Saturday, May 28, 2022

Record Roundup: 22 for 22 (Part 1)

There's no single reason why it took me so long to complete my "Best Of 2021" series, just life - in all its stress, strife, wonder, and joy. But all throughout everything that was going on and while I was doing my darnedest to put some shape to the music of last year, I was listening - passionately - to music from this year. And there has been plenty of brilliant stuff, more than enough to fill a dozen roundups. In order to keep myself (and you) from getting overwhelmed, I'm starting off with 22 albums across all genres, split in two parts. Future posts will drill down further into each genre. 

Find songs from most of these albums (some are only on Bandcamp) and follow along with my 2022 listening in these playlists:


Laura Cocks - Field Anatomies It's only fitting that an album of "blisteringly physical works for flutes" comes in an exquisite package, hand-collaged with dried flowers and decorated with beeswax. The beauteous outside, however, belies the often fierce sounds inside, as Cocks (known for their work with the ever-questing Tak Ensemble), goes toe to toe with some very extreme conceptions of what can be done with a flute, breath, the body, electronics - and some even less expected sources of sound. Bethany Younge's Oxygen And Reality, for example, was composed for piccolo, electronics, balloons, and hardware, and includes at least as much rhythmic breathing as anything else. It also features Cocks in seeming conversation with theirself, as half-heard spoken sentences cross the soundscape. That's the second track; the first is David Bird's Atolls for solo piccolo and 29 spatialized piccolos, which kicks things off with what sounds like someone taking oxygen from the flute before eventually exploding in dazzling swirls of gleaming sound. 

Jessie Cox, whose work was recently heard on the excellent Wavefield Ensemble album Concrete And Void, contributes Spiritus for solo flute, which alternates meditative tones with busy flurries of melody. "Contributes" is the wrong word, however, as the collaboration between composer and performer is as deep as it gets on Field Anatomies, beautifully detailed in the conversations on episode 22 of the Tak Editions podcast. The two other pieces are You'll See Me Return To The City Of Fury for glissando flute and electronics by DM R (Diana Marcela Rodriguez), both jarring and space-age sleek, and Produktionsmittel I for amplified flute, aluminum foil, glass bottle, and fixed media by Joan Arnau Pàmies, frantic and animalistic even when its just the sound of crinkling foil. All of these works are fully formed and as rewarding as they are demanding. Field Anatomies is a remarkable piece of art, which will cause emotion and inspiration to sprout faster than the packet of seeds that comes with the special edition CD.  Act fast, in any case: only five copies remain.

Weston Olencki - Old Time Music The Tak Editions podcast also gave me the opportunity to focus on the mind of Olencki, which was perfect (though not required) prep for their music, as represented by this monster of a tape from Tripticks. The three works here astound in their invention, conceptual gravitas, and sheer listenability. Wittily titled Tenor Madness, the opener puts sax player Anna Webber through more changes than a dozen fake books as she interacts with some very messed up electronics derived from  short extracts of over 300 albums spanning recordings of the (improvising) tenor saxophone from 1939 to the present. And that should give YOU an idea of how Olencki's mind works! A Vine That Grew Over The City And No One Noticed is a four-part work for "two electro-mechanically controlled banjos, homemade magnetic resonators, solenoid motors, AM radio transmitters, vintage transistor and tube radios, railroad spikes, mason jars, carriage bolts, South Carolina red clay distortion unit, 60Hz ground hum, field recordings, and neural net re-synthesis of seminal old-time repertoire and Markov-driven Scruggs-style banjo picking." I swear I hear a snippet of John Lennon's Well Well Well in there, too...but for all that it's compulsively listenable, a drone that sounds as old as Appalachia and as new as the Boeing Starliner that just connected to the International Space Station. The last piece, Charon Guiding The Weary 'Cross The Long River (Or, How To Care For A Dying Instrument), is comprised of a similarly baffling array of source material, including "hydrophonic recordings made of the Connecticut River transduced through found slate roofing tiles," and would probably give the titular hell-bound oarsman a chill up his demonic spine.  Kudos to Olencki for putting as much thought into how the end products sound as he did into making them. Drastically original and staggering stuff.

Christopher Trapani - Horizontal Drift On the title track of Trapani's latest portrait album, Dan Lippel plays a quarter-tone guitar through software of the composer's own design called LoopSculptor. The piece incorporates tropes from Delta blues and other genres native to Trapani's hometown of New Orleans, resulting in a 10-minute trip through museum of hazy half-memories. The title seems to do double duty, referring both to American expansion and the interactions of various loops across the software's grid layout. The unusual instrument, the engineer's approach to sound, and the emotionally resonant results are paradigmatic of the whole album, which opens with Targul, a piece for vioara cu goarna, a horn-enhanced instrument similar to a Stroh violin. Played with seemingly casual mastery by Maximilian Haft, the sound is not unlike a gramophone, with a sharp, tinny edge that blends perfectly with the sketchy, truncated phrases of the music. Haft also finds himself in a sort of duet/competition with electronics played through megaphones, adding immersive depth to the attenuated sounds. Trapani also puts new-music piano maven Marilyn Nonken through her paces in Lost Time Triptych, a piece for scordatura-tuned instrument that manages to be inspired by both Gerard Grisey and Bob Dylan. The other works, including Linear A, for microtonal clarinet (Amy Advocat) and electronics, Forty-Nine, Forty-Nine, for a MIDI-controlled equal-tempered Fokker organ, and Tesserae, for viola d’amore (Marco Fusi) grab the attention as well. Trapani continues to prove himself to be smart, playful, and fearless explorer on this triumphant collection.

Pathos Trio - When Dark Sounds Collide The first thing that struck me upon listening to this was how richly it was recorded, with the percussion of  Felix Reyes and Marcelina Suchocka fairly leaping out of my speakers and taking up space in my living room like blow-up furniture. The piece, Evan Chapman's Fiction Of Light, begins with Alan Hankers delicate (and delicately enhanced) piano, which only gives the drums more presence. Two-thirds of the way in, things get glitchy and pulsating and we're in the realm of a Radiohead remix. The group's versatility is further proven by Alison Yun-Fei Jiang's Prayer Variations, which includes some very subtle work from Reyes and Suchocka, letting Hankers takes center stage, before they drop the "boom." It's a dynamic and satisfying piece, as are works by Alyssa Weinberg and Finola Merivale. Hankers' own Distance Between Places ends the album on a brooding note. Each work was commissioned by Pathos and has an accompanying video by Four/Ten Media (Chapman is a co-founder), lending even more of a sense of occasion to this excellent debut.

Eric Nathan - Missing Words I got a great sense of kissenkühlelabsal from Whitacre Hill's horn in the first part of Missing Words, performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. And in case you think I've lost my mind, "kissenkühlelabsal" is a word Ben Schott invented to describe "the ineffable pleasure and instant relief of a cool pillow." Every movement of this six-part work is in fact based on one of Schott's words from his Schottenfreude project, which turns into a great excuse for Nathan to produce reams of chamber music, from sparkling to introspective, and have it performed to a fare-thee-well by BMOP, the American Brass Quintet, cellist Parry Karp and pianist Christopher Karp, the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Neave Trio, and Hub New Music. Whether you know the words or not, this is a delight to listen to, although it did require some fingerspitzentanz ("tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity") to get the booklet out of the CD package so I could read the liner notes!


Carlos Nino & Friends - Live At Commend, NYC For some reason it took me years to find out that the innovative label RVNG had a performance space and store in lower Manhattan. Now sadly on hiatus, at least I got to spend one blissful night in that jewel-box of artistry back in 2019, listening to sets by Phong Tran and Adam Cuthbért. But I wasn't there on November 16, 2021, when Nino assembled this crack lineup to make peaceful, yet intricately textured music. Adding to Nino's bells, chimes, and percussion were the great Laraaji (electric kalimba, vocals, and iPad), Surya Botofasina (keyboards), Photay (Buchla, 808, and electronic drums), and Will Logan (drum set). That should give you an idea of the sound dimension you can enter when you press "Play" - and I hope you do.

The Living Earth Show and Danny Clay - Music For Hard Times Composed/organized by Clay as "calming strategies" for musicians stuck at home, these 15 gentle, twinkling tracks find Living Earthers Andy Meyerson (percussion) and Travis Andrews (guitar) and, in Book Two, a cast of dozens including the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus and students from the San Francisco Conservatory (who sent in tracks via Dropbox) finding their way towards the light. Let it shine on you.

Debit - The Long Count Just in case your existential dread has been too well alleviated by the sweet sounds above, here comes Delia Beatriz using machine learning to process the "ancestral technology" of Mayan wind instruments, creating a disquieting dreamscape that pays homage to a culture that has not so much been forgotten but "purposefully erased." Whether the Mayans would find anything to recognize in these sounds is unknown, but I think they would appreciate the effort - and we can enjoy the spare, spectral beauty either way.

Hip Hop & RnB

FKA Twigs - Caprisongs As someone who has championed Twigs since before she was FKA but was disappointed in both her long-form releases (LP1 and Magdelene), this album - she calls it a mixtape - is a balm to my ears. While still on the leading edge of electronic RnB, there's a sense of play and lightness on these 17 tracks that's a far cry from the overly considered work on those earlier releases. Whether it's the presence of new collaborators like producer El Guincho, who worked on most of the album, or just the fact that she considered it a mixtape rather than an album allowed her to fly more freely. A breezy, but deeply creative, caprice.

Pusha T - It's Almost Dry Four years after the perfection of Daytona (my #3 album of 2018), "cocaine's Dr. Seuss" is back with his fourth album, collaborating almost equally with his two greatest partners, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West - and nearly hits those same heights. The album starts with three knockouts, the first two produced by Williams and the third by West. Brambleton opens the album with a door-knock snare drum and spooky keyboards as Pusha details his sense of betrayal after his former manager claimed credit for his stories. Let The Smokers Shine The Coupes deals out a deeply funky groove as Pusha once again finds new ways to be the king of coke rap, saying "If kilograms is the groove/I done sold the golden goose." 

Then, in a masterstroke only West could come up with (and that Pusha T begged for), Dreaming Of The Past drops the hammer with a slightly sped-up sample of Donny Hathaway's take on John Lennon's Jealous Guy. The ice-cold vibe warms right up as Pusha practically duets with Hathaway while reminiscing about the good old days when "We hollowed the walls in back of bodegas" and "Gun stutter, make the drumline like Grambling." Even as he relitigates his old life, he's self-aware enough to point out that he "Didn't have to reinvent the wheel, just a better design." But even so he tries out some new things, like the way he floats his voice over Williams' nagging groove on Call My Bluff. The final track, Pray For You, combines old and new as Pusha T takes a "side step back into the duo/The kings of the Pyrex," by having his brother Malice (aka No Malice) join him on the song. Over a churchy track by producer/singer Labrinth that flashes back to Prayer, which opened Clipse's unreleased debut album (finally available!), Malice brings the heat like the old days, which has me both dreaming of the past and eager for the future.

Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers In one of the instantly busy hot-take threads that popped up when this eagerly awaited album dropped - Lamar's fifth and first since the Pulitzer prize-winning Damn in 2017 - a friend of a friend said, "I like the rapping but I wish the music was more hip hop." This reminded me of another exchange where someone asked if Revolution #9 was a Beatles song. My response was that, while it's an unwieldy sound collage, it is a Beatles song by virtue of being on a Beatles album. Mr. Morale comes from a similarly imperial view: it's all hip hop because Lamar is a hip hop artist, and one of such creativity and stature that he can bend whole genres to his will. To be clear, there are sonic references to reggae, jazz, r&b, and, of course, many sub-genres of hip hop - but like iron filings on a magnet, they all adhere to Lamar's wiry form, moving the genre along rather than leaving it behind. 

Lyrically, Lamar is on another plane than most rappers, dishing out a memoir's worth of tangled reflections, observations, stories, and histories. The dense firehose of words is often challenging to sort through and revealing enough to occasionally cross into "TMI" territory. But as Lamar himself says on Worldwide Steppers: "I am not for the faint of heart." He then continues with a few lines that give a hint of the micro and macro concerns of the album: "My genetic build can build multi-universes, the man of God/Playin' "Baby Shark" with my daughter/Watchin' for sharks outside at the same time/Life as a protective father, I'd kill for her." The cover depicts him with a child in his arms, a crown of thorns on his head, and a gun in his waistband, all signifiers for the world's weight, which he feels heavily on his shoulders. In Mother I Sober, which features featherweight vocals from Portishead's Beth Gibbons, Lamar remarks, "I'm sensitive, I feel everything, I feel everybody/One man standin' on two words, heal everybody." That sense of responsibility may have led him to overstuff the album, which runs an hour and 13 minutes. But Lamar is a visionary artist and incapable of being less than fascinating at this point in his career. It's still early days for my relationship with Mr. Morale - for all I know a song that now feels half-baked might prove to be a favorite in a few months. An essential listen.

Next time: Latin, rock, folk, pop, etc. 

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