palm's greatest strength may be in converting the outer edges of avant garde sound-making - including both digital and physical manipulation of their instruments - into actual songs that deliver pop satisfaction once you've absorbed all their twists and turns. One of our great live bands, too - hope to seem them again in 2023!

Let me know if any of these brought you joy!

From the archives:

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 3

Like I said, it's been a busy fall so far. And with the "best of" lists right around the corner, this will have to be the last installment! Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 and press play on the updated playlist here or below.

Matt Evans - Soft Science Percussionist, programmer, producer, and composer Evans continues to build on his remarkable discography with this third solo album. In fact, after the fizzy electronica of New Topographics and the complex and emotional soundscapes of Touchless, this may be the most well-rounded of the three. You get the full flavor of his polyrhythmic approach to the drum kit along with his marvelously distinctive and expressive curation of electronic sound, all woven together in a seamless and consistently compelling series of pieces. A perfect example is the opening cut, Saprotrophia, which incepts with a breathy synth before Evans unleashes a busy drum pattern that becomes like the verse of a wordless song and has me hanging on every note. A more abstract chorus (or is it the bridge?) provides respite before the drums kick back in, leaving me breathless. As he puts it, the albums is "mostly-not-chill" although some songs are more groove-oriented. And the finale, Alocasia, is fully chill, with droning synths and hand-percussion providing an underpinning for the gorgeous sax of David Lackner (check out YAI if you want more of him), leaving us in the perfect state to reflect on the marvels we just heard. 

Charlotte Dos Santos - Morfo While we were treated to a five-song EP in 2020, it's been a bit of wait since Dos Santos' delicious debut, Cleo, came out in 2017. If anything, her music has grown even more exquisite and expansive since then, morphing (hence the title?) ever closer to jazz, but never committing fully to any genre. Her voice remains a limber and delicate wonder that she employs with greater confidence than ever. Filha Do Sol is but one standout that shows off everything she can do, with a sinuous opening section that transits through a flute solo as it slow builds towards an abrupt shift into a Brazilian parade rhythm that has Dos Santos' declaiming in Portuguese with a sense of triumphant homecoming. Just one stunning musical vision out of the baker's dozen that make up this remarkable album.

Dry Cleaning - Stumpwork After several EPs and singles and a smashing debut, I suppose I should stop being surprised by Dry Cleaning's ability to find new avenues of invention while staying within the basic idea that Florence Shaw speak-sings evocative, fractured lyrics while guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard, and drummer Nick Buxton cook up colorful, post-punk informed surroundings for her musings. But here are 11 new songs that do just that, with Dowse and Maynard adding new colors to their palettes, like the chorused, arpeggiated guitar on Kwenchy Kups, or the funky, churning bass on Hot Penny Day. The instrumentation has also expanded, with keyboards and woodwinds making appearances. Shaw herself pushes into new territory, with an almost gentle (and charmingly off-key) croon on some songs, like Gary Ashby. Her lyrics also continue to confound and enchant in equal measure, as in the internal monologue/dialogue that forms the chorus of Kwenchy Kups: "Well, things are shit, but they're gonna be okay/And I'm gonna see the otters/There aren't any otters/There are/Well, we can check/And I'm gonna see the water caterpillar/There's no such thing, hmm?/Nice idea." And then there's Conservative Hell, which puts all their despair into the way Shaw phrases the chorus before ending with the bruised optimism of "I wanted to thank you for organizing the Edinburgh trip/Which apart from what happened to my Kindle, was amazing!/No one ever believed in me until your semi-circle eyes." It's details like that Kindle that elevate Shaw's work to that of literature. Gimme more.

Warhaus - Ha Ha Heartbreak With this third album, Maarten Devoldere's solo discography has now taken shape as a trilogy. The first, 2016's titanic We Fucked A Flame Into Being depicted a bad boy reveling in success and all its various infatuations. The self-titled sophomore album from 2017 was warmer, finding our man in love, if not in a completely uncomplicated way. Hopefully the five years since were happy ones. But we knew it couldn't last, hence this breakup song cycle that uses some of the sound world of Philly Soul and disco to limn Devoldere's sorrows. Amid the sweeping strings and funky percussion are the typically dramatic hallmarks of the Warhaus sound, horn blasts, scratchy guitars, and of course, Devoldere's husky burr, which imparts such wisdom as "'Cause someone should have left me like you did/Just someone, someone else instead/But it had to be you" with a casualness that's almost conversational. Even in a melancholy state, Devoldere can't help being darkly entertaining, as in Desire when he sings "There’s the god for your inner peace/The god of lust has him on a leash/The one who tripped and then fell from grace/And the one who’s renting out the place." Whatever the state of Devoldere's love life, he can rest assured that his place in the musical firmament of our time is ever more assured with this latest flash of brilliance.

Arctic Monkeys - The Car After the left turn of Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino in 2018, which saw Alex Turner and company leave the jagged post-punk and groovy hard rock of their previous albums for (as I wrote) "spacious arrangements of burbling bass, chamber-pop keyboards and witty drums," the sky really was the limit for the band. And while some question whether that album and this one are really Turner solo projects, the fact remains that when he needs to finalize his ideas, he turns to the same guys he's been working with all along. He also needs them to take it on the road, which they do quite successfully as the recent live film from Brooklyn's King's Theater made plain. But even there, Turner proved himself scarily talented and dominant, often driving the band with his guitar - tart, dense, funky, or soaring, as the songs require - and holding the spotlight with his charisma and conviction. If Tranquility Base presented the Arctics as essentially a new band, then they show no sign of sophomore slump on The Car. Adding elements of R&B and funk warm up the feel of the album and the songs are again cinematic, with a way of worming their way into your heart and mind over time. The album's themes can be summed up in I Ain't Quite Where I Think I Am, which finds Turner (or his protagonist) feeling out of place amidst hollow displays of luxury and false camaraderie: "It's the intermission/Let's shake a few hands/Blank expressions invite me to suspect/I ain't quite where I think I am/Stackable party guests/To fill the awkward silencеs." That "stackable party guests" line is just one of many, many examples of how Turner's brilliant lyricism continues to be a hallmark of the band, as the driving beat, sharp wah wah guitar, and massed choral vocals show them pushing into new territory to match the mood. For any fans who deserted the Arctic Monkeys when Tranquility Base came out, it is truly their loss as they just keep getting better and better. And, to the new fans (like my wife!), I say welcome to the wonderful world of Alex Turner.

Dazy - OUTOFBODY Their early singles were exciting enough to get me to Indieplaza early to catch the New York debut of this Richmond, VA noise pop band. Their set was a delightful blast of tune-laden distortion and they've totally delivered on that promise with this 12-song, 25-minute debut. All the songs are catchy and some, like On My Way and Rollercoaster Ride, are EXTREMELYCATCHY. Get to this STAT so you, too, can say you were up on Dazy early. 

The Stargazer Lilies - Cosmic Tidal Wave On their self-produced fifth album, these psychedelic shoegazers seem to have internalized whatever they learned from working with Tobacco (of Black Moth Super Rainbow) on Occabot (read it backwards), further expanding their sound without losing the focus on melody. John Cep's guitar playing has grown even more adventurous, with soaring lines dramatically emerging from the haze. He's also upped his keyboard game, with ever-groovier synth/guitar interactions. Kim Field's vocals are still evocative, almost shamanic, as she sings into the storm of sound, driven on by the majestic drums of Carissa Giard. In short, this is one heckuva band and they deserve wider uptake among discerning listeners - and isn't that you?

Pale Dian - Feral Birth Six years on from their debut, Narrow Birth, this Austin-based "nightmare pop" band - mostly the project of Ruth Smith - has left behind most of what made that one sound a bit over-familiar, if still powerful. The addition of space, elegance, and a dynamic range that has some songs delivering hammer blows like an epic soundtrack, is evidence of newfound confidence as they cut loose from their influences. MeLt, for example, is an excursion into post-punk atmospherics with touches of glossy reggae - all very unexpected from them, but still seeming inevitable. A song like True Love even shows a pop sensibility that will find first-time listeners quickly converted into fans. If this is an "auditory emotional sample for futures to come," as Smith describes it, I say bring it on.

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Friday, November 18, 2022

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 2

Continuing on from Part 1, here are some more sips from the firehose of recent releases. The playlist has been updated and can be found here or below. And there will be a Part 3!

Olivia De Prato - I, A.M. - Artist Mother Project: New Works For Violin And Electronics In 2018, I called De Prato's debut, Streya, "an object lesson in how to put together a solo violin record" and also noted "the electro-acoustic wonders" that lay within it when I included it on my 100 best albums of the 2010s. So it was with great expectations that I clicked Play on this latest collection, which includes world-premiere recordings of works composed in the last couple of years by Natacha Diels, Katherine Young, Ha-Yang Kim, Pamela Stickney, Jen Baker, and Zosha Di Castri. I was especially excited to hear that last piece, as Di Castri's portrait album, Tachitipo, was also on my top 100. The Dream Feed opens with an electronic splash, almost a shattering of the sonic plane, that leads into pensive lines from De Prato's violin. Gradually, a piano enters and the music becomes lush and almost romantic, before building to a tangled density that is breathtaking. Created in collaboration by the two musicians, with Di Castri improvising to De Prato's violin, it has the feel of a settled piece even though it could be different every time they play it. The Dream Feed also reflects the theme of the album - the challenges of embracing the role of artist and mother - by including field recording of sonograms and the "whimpers of sleeping babies" among the electronic underpinnings. 

Emblematic of the album as a whole, there's an almost cybernetic relationship between the acoustic and synthetic sounds in The Dream Feed, an even deeper blend than that found on Streya. Noch Unbenannt, a collaboration with composer and Theremin virtuoso Pamela Stickney, is another great example of that, with the electronics and violin combining in seamless and captivating fashion. Fire In The Dark by Jen Baker, pushes De Prato into an almost spectral realm with whispery and scratchy sounds building to a soaring drone, while Kim's May You Dream Of Rainbows In Magical Lands transits from a somber, multi-tracked opening to a starlit world. The album opens with Automatic Writing Mumbles Of The Late Hour by Diels, a brief and playful electro-fantasia, and Mycorrhiza by Young, as knotty and expansive as the underground fungi to which the title pays tribute. With I, A.M., De Prato further secures her status as one of the most thoughtful, exciting, and adventurous musicians we have.

Narducci - Darkness To Light Over the course of three EPs, with the last being 2020's Journey To Los Angeles, Matt Silberman (who records as Narducci) has been building a repertoire of evocative, jazz-infused electronic music. He has also scored films, skills which he draws on here, orchestrating sounds and dynamics with the flow of narrative. Martial Meditations has some of the rainswept moodiness of Vangelis' Blade Runner score, which is only amplified by the Japanese vocals, while Boards Break would make a great TV theme song, with a haunting sax refrain, a touch of chamber music, and a muscular rhythm track. Silberman may release music at a slow drip, but each installment has been well worth the wait.

Aoife Nessa Frances - Protector Her debut, Land Of No Junction, was a dreamy drift of an album that I leaned on throughout the dislocations of 2020. The follow-up finds her adding a little more definition to the sound, especially the percussion, while also adding lush layers of instrumentation, including harp, strings, and brass. As on the earlier album, Brendans Jenkinson and Doherty provide much of the backing alongside Frances' guitar, keyboard, percussion, and drum machine. Cian Nugent, who produced and played on the debut is missing in action, which could explain the sharper sound. The songs, however, remain elliptical and hypnotic psych-folk-chamber vignettes with melodies that transport and enthrall. Her voice, serene and clear, sails over it all with a distance that sounds like wisdom, as in Only Child when she sings, "All my love/Won’t be enough this time/All your love/Can’t be enough this time," while the strings and guitar push to a near crescendo out of the Velvet Underground. Marvelous stuff.

Nev Cottee - Madrid While Cottee is continuing the fascination with moody, cinematic folk-rock that he displayed so gloriously on 2017's Broken Flowers, there's an added focus to this latest, as if he's absorbed more songwriting lessons from his heroes (primarily Lee Hazlewood and Scott Walker) that makes each track instantly indelible. Tempos have also occasionally increased, with the title track a nearly explosive instrumental, and Johnny Ray's spaghetti western update moving at a true gallop. That latter song also displays Cottee's deft toggle between wit and mystery, describing a "Leather clad stranger/God's lonely man/A modern day Lone Ranger," who "Spends his days lost in time/got no reason, got no rhyme/Hang around, he'll undo your mind." The tale ends in chilling fashion: "Then one day, Johnny/With zero resistance/disappeared from this world/Left his existence." My mind is both undone and deeply desirous of seeing that movie! He and his main collaborator Mason Neely weave backgrounds of sounds curated with the exquisite specificity of Jonathan Wilson, with bass tones and drum sounds perfectly placed in the soundscape. Could be Cottee's most impressive album yet - I know I'm addicted.

Rachael Dadd - Kaleidoscope Untangling some of the knots which made her last album, Flux, occasionally off-putting has Dadd surrounding her gentle incantations with warmth - strings, reeds, vibraphone, piano - and the results aim straight for the heart. That directness was deliberate, as she describes Kaleidoscope as being "a lot more honest and personal" than the earlier work and an effort to help people "feel held and find space to breathe, grieve and celebrate." Mission accomplished.

Bonny Light Horseman - Rolling Golden Holy The first album by the trio of Anais Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson, and Josh Kaufman was a masterful setting of traditional songs, some of them quite ancient ,and one of the miracles of 2020. Now, they have taken that deep dive into folk form to create ten (eleven, if you buy the vinyl) collectively written songs, all of them steeped in a timeless halcyon. Timeless, but far removed from our high-tech world, as made clear by lyrics like "I'll be a river and a-roving hie/And I'll be your lover when the moon is high/Above the timbers where the wolves, they call" from Gone By Fall, or "And I was merely cannon fodder/In the nineteenth cavalry/Waiting, waiting, waiting/To sing, "Nearer, My God, to Thee"" from Someone To Weep Over Me. In this way, their project is a little like that of The Band's, although the sound is quite different, more acoustic, with none of the nods to funk and soul of that legendary band. Even so, as they maintain the delicacy of the first album, there are some sharper dynamics here, with Kaufman even letting in a little of the explosive riffing anyone whose seen him on stage knows is in his guitar-slinging quiver. Most of all, what comes through is the sound of friends making the music they love. Bonny Light Horseman is a real band, then, and one of our best.

Frankie Cosmos - Inner World Peace In 2016, I declared myself charmed by the "tunefully awkward pop" of this band led by songwriter Greta Kline. Then, it seems, I promptly forgot about them, ignoring releases from 2018 and 2019 - which may be why I'm so blown away by the leap forward they make here, with Alex Bailey (guitar/bass), Lauren Martin (keyboards), and Luke Pyenson (drums) playing as a tight unit. With the help of producers Nate Mendelsohn and Katie Von Schleicher, they envelop Kline's songs and her high, thirst-quenching soprano in settings of great flexibility within the indie-pop framework they still occupy, if now with a touch of psych-rock. Over the course of 16 tracks, some of them quite short, Kline emerges as songwriter who uses a combination of broad, colorful strokes, specific details, and humor to create a persona to whom it is very easy to relate, especially if you're a creative person. As she notes in Empty Head (at 5:13 the longest song in Frankie's cosmos!): "I’m always bursting at the seams/I’ll tell you all about my dreams/I wish that I could quiet it/accept a little silence/maybe one day I’ll find it/and I’ll toe the line." God forbid that ever happens!

Winter - What Kind Of Blue Are You? Though Brazilian-born singer/songwriter Samira Winter has been releasing music for at least a decade, it took this year's collaboration with roots reggae revivalist Pachyman to bring her to my ears. Her vocals on that confection of a song, smooth yet infused with the saudade of her home country, stuck with me. I'm happy to report, that even if there's no reggae on this sophomore LP, it reveals a confident songwriter and producer (she co-produced with Joo Joo Ashworth, who also worked on that kick-ass Automatic album) who creates emotionally specific vignettes out of spare elements, both lyrically and sonically. For example, on the feedback-drenched Write It Out, her prescription for art's healing powers is one easy to take to heart: "Sit down, write it out/When there’s nothing left to do/Reaching higher ground/Keep pushing through the blues." Then there's Good, which languorously moves through its melancholy chord changes as guest vocalist Sasami repeats "I wanna be good to you/Wanna be good to you/Wanna be good..." As the guitars gain heat and noise, the protagonist's goal seems ever more remote - and fascinatingly so. By tinting her grungy shoegaze pop with some Julee Cruise mystery, Winter leaves a haunting wake on this compelling album.

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Monday, November 07, 2022

Record Roundup: Autumn Flood, Pt. 1

As the leaves began to turn and rain down, a veritable flood of albums of all genres were released, from newcomers and veterans alike. This deluge held music of such quality that even if all music of the previous nine months mysteriously disappeared, we could call it a damned fine year. Thank goodness that didn't happen, but I can say that my calculations for those year-end lists have been upended in the last few weeks. A few of the reasons why can be found below and in a subsequent post or posts.

Follow along in this playlist or below.

John Luther Adams - Sila: The Breath Of The World Though composed for very different forces (woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and voices vs. symphony orchestra), as an experience Sila takes its place alongside Become Ocean and Become Desert: a seemingly vast expanse of music that unfolds more like landscape than anything else. Behind the scenes, there are other differences, with each player given the chance to be "a soloist, who plays or sings a unique part at her or his own pace," creating a bespoke version of the work each time it's performed. Here, the players are the JACK Quartet, the Crossing Choir, and musicians from the University of Michigan, all artists of such surpassing excellence that every minute lands with the inevitability of the tides. Given the flexibility granted to the performers, it may be surprising how completely unified the sound is, with instruments and voices blending together in a sublime wash of sound that invites to you to pause, to breathe, the find your own rhythm among theirs. Sila takes its name from the Inuit spirit that animates all things and, even though it preserves a particular performance forever, this remarkable recording feels marvelously alive.

Anthony Cheung - Music For Film, Sculpture, And Captions Listening to this spine-tingling collection of three pieces puts you in dialog with a lively mind as it responds to creativity encountered in sculpture, film, and, yes, captions. Cheung's absolute brilliance as an orchestrator and sonic synthesist are at the fore throughout, perhaps most impressively in The Natural Word (2019), composed for and performed by Ensemble dal Niente. Inspired by a selection of closed-captions describing sounds other than dialog, this gives Cheung the opportunity to blend together, in a witty and captivating 15 minutes, such cues as "orchestra playing tender melody" and "rain pattering." The assured architecture of the piece - another specialty of Cheung's - keeps it from being just a sequential series of sounds. That structural confidence is also well-represented in A Line Can Go Anywhere (2019), a piano concerto that pays homage to the spare, playful beauty of Ruth Asawa's sculpture. Pianist Ueli Wiget and Ensemble Modern give a dazzling, definitive performance of a work which could find a place in any orchestra's repertoire. 

Null And Void (2019), given a swaggering, pin-sharp performance by Ensemble Musikfabrik is not a film score but a "musical analogue" for Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson's silent short, Stump The Guesser. Not having seen it, I can only say that if the film is as full of charm, elegance, and emotional variety as the music Cheung created, it must be a masterpiece. Cheung's music for smaller forces is well represented on All Roads, released earlier this year. Most notable is the title piece, for string quartet and piano, which absorbs harmonic language from Billy Strayhorn's Lotus Blossom with graceful results. All in all, a banner year for Cheung fans, a constituency which should be growing rapidly!

Julian Brink - Utility Music Like Brink, I am a fan of Jonny Greenwood's film scores. Unlike Brink, I did not move halfway around the world (from South Africa) to get a master's degree in film composition from Berklee. A move to California had him putting that degree to use and scoring several indie films, including Amir Motlagh's Three Worlds (2018). But what we have here is repurposed music from one that got away, 11 short pieces that show not only an individual approach to scoring (Eventually Lapse, for example, combines a string quartet with trumpet, harp, and guitar), but a very organic sense of building harmonies and melodies into emotion-evoking snapshots. The sense of unity among the players is a further tribute to his skills as the players recorded in five different cities and were blended together later. Brink's music is sure to enhance your life, however you make use of it.

Andrew McIntosh - Little Jimmy I admit to being slightly distracted by the title of the main piece (2020) here, which is named after a campground in a National Forest in California. In no way does it prepare you for the thoughtful, suspended sounds to come, with the piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, dropping jewel-toned sounds and repeating phrases into a space colored by field recordings from the campground. Knowing the campground was forever changed by the raging Bobcat Fire also lends emotional resonance, but the music is very evocative either way. Two other pieces, I Have A Lot To Learn (2019), a gently spiky piano piece, and Learning (2021), a meditation for solo percussion, fill out what makes for an excellent introduction to McIntosh's work.

Greg Stuart - Subtractions As a collaborator with some of the most distinctive composers of our age, such Sarah Hennies and Michael Pisaro-Liu, both of whom have works premiered on this album, Stuart has more than staked a claim for himself on the landscape of avant garde percussion. Throw in work with Clipping, the radical hip hop group, and the picture broadens to a musician of uncommon depth. No surprise that he tosses off the nervous assemblage of Hennies' Border Loss (2021) as if he thought of it on the spot. His lightness of touch astonishes even more when you learn of his focal dystonia, a condition which leaves his left hand unpredictable and even uncontrollable. But any difficulty he might have is rendered completely invisible here and in Pisaro-Liu's Side By Side (2021). The first movement, for bass drum and cymbals, is exquisitely tactile, a study in texture and almost a deliberate avoidance of rhythm. Part two, for vibraphone and glockenspiel, exploits the attack and sustain of each instrument beautifully, gleaming streaks of sound hanging in the air. Let them decorate the space around you.

Stephen Vitiello and Bill Seaman - The Other Forgotten Letters Over the last four years, we have been graced with many riches in the realms of ambient and electronic music from Vitiello. While I have always found his sound art fascinating, I am even more heartened by the stand-alone music he has been releasing, of which this is one of the most accessible. A long distance collaboration with Seaman, also a sound and visual artist, the three pieces here are immersive and cinematic, with a temporal inevitability that belies the improvised origins of much of the music. A hall of memories, a landscape through rain-streaked glass, a tense film montage...close your eyes and let the guitars, pianos, synths, and percussion of Vitiello and Seaman work their magic. Much to my delight, the duo promises more is yet to come later this year. Don't get left behind. 

Seabuckthorn - Of No Such Place Both ethereal and dramatic, like a gritty but gorgeous film about survival, Andy Cartwright's latest under this moniker is one of his best. The guitar, treated and prepared, is always at the heart of these records, but once combined with field recordings, clarinet, tongue drum, and cymbals, it becomes almost immaterial. That said, Form Less Ness, an album he released earlier this year under his own name with only "a little obscured guitar," drifted far enough from shore that I could never be certain I actually heard it. Of No Such Place sticks with you.

Brian Eno - FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE "I think Eno has ascended to another plane," I said to my wife as we listened to this in jaw-dropped stillness. She agreed, marveling at the warm embrace of his deeper but still characteristic voice, mostly unheard since 2005, surrounded by gloriously rich textures. My statement had a double meaning, too, both referring to the utter majesty of the music and to the sense of godlike remove he was projecting across these 10 tracks. That was even before I read his statement that "I like creating worlds, that’s what I do as an artist, creating sonic worlds." Adding his voice, according to him, is like peopling his landscapes with humans. From on high, he's noting that our home planet has been much abused and we need to fall back in love with nature and appreciate all it gives to us. So, a climate change record, if you must. But you don't have to. It may just be enough to recognize that a world that gifts us Eno and his all-encompassing reinvention of drone-based song, just may be a world worth holding onto.

Molly Joyce - Perspective In writing about her last album, 2020's Breaking And Entering, I said of one song that it puts "wind in your hair as you pirouette through the ether in imagined flight." That sense of weightlessness, and of an artist coming into her own, made for a thrilling listen, and must have been equally thrilling for Joyce - who also identifies as a disability activist - to put into the world. On Perspective, you get a 360 view of what she was working against when cutting loose the bounds of the earth on Breaking And Entering. Each track features a variety of voices answering questions relating to their experience of disability: What does: access, control, care, weakness, strength, etc. mean to you? Listening to the answers is alternately sobering and inspiring and, yes, lends new perspective on how people with disabilities - like, say, my brother-in-law, blinded by retinitis pigmentosa - are forced to navigate the world. But even those of us without a disability but who have been confronted by the hardest tests life can throw at you can relate to much of this, as when the one speaker answers "What does resilience mean to you?" with "It's a never give in feeling." The music behind all these unvarnished sentiments is not unlike what we heard on Breaking And Entering: pulsing, looping electronics, sometimes with percussive elements, sparkling and full of forward motion. Joyce gives these brave speakers extra dignity by setting their thoughts in these exquisite frames. 

Corntuth - Letters To My Robot Son On his third album, the artist currently known as Corntuth, has pursued the programmatic nature of his music even beyond that of his first album, the self-explanatory Music To Work To, or his second, the impressionistic road trip of The Desert Is Paper Thin, into pure storytelling. The background he imagines for this album, created with his trademark vintage digital synths, involves a series of musical modules left by one of the last humans for his robot son, in the hopes that they might act as software and make him sentient. That series of sci fi thoughts leads to sounds that have the bright naiveté of early Bill Nelson solo electronica, like La Belle Et La Bête, alongside the soulful sensibility that has defined Corntuth's music from the start. A perfect example is E-003, which pairs a chilly repeating loop with some warmer and perfectly placed chords in a contrasting and wonderfully fat texture. One knock against the Yamaha DX7 when it first came out was that it took some of the creativity out of synthesis with a plethora of preprogrammed sounds. Perhaps like the robot son, the DX7 and Korg Poly-800 mkII, were just waiting for the right spirit to bring their ultimate humanity to the fore, which is exactly what Corntuth does on this enchanting album. 

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Sunday, October 23, 2022

Record Roundup: Songcraft

According to the dictionary, “songcraft” should be two words yet “witchcraft,” to which it often seems related, is one. Let this post serve as one citation on the road to changing that. All of the albums below find artists pursuing their own definitions of songcraft, whether in a cycle derived from poetry or a kaleidoscopic array of hip hop-infused R&B. Read on and give a listen - you may even find your own definitions expanding.

Michael Hersch - The Script Of Storms As I wrote about his searing 2020 album, I hope we get a chance to visit soon, we owe Hersch "a debt of gratitude for never turning away from subject matter that would make other artists uncomfortable." That obligation continues to grow with the title piece here, composed in 2018 and based on poems by Fawzi Karim, an Iraqi author who often focused on the horrors he witnessed during his war torn childhood. As the text in the devastating final song reports:
"Skulls and fragments of bone,
Wreckage ...
given thicker presence by the mud.
You can’t get away from the sight of those mouths where the breath is stilled."
Hersch gives these words breath through the vocal lines he wrote for soprano Ah Young Hong, who sang on his previous album and delivers another furiously concentrated performance here. Often singing in the upper realms of her voice, sometimes ending lines with a shriek, it is impossible not to feel the impact of these unflinching songs. The fourth song makes explicit why it is critical that we listen very closely: "We are not victims of some past epidemic./Nor were we ever fodder for lost wars./No, we are your mirror."

The music, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Tito Muñoz, maintains a churning intensity, punctuated by violent outbursts. The imaginative orchestration and dynamic range are reminiscent of Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, itself a response to Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death.

Cortex and Ankle (2016), another song cycle featuring Hong and played by Ensemble Klang, opens the album seemingly in medias res, with a dramatic blast of piano, woodwinds, and percussion, before an electric guitar fanfare leads the way to the first song. The words of British poet Christopher Middleton provide the texts here, and while often more abstract than Karim's, also approach humanity's dark side in a manner both visceral and clear-eyed, as in the 11th song:
"The dead are tangled in a heap,
Scooped up and in and left to rot.
Waves of them come up with a stink,
Agony in the gaping rhomboid mouths,
Some with bedroom slippers on their feet.
So many, how to identify them?"

By animating the texts in both pieces with music of great integrity and color, Hersch pays homage both to the masterful poets and the people whose lives - and deaths - they describe. 

Björk - Fossora It's been over a decade since I reviewed an album by Iceland's favorite dottir, my struggles and ultimate disappointment with both Vulnicura and Utopia reflected by their absence from these pages. I am happy to report that were I to be ridiculously reductive, I would just say, "Björk is back!" But she has worked her way both back to a semblance of her old form and forward to somewhere entirely new. The shapely melodies alone confirm that the last two albums were at their roots lacking in good songs. And not only are Fossora's tracks filled with the moments of humor, seduction, and sublime beauty she had addicted us to before, now they are set in her most inventive art-song arrangements yet. The music is filled with next-level combos of acoustic instruments, such as a clarinet sextet, and electronics, while not ignoring the needs of the body with insistent rhythms percolating under several songs. Lyrically, she's often dwelling in nature (mushrooms are mentioned) or dwelling on the death of her mother in 2018. While there's the occasional clunker (from Freefall: "I let myself freefall/Into your arms/Into the shape of the love we created/Our emotional hammock") that's par for the course and it's all heartfelt. While she's still more of a niche artist than she used to be, without the dance-floor-ready grooves and easy pop appeal of the past, on Fossora Björk has found a rapprochement between arty and accessible, between the intellect and the body. 

Steve Lacy - Gemini Rights I admit to keeping The Internet, the band that put Lacy on the map, and his prior solo album in my peripheral vision. So pardon me for sipping on the cream when it rises to the top, but this album is a TREAT. A multicolored blend of pop, rock, funk, and r&b that comes on like a descendent of Shuggie Otis, Andre 3000, and Frank Ocean, the main feature are the tightly focused songs that might have all three of them watching their backs. About the only bad thing I can say about Gemini Rights is that Lacy occasionally sounds too much like Stevie Wonder, but it's like Stevie in his prime - and it's been too long since we heard that.

Sudan Archives - Natural Brown Prom Queen As I noted when I saw her live last summer, the music of Brittany Parks has grown edgier as she continues to build on the promise of Come Meh Way, the single that turned so many heads, including mine, back in 2017. While her creamy voice, swooping violin, and diamond-sharp electronic rhythms are still the heart of her sound, she's also grown more accomplished as she deftly switches between moods and styles - sometimes within the same song - across this expansive release. And it is a release, with 18 tracks over nearly an hour giving you the full range of her personality. Vulnerable, arrogant, smart, romantic, she doesn't hold back or construct a perfect person for your consumption, and the album is richer for it. Get to know Sudan Archives so you, too, can say OMG BRITT.

Julia Jacklin - Pre Pleasure After her stellar sophomore album, 2019's Crushing, Jacklin reached a new level of success, playing to crushing crowds (I literally could not move when I saw her at Warsaw!) around the world. Possibly in response to all that attention, she has grown both more intimate and more expansive on her third release. Opening with the stripped down, keyboard- and drum-machine-driven Lydia Wears A Cross, we're already in a different sound world than one might expect. It builds up to a gauzy strum before coming to a halt and leading into Love, Try Not To Let Go, which begins in such a constrained fashion, it's almost like the instruments are being cupped by tiny hands. The sensitive accompaniment of Ben Whiteley (guitars, etc.), Will Kidman (bass, etc.), and Laurie Torres (drums) really shines here. Then, when it explodes on the chorus, it feels wonderful. Ignore Tenderness is next, a glowing ballad with sweeping strings - another new sound for her - arranged by Owen Pallett. I Was Neon is one of the crowning glories of the album, riding a motorik beat, chugging guitar, and boasting a melody that flows so naturally you almost don't notice how sophisticated it is. Throughout these four songs, she pursues issues of identity, whether the skeptical Lydia of the opening, or the narrator of Neon who wonders, "Am I going to lose myself again?," and the complexities of love and relationships. Throughout all, her voice is a glory, flawlessly expressing the nuances of the emotional tenor of each song. A key line in Love, Try Not To Let Go hints at painful events ("The echo of that partyThe night I lost my voice/The silence that surrounds it/No longer feels like a choice") that lend a layer of poignance to her sheer excellence as a singer and songwriter. May she never lose her voice. 

The Soft Hills - Viva Che Vede This psych-folk-cosmic-rock project of singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Garrett Hobba has been going since 2007, but journeys both exterior (to Europe) and interior (Ayahuasca) meant that he was away from making music for the last few years. Whatever the road it took him to get here, Viva Che Vede sounds like the work of someone who knows exactly what they want and has the skills (and collaborators, most notably Jon Peloso (guitars & keys), Anthony Shadduck (basses), and Garrit Tillman (drums) to get it. Opening track Medicine starts with an accented voice telling us "We must die...we must be reborn" before the softly galloping song begins, with quirky percussion touches, a halo of electronics, melodic guitars, and flowing harmonies. The playful dislocations of Medicine - familiar to any Syd Barrett fans - set the tone for a collection of great beauty, with Hobba's sweet tenor becoming a welcome companion across the ten songs. Like Jonathan Wilson, Hobba is influenced by the past (mainly the 60s and 70s, with a touch of Elliott Smith) but never indebted to it. He's always present in the now, his prismatic lyrics constantly referring to the natural world that keeps him grounded as he explores, as one song would have it, "the infinite." Listen and be embraced. 

Tchotchke - s/t The path to musical fulfillment lies in following the threads. For example, that time Drinker played at Berlin Under A I became acquainted with Emily Tooraen, a sharp musician who was playing bass, and managed to keep an eye on her over the years. I was not surprised when I saw she was taking a more prominent role in this new band, but I was delighted at the first single, Dizzy, a glamtastic pop tune with fat analog synths and a sprightly melody. Follow-up Ronnie was even better, with a skirling twin-lead guitar hook that grabbed on and wouldn't let go. The album is one winner after another, clever, sunny, songs with a slightly theatrical bent. It's a great collaboration with the Lemon Twigs, who I knew were talented but needed better songs. Emily, along with her partners in sass, Anastasia and Eva (who prefer first names), more than do their part as far as that's concerned. Fun, fun, fun - a pure blast of escapism and most welcome in these times.

You may also enjoy: 
Record Roundup: Plugged In
Record Roundup: Song Forms
Record Roundup: Catching Up (Sort Of)

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Hot Live Summer

On a limited budget and still feeling cautious (if less so than 2021), I decided to make summer 2022 as hot has possible by taking advantage of as many free outdoor concerts I could. With my daughter, Hannah, as my intrepid companion (except for one show) I soaked up a ton of sounds, sights, and sun in a variety of venues, also partaking of the fun food and drink on offer.

All told, we attended 10 shows at seven venues in two states (and two boroughs), experiencing over 30 performers - and not one drop of rain. Read on to find out how it all went down - and press play on this playlist or below for the perfect soundtrack. 

Blissing out to CSH
June 17: Brooklyn Magazine Festival at LeFrak Lakeside, Prospect Park, feat. Car Seat Headrest, Sudan Archives, and Mr Twin Sister I was going to regretfully give this inaugural event a pass due to its $60 ticket, but then I entered one of those DO NYC contests and actually won two tickets. Hannah was especially thrilled as she had never seen CSH before and was tantalized by my tales about that time they blew the roof off Webster Hall a few years ago. I was also curious to see how the more synth-based sound displayed on their last album, Making A Door Less Open, would translate to the stage. 

We took the train to Parkside Avenue, one of my old stomping grounds, but instead of heading to 379, a limestone building where I lived after college, we turned right and headed into Prospect Park. Through a combination of signage, Google maps, and following the crowd, we made our way to the venue, a new addition to the area, having opened in 2013. After a minor hitch at security, when Hannah had to hide her metal water bottle near the gate as it was prohibited, our tickets were scanned and we were drawn towards the sounds of Mr Twin Sister, who were already on stage. Food and drink were on our minds, however, so we let their electro grooves be a background to an expensive but tasty burger and fries and a refreshing cocktail. For a first-time event, everything seemed quite well organized from the picnic tables to the reams of porta-potties.

The DJ mix between acts wasn’t quite catching the vibe, with an aggressive beat-driven blend, but at least it showed off the sound system, which was excellent. Just as we finished eating, Sudan Archives took the stage in a dazzling emerald outfit that had Grace Jones in its DNA and we joined the small throng in front of the stage. I had been wanting to see this project of Brittney Parks since her debut EP from Stones Throw dropped in my inbox in 2017 and she impressed from the first note. A violinist, singer, songwriter, and producer, Parks pulls strains of West African music into her blend of ultra-modern hip hop and R&B. Performing as a duo with a synth player/percussionist, she commanded the stage, whether ripping off runs on her violin or just singing. Her music has grown edgier over the years and I loved all the sharp angles and emotions. We got a nice preview of her next album, the just-released Natural Brown Prom Queen, including Selfish Soul, with its questing violin line. The album is fantastic, too, completely paying off the deposit she made at LeFrak.

Sudan Archives at LeFrak Lakeside
People were streaming in throughout the set but the plaza was still only about half-full by the time CSH took the stage, giving some context to the ticket giveaway. But everyone who came seemed devoted to CSH and the crowd tightened up as they launched into the first song. It was immediately clear that they had lost none of the fire I saw on stage in 2016, although the energy was a little different on songs where leader Will Toledo put down his guitar and let guitarist Ethan Ives and the keyboard player take the lead. This gave him the chance to launch into some choreographed movements, adding a more formal body language to his already arresting stage presence. At one point he showed solidarity with the few semi-furries in the audience, donning a bear’s head in which to perform - even that couldn’t dim his light. The band was tight, too, with drummer Andrew Katz simultaneously holding everything together and propelling it furiously forward. Still one of the best live bands on the planet.

We left on lightened feet, found Hannah’s water bottle, and gave a nod of gratitude to DO NYC for the tickets and Brooklyn Magazine for conceiving an excellent event that will hopefully return next year. 

Glowing with Patrick Watson
July 2: Central Park Summerstage feat. Patrick Watson with the Attacca String Quartet, Elisapie, and La Force This was our first time at this iconic series since 2014, when we saw Beck give an incredible show with the added bonus of an opening set by The GOASTT. So it felt a little like a homecoming with the layout of the stage and amenities feeling deeply familiar. It was a nice vibe, too, with everyone from families of tourists with giant FAO Schwarz bags to dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers chilling and ready for an interesting experience. 

As Watson is from Canada, they had organized a lineup of northern imports including La Force and Elisapie. First up was food, though, with a decent of slightly dry chicken Caesar wrap (and a vegetarian version for Hannah) and some canned hard seltzer or cider, which we enjoyed sitting on the bleachers. While we ate, we were treated to a diverting French-language short film as we tried to dodge the sun’s laser rays.

Ariel Engle, who performs as La Force both solo and with Broken Social Scene, was up next and, while she has a beautiful voice, was rarely more than pleasant. Covering Technotronic's Pump Up The Jam showed spunk and livened up the gathering crowd, however, and when she sings with Watson on his new EP, Better In The Shade, it's pure magic. Elisapie, an Inuk artist who sings in English, French, and Inuktitut, was more distinctive, creating dense webs of sound to hold her dark soprano. Her best songs - many of which are on her 2018 album, The Ballad Of The Runaway Girl - mesmerize with a ritualistic power.

When Watson took the stage, the entire atmosphere changed. His stage setup helped, with his signature upright piano surrounded by the Attacca players and an array of candle-like floor lamps encircling them all. His voice was as lithe and limber as it was the last time I saw him a decade ago and he had the same relaxed charm, as if his way of immersing us in his all-encompassing ballads was no big deal.


He was joined by La Force on some songs, and even a ballerina, but nothing could take the focus off of his songs and singing, all beautifully supported by the Attacca and a sensitive rhythm section. Whether in the park or a club, Watson creates his own effulgent atmosphere that everyone should experience. We floated toward Fifth Avenue with the crowd, trying to extend the dream state to our journey home.

With Nicole Atkins and other
July 7: River & Blues Festival, Wagner Park, feat. Nicole Atkins and Levi As we trekked down to the southern tip of Manhattan, memories of the late, lamented River To River festival came to mind, specifically when we saw Burning Spear in Rockefeller Park in 2010. But this was also a long time coming, as I've been trying to get in front of a stage with Nicole Atkins on it since 2014, when I fell for Slow Phaser, one of the best albums of the 2010s

Nicole Atkins & band at Wagner Park

When we got to the venue, however, we quickly learned there was no food or drink to be had on the site, so after collecting a free t-shirt, we hustled back to Broadway and found some takeout sushi. The park was filling up with a mellow crowd, but we found a spot to eat while DJ Susan Z. Anthony helped build excitement for the show. Atkins soon came out to welcome us and introduce Levi, an English singer and songwriter, who was soon mesmerizing us with her shimmering electric guitar and limpid voice. An unexpected delight - and I hope to hear more from her soon.
After Levi's short set, Atkins took the stage with her three-piece band (Mickey Burgess, guitar; Matthew Wilson, bass; Danny Banks, drums) and gave us a pure blast of her blues/soul/pop/rock at full throttle. She presented fine overview of her career, from slow ballads to uptempo numbers, engaging the crowd and letting her band shine. Levi joined her to sing backup from time to time and they made a heavenly blend of voices as the sun set behind the stage.

It's a rare thing indeed when years of anticipation lead to your expectations being not only met but exceeded - but that's what happened in Wagner Park. We treated ourselves to drastically overpriced soft ice cream on the way back to the subway, giving our perfect evening a sweet finish.

Crumb aftermath
July 9: BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, feat. Crumb and Slauson Malone It was four years ago, almost to the day, when we last made our way to the Lena Horne bandshell in Prospect Park to see Natalie Prass (come back, we miss you!). Just as that night checked a box for Hannah that I already marked years earlier, this would finally be her chance to see Crumb, a band we've both enjoyed since their debut EP in 2016. Having had a time getting tickets to see them in clubs, I wasn't surprised to see a long line gathering by the time we got into the park. We were surrounded by a riotous atmosphere as the locals were hosting several birthday BBQs, with music blaring and elaborate tents, which got us warmed up as we waited. 
Crumb in full flight in Prospect Park
Once in the compound, things were as we remembered, with rows of chairs, multiple concessions, and a great selection of food and drink. We found seats and loaded up on chow, which was delicious, especially those ridiculous ice cream sandwiches. I had done some listening and research on the opening act, learning that Slauson Malone was an alias for Jasper Marsalis, son of Wynton, and someone with an experimental bent pursuing R&B, electronic music, hip hop, jazz, etc. He was formerly in hip hop-adjacent production team Standing On The Corner, but what I heard of the new work was scattered enough that I still wasn't sure what to expect. He turned out to be a riveting presence, provocatively angry at times, mournfully vulnerable at others, and while definitely a post-Frank Ocean artist, also stunningly original. His band for the show included a bass clarinet, a tuba, and finally a cello played with spectacular flair by Nicholas John Wetherell. 

Slauson Malone (Jasper Marsalis, left, and looming large) in Prospect Park
Marsalis led the group with some of the most striking acoustic guitar playing I've heard in years, past the point of virtuosity to what sounded like total freedom. The audience seemed caught off guard at first - and some of the more explosive moments kept them there - but I think Slauson Malone made a lot of new fans that night, including me.

As good as Crumb's albums are, their woozy, jazz-inflected psych has always sounded best in concert and they have now ascended to an even more mind-blowing level of road-hardened grandeur and power. By the time they got on stage, the venue seemed at full capacity, making it the largest audience I've seen them with (9,000 vs 200), but they played to every member of the crowd. Front-woman Lila Ramani has reached new heights of confidence, too, turning on her charisma and leading the band with her guitar.

Throughout the show, they displayed incredible levels of dynamic control, traversing the gap between delicate filigrees and pile-driving riffage with shocking ease. The lighting design, including giant flowers that opened up and changed colors, added to the spectacle immensely. It was one of those nights that levitates you and turns the crowd into a single unit of devotion. At the end of the show I realized that they have been holding back throughout their career. Either they have to somehow get this energy onto one of their records or just release a live album from this tour. How about both?

Post-Kronos step & repeat
July 14: BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn feat. Kronos Quartet and Roomful Of Teeth The scene on the way into the park was less vibrant on a Thursday night and we didn't have to wait on line at all on our second visit to Prospect Park. Not because there wasn't a crowd but because I had scored us a pair of Friends tickets, which gave us VIP entry and access to the coveted Friend's Tent, which had a nice vibe and picnic tables for a more civilized meal. This all seemed appropriate for this high-minded concert, which promised a "live documentary" looking back at 50 years of the Kronos Quartet. This was a group that played an important role in my involvement in contemporary composition, gaining my attention when they performed an arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze in 1986 on an album also included Peter Sculthorpe and Conlon Nancarrow, among others.
Kronos Quartet with Jimi Hendrix in Prospect Park
First up was Roomful, the vocal ensemble led by composer/singer Caroline Shaw, who performed with the added bonus of genius drummer Matt Evans, who lent extra dimension to their performances of works by Wally Gunn. The final work, sans Evans, was Shaw's The Isle, aka "our version of Shakespeare in the Park," a substantial three-part piece based on the Bard's final play, The Tempest. There were echoes of plainchant blending with guttural noises in one section and the "full fathom five" section had a folk-like shapeliness reminiscent of Benjamin Britten. The Isle premiered in 2016 - no idea why they haven't recorded it yet!

A Thousand Thoughts, the Kronos retrospective, had filmmaker Sam Green narrating a history of the group while they played excerpts of signature works, sometimes in collaboration with those on the screen. This was especially effective when they jammed along with Tanya Taqag, who drove them hard into the outer limits. There were many moments of insight, both musical ("Do we play what you've written, or do we play the voice that we're listening to?" - founder David Herrington to Steve Reich, who had questions about their approach) and personal (After his child died, Herrington noted, "There was no sound inside. Musicians rely on a sound inside.") and plenty of great music from around the world.

Truly like a PBS American Masters come to life, this was an absorbing and moving evening and perfectly presented, ending with a well-deserved standing ovation. "Great concert, right?" asked an eight-year-old boy who had been listening outside the fence. "Absolutely!" I told him before we headed through the night-drenched park to the subway.

Suited up in Gowanus
July 23: Unheard-of//Ensemble, Gowanus Canal This was our second opportunity to hear and see composer Christopher Stark and multimedia artist Zlatko Ćosić's Fire Ecologies from a canoe in the Gowanus, having witnessed an earlier version in September 2021. It was in a slightly different location this year, but we still drove as it's a good distance from any subway. Fortunately, parking was easy on the dead-end street where the Gowanus Dredgers were hosting the performance. 

Combining footage of nature across the country - including the 2020 wildfires - with music that ranges from pensive to mournful to mysterious, Fire Ecologies has gotten richer and more dynamic. A movement called Infernal Dance, with its emphasis on electronics and rhythm, was especially dazzling.

Playing on a floating dock surrounded by canoes, the quintet - Ford Fourqurean (clarinet), Matheus Souza (violin), Erica Dicker (violin), Iva Casian-Lakoš (cello), and Daniel Anastasio (keyboard) - performed with aplomb. Just like last year, the lapping of the water and the meditative task of keeping our canoe from drifting only enhanced the work and prompted reflections on our relationship to our environment, whether in a National Park or an industrial zone. It's a wonderful piece and you can hear it from your own canoe (or on land) when they play it October 8th on Newtown Creek.

Post-Michelle Vibes
July 27: Summer Concerts @ The Wells Fargo Stage, Hudson Yards, feat. Michelle
While I've toured The Shed and traversed Hudson Yards on the way to Danny Myer's Porchlight, this was my first time at this particular stage, which is at the foot of the divisive attraction known as The Well. The DJ was already creating a warm vibe when we arrived and there were plenty of places to sit as we wolfed down our food truck fare. Just as in Prospect Park, the ice cream vendor was the true star, serving up a rich treat studded with breakfast cereal.

Michelle's music blends R&B, soul, pop, and dance music, a mixture they’ve presented with even more sophistication on their second album, After Dinner We Talk Dreams, which came out earlier this year. While I've been enjoying that album, and it's predecessor, 2018's Heatwave, I was not quite prepared for for their absolute vivacity on stage. The four singers - Sofia D'Angelo, Layla Ku, Emma Lee and Jamee Lockard - harmonized with perfection as they executed dance moves that were choreographed but seemingly casual. 

Percussionist Julian Kaufman and bassist Charlie Kilgore were delightful as well as they played everything that wasn't on a backing track. The musical blend was seamless, however, and had the audience grooving from the opening notes. For a captivating hour, the sextet brought us into their circle of friends, a glow we carried with us all the way home. Michelle is on tour in the U.S. and Europe for the next few months - catch'em if you can.

July 31: Central Park Summerstage, feat. Sons Of Kemet, Makaya McCraven, L'Rain, and Danielle Ponder Hannah took a pass on this second visit to Central Park, but my wife, Karen, came, a wonderful turn of events as we hadn't been to a concert together since January 2020. On our way to the venue, we heard a busker singing a decent rendition of Radiohead's Creep, which turned out to be a strange bit of foreshadowing. There were already a lot of people on the Astroturf, but we found a spot for our blanket - or blankets, as we were expecting friends a little later - and dug into the delicious feast Karen had prepared.
We were expecting a triple bill, but they announced Ponder as a late addition. Any concerns about too much music for one night dissipated as soon as she started singing in her big, soulful voice. Her set had a classic soul feel, except for a nearly operatic take on...Radiohead's Creep. She connected deeply with the song - and with the audience. A former public defender, Ponder's first album came out last month and I think she has what it takes to go the distance.

L'Rain in Central Park
I had seen Taja Cheek, who performs as L'Rain, a few years ago, opening for Crumb, and was intrigued, even if her set was unfocused. But her 2021 album, Fatigue, was mightily impressive, a kaleidoscopic, sometimes overwhelming soundscape, which made me very interested in seeing her again. 
There was a very different feel as soon as she started playing, her four-piece band creating a swirl of sound with her arty guitar to the fore, moving by seeming instinct through various sections and suites of sound. Electric Miles came to mind, with that same sense of an artist's vision being realized through the creativity of others. Not only has she made leaps since that night in 2018, she's also moved into a space beyond her last album. If she can capture what went on in Central Park, her next release will be a thing to behold.

McCraven is a jazz drummer, composer, and producer and a nexus of activity in Chicago. For all his incredible skill, my favorite project of his was a reimagining of I'm New Here, Gil Scott-Heron's last album, which came out in 2020 as We're New Again. Albums of his own material have left me a little cold, but I had a feeling he could bring it live. And I was not wrong, as he came out of the gate with power and passion, supported by an all-star band including Brandee Younger and Joel Ross on vibes, both of whom took several jaw-dropping solos. McCraven himself was incredible, either driving the band with an unstoppable pulse and precise accents, or taking explosive solos of his own. His new album, In These Times, is seriously good, but hearing the music breathe on stage is yet another thing. He's on an extensive U.S. and European tour in October and November - check the dates and make a plan.
Makaya McCraven leads from the kit in Central Park

I am that kind of nerd who got more interested in Sons Of Kemet after Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood started working with their drummer, Tom Skinner, in their new side-project(?), The Smile. His work is mind-expanding on their album and I was eager to hear what he could do in a freer context. Besides Skinner, Sons Of Kemet also includes Shabaka Hutchings on sax, Theon Cross on tuba and flute, and Edward Wakili-Hick, also on drums. Like McCraven, I've listened to their albums and not been entirely drawn in, but as night fell and the families with young children melted away, they made an instantaneous connection with my body, heart, and mind.

After a brief intro by Cross on flute, Hutchings started to blow and the drummers began creating patterns, sounding like a section of percussionists rather than two kit players. Then, Cross started wailing on his tuba(!), setting a foundation only to destroy it with seismic charges. It was collective improvisation with a singular purpose and seemed as if it would go on forever. 
Sons Of Kemet in the Midst in Central Park
They broke up the set with solo spots for all the players, but what stuck was that collective Dionysian throw-down that had the crowd moving muscles and bones that might have atrophied in the last two years - or that they never knew they had. It was cathartic and exhausting in all the best ways. One benefit of having our friends there is that they had their car with them and gave my limp body a ride home as my mind continued to percolate and process.

Sons Of Kemet's latest tour closed "this chapter of the band’s life for the foreseeable future" so I'm sorry for anyone who never got to see them. You can catch Skinner in The Smile and Hutchings, Cross, and Wakili-Hick have plenty going on so you can trace the threads of this inspired band.
All smiles in Ozawa Hall
August 7: Festival Of Contemporary Music, Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA, feat. Tanglewood Music Center Fellows, New Fromm Players, and Guests
This is the site of many of my first musical experiences, whether the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Pete Seeger, or that time my brother had to take me to see Seals & Crofts in 1973. Hannah is also an old hand as we used to go to these Sunday morning chamber concerts with some regularity over a decade ago. So when the stars aligned between us being in the Berkshires and Tanglewood being open, we did not hesitate.

Ozawa Hall was as gorgeous as always and, with most people wearing masks and the back wall open, we felt comfortable being inside. The program was typical for one of these events, with a great deal of variety and stunning playing from either fellows or guests. From Carlos Simon's string quartet, Warmth From Other Suns (2020), which opened the concert with pithy movements as concise as pop songs, to George Lewis' Born Obbligato (2013), a 25-minute piece for seven players with plenty of bright, busy swagger, it was a journey and a half by the time we left after noon. We also heard a set of Shakespeare Sonnets (2017) by Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, a fragment of John Harbison's Piano Sonata No. 2 (2001), and a spectacular world premiere of Andreia Pinto Correia's Cântico (2022) for solo violin, played by Yevgeny Kutik as if he were drawing it out of the air - and his own soul.
George Lewis (right) takes the ovation with the players in Ozawa Hall
Andile Khumalo's Cry Out (2009) also impressed with its wit and originality, from the styrofoam percussion at the opening to a memorable plucked piano note near the end, and Jesse Jone's Dark Is Yonder Town (2020) was a spellbinding bit of folk-lieder for tenor and guitar, performed to perfection by Matthew Corcoran and Dieter Hennings. It was a rich feast of music that sent us back home energized by the musical invention on display.

Tourists at home in Rock Center
September 17: IndiePlaza Festival, Rockefeller Center, feat. Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Automatic, Claud, Horsegirl, Yaya Bey, Mary Lattimore, They Hate Change, The Muckers, Sofie Royer, King Hannah, Anxious, The Bobby Lees, and Dazy
We bookended our summer with another first-time event, except we didn't have to win tickets to this one as it was "inclusive and free to all New Yorkers," according to Rough Trade and Rockefeller Center, who co-created it. While some were skeptical when Rough Trade moved from Williamsburg to midtown, I felt it was a fresh idea - but even I didn't envision them hosting concerts at the Rainbow Room or throwing a party on the plaza where the giant Christmas tree will soon be erected.

IndiePlaza was a two-day festival and the lineup for Saturday was incredibly well-curated, with several artists I've been wanting to see and others I was happy to discover through my pre-show research. It was thanks to that preparation that we showed up bright and early to see Dazy, a blurred and tuneful indie-guitar band from Richmond, VA, making their NYC debut at noon. When we entered at the South Plaza, we were greeted by cheery tents staffed by even cheerier people, whether reps from Rough Trade and Band Shirt Day, silkscreen printers making tote bags and t-shirts on the spot, and other vendors.

The stage was centrally located, near the skating rink, with a layout for the audience made somewhat awkward by the rostrum for the Christmas Tree, which was fenced off. This made for a fairly small area just in front of the stage with a long, empty gap behind us as we took our spot among the few other early birds. Dazy were worth the effort, too, well-drilled, but not too tight, and with a friendly stage presence. Memorable songs abounded, especially Rollercoaster Ride, one of their latest. Looking forward to their official debut, which comes out October 28th. Based on the enthusiastic response to their set, I'm sure I won't be alone.
The Bobby Lees are a bit conventional and Anxious has one vocalist who's a bit too growly for my taste so we took some time away from the stage to explore the crafts at the Band Shirt tent. Yes, I said crafts! We were given a rainbow's worth of permanent markers and blank 7-inch sleeves for us to decorate. I took the opportunity to finally make some protection for my rare copy of Pay To Cum, the Bad Brains debut single, and commissioned Hannah to do the same for my copy of Happenings Ten Years Time Ago by The Yardbirds. In a flight of fancy, I also made a cover for Underneath The Mango Tree, Monty Norman's Jamaican-style folk song from the Dr. No soundtrack, which I used to sing to my kids. No 45 of it exists, but if it did, I totally think it should have my Three Friends characters (Hippo, Rhino, and Elephant) on the cover.

Custom covers!
We also flipped through the crates at the Rough Trade tent and I picked up an exclusive pressing of Horsegirl's fantastic debut, since they were doing a signing later in the day. Then it was time for lunch, but we found food options to be exceedingly limited. The pizza truck was not yet up and running and the Other Half Brewery and City Winery locales only offered beer and wine along with seating. So we fired up Google and ordered sandwiches and tater tots to pick up from a nearby Melt, which gave us an excuse to head into the Rough Trade store and use their photo booth. That activity was one of several on an IndiePlaza bingo card that we filled in with enthusiasm. Lunch in hand, we went back to Other Half's beer garden, where Hannah had a draft and we both took advantage of the free water.

Just as we finished, it was time to get back to the stage to catch Liverpool's King Hannah, whose 2022 debut, I'm Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, I've listened to a number of times, enjoying its sepulchral and hypnotic electric folk-blues. Their dark, mesmeric tunes, which also have a touch of Portishead in their makeup, took on a surreal edge in the sun struck plaza, with reflections bouncing off the surrounding buildings like shards from Craig Whittle's guitar and Hannah Merrick's intoned vocals casting a spell. A 30-minute set was just long enough for them to create their mood, but I look forward to seeing them again and really immersing myself in their sound.

While the stage was being reset, we explored the North Plaza, which had a booths run by the Williamsburg School of Music, where you could form a band and learn a song in 15 minutes, Vivobarefoot, where you could have your feet scanned (the one bingo item we didn't check off), and Death By Audio and Landscape, both displaying musical gear. When we returned, Sofie Royer was nearly ready to begin her show. She's an interesting case, having established herself as a tastemaker par excellence as a Boiler Room DJ, producer, and compiler of Sofie's SOS Tape in 2016, an up-to-the-minute collection of electronic hip hop and R&B, and now making her way as an artist herself. When I interviewed her for Mass Appeal in 2016 about the "art of the mix," she was studying at the University Of Vienna and I didn't get an inkling of this latest phase of her career.
That said, as devoted as I was to the SOS mix, especially for introducing me to Charlotte Dos Santos, I wasn't totally feeling Sofie's debut, Cult Survivor, which came out in 2020. However, newer songs were more promising and I was curious to see how she would bring them to the stage. The answer turned out to be a little uneven, as she seemed unsure whether to present herself as a pop-pixie or a Eurocentric chanteuse. The latter persona suits her better, so she charmed at the keyboard or when playing the violin yet felt a little out of place when just dancing. But the songs were an appealing mix of glam, Berlin theater songs, and electro pop and now that her new album, Harlequin, is out they sound even better. Perhaps, for the moment anyway, where Sofie truly shines is in the studio - nothing wrong with that. Definitely hit play on Harlequin and if you catch her opening for Toro Y Moi let me know what you think. And pay no attention to the guy in the clown nose - at least we tried not to!

We dashed back to the South Plaza for the Horsegirl record-signing and heard they were stuck in traffic - welcome to New York! But we were at the front of the line, which grew rapidly, so we kept our spot and got their signatures, which were as quirky and artistic as their music. One of them asked if Rough Trade gave me the record. "No," I answered, "I bought it..." "What a scam!" she exclaimed. "Hey, I was going to buy it anyway," I told them, "It's one of the best of the year! Plus, you benefit from the sale, right?" They couldn't argue with that, and eagerly turned to greet the next autograph-seeker.

The Muckers rock in Rock Center
Ever since falling for their debut, Endeavour, in 2021, I've had The Muckers on my must-see list and they were as great as I expected, throwing themselves into their riff-tastic rock with gusto. They have a wide-eyed quality, as if to say "can you believe we're doing this," which is immensely appealing.
We took a quick walk after their set to find some facilities, as the organizers themselves provided nothing in that regard. Fortunately, the Rockefeller Center mall has restrooms that were more than adequate. We also took a load off back at the craft table and made some bracelets using their fabulous array of beads.

Then I suddenly realized I hadn't had coffee, so we scootched over to the a coffee truck on the North Plaza. As we walked back, I overheard one of the members of avant-hip hop group They Hate Change put out a call for an RCA cable. Not a good sign...and by the time they solved the problem, they had only minutes left to play - what we saw was invigorating, but I was glad Rough Trade was running a tight ship and shut their set down at the appropriate time. Hopefully next time I see them they'll have all their cables.
Meditative harpist Mary Lattimore, who uses loops to build up ambient webs of sound, was on next, and played a sublime set. Our minds at peace, we found our stomachs making themselves known again so we went in search of dinner. The pizza truck was now closed (Oy!) so we hiked over to ever-reliable Uncle Paul's near Grand Central and got some slices there, which we enjoyed with wine and hard cider at the City Winery setup. Perhaps next time, the organizers will have more food available - and keep it open for the duration.

Due to the quest for food, we missed most of Yaya Bey's performance, but what we heard was great - if she's not on your neo-soul hotlist, correct that, stat. 
Horsegirl Weaving at Rock Center
But there was no way we were going to miss a second of Horsegirl and we found plenty of people who felt the same way when we got back to the stage. The trio inspired rapturous applause as they blasted through most of their repertoire with remarkable assurance for a young band. It was fun to watch how they created their weaves of sound, with front-women Penelope Lowenstein and Nora Cheng employing the distinctive tones of the Fender Bass VI when they weren't playing guitars. I was thrilled by their set and excited to learn they're leaving their beloved Chicago to become a New York band. Keep an eye out for more tour dates and hopefully you can see them when they're not opening for lesser bands.

Hannah was excited to see Claud, who I only knew about because of her expansive and compulsively listenable LGBTQ Pride playlist. Claud's breezy pop was a natural fit on the outdoor stage and their stage presence could only be described as adorable, whether hanging a pride flag from an unused microphone stand or rolling on the stage with glee. They seemed so completely delighted to be there that it was contagious. They were supported by a guitarist and drummer and the best songs had them on guitar as well, as the backing tracks were not as well integrated as when we saw Michelle. A bigger crowd also meant more of the concert-goer's anathema: people talking while the band is playing. If I can hear you and you're not talking to me, you're talking too loud! But I wouldn't hesitate to see Claud again and, had I known about it, would have included their album Super Monster on the Best Of Rock, Folk, Etc. in 2021.
It was after 9:00 PM and we were starting to droop, but the promise of Automatic's music was too enticing to bail so we rallied for one more set. And I'm glad we did, as the L.A. electro-pop trio presented their catchy songs, many from their new album, Excess, in a stylishly sleek and playful style that had the crowd bopping along, including me, suddenly reenergized by the motorik beat. They're on tour throughout October and I highly recommend you find a date near you. If you're a New Yorker, put Market Hotel on 10/14 with Omni in your diary.

While we felt a little bad abandoning the headlining DJ set by Ali Shaheed Muhammad, we'd been on our feet for most of 10 hours and had no gas left in our tanks, so we made our way to Fifth Avenue to get a cab. On the way, we discovered that the lifesaving underground bathroom was now closed, whoops! We followed someone else and found salvation in the place where they rent the roller skates. Noted for next year. Fortunately, when we rode by in our Lyft a little while later we heard enthusiastic cheers for Muhammad's mix of a Kanye West Pablo-era beat and we knew he and the audience were in good hands.

A blowout like IndiePlaza was the perfect way to put a bow on our hot live summer. Hopefully 2023 will be as generous to us. Until then, let me know the who-what-where-and-whens of your summer concert season. Maybe we just missed each other at one of the great shows described above!
Sun struck on Saturday at the IndiePlaza Festival

P.S. Catch up with all the videos above in this handy playlist.