PICK OF THE MONTH
The Deer’s Cry
Vox Clamantis / Jaan-Eik Tulve
For people like me, who have been fans of Arvo Pärt’s music for decades, the announcement of a new album of his choral music usually elicits a moment of excitement followed by anticipatory disappointment: “Oh, it’s probably another recording of pieces that I already own in two or three other performances.” And indeed, the title piece on this new album is ten years old and has already been recorded beautifully by the Sixteen, Ars Nova Copenhagen, and others. But wait, fellow Pärtisans! Don’t despair, because this album also features world-première recordings of two recent compositions (very brief ones, sadly), and half of the program consists of rarely-recorded works. Best of all, though, is the quality of the performances: Vox Clamantis boast an exceptional purity and sweetness of tone that perfectly showcases the spare beauty and emotional immediacy of Pärt’s music, as well as its devotional intensity. Vox Clamantis’ account of the title track, Alleluia-Tropus, and the breathtaking Da Pacem Domine are now, in my opinion, the versions against which all future accounts will be measured. No classical collection should be without this utterly gorgeous recording.
Aria Rostami & Daniel Blomquist
This is music that fits no obvious category, and I debated with myself as to where I should place it. I decided on the Classical section because the music is composed and sculpted, but that designation is still problematic. What does it sound like? Imagine Brian and Roger Eno’s Apollo album, but with less melody. Rostami and Blomquist created these six pieces by manipulating various kinds of source material and sending it back and forth to each other electronically; most of the sources are now unrecognizable, and the sounds mostly float in sonic cloud patterns — though chords and even the odd passage of recognizable harmonic movement emerge from the mist from time to time. I guess you could call this ambient music, but it somehow feels more serious than most ambient music is. Like the best ambient music, it rewards both close listening and sleepy half-attention.
Choir of New College Oxford; St. James’ Baroque / Robert Quinney
Novum (dist. Naxos)
I have to say right up front that this isn’t my favorite performance of these works — the Choir of New College Oxford is a fine ensemble, but for my tastes the treble voices are a bit shrill and the inside parts a bit too vibrato-laden; overall, I much prefer the chapel choir of Magdalen College. But these aren’t bad performances by any means, and the works themselves are both beautiful and significant: John Blow is an underrated and underrecorded figure of the English baroque, and these church anthems fully deserve the loving attention they receive here. Comprehensive classical and early-music collections should give this disc serious consideration.
The Sun Most Radiant: Music from the Eton Choirbook Volume 4
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford / Stephen Darlington
Avie (dist. Naxos)
This one, on the other hand, is essential in terms of both content and performance quality. It represents the fourth installment in the Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s ongoing survey of English choral music from the Eton Choirbooks, and yet again the program features two world-premiere recordings: a previously-unheard Salve Regina setting by John Browne, and the motet Gaude flore virginali by the early and obscure composer William Horwood. As usual, the recorded sound is burnished and radiant, the choral blend is colorful but smooth, and the singers’ intonation is solid. All libraries with classical collections should be acquiring all of the discs in this series as they appear.
Landscapes of the Unfinished
Another somewhat uncategorizable album is the latest from Piano Interrupted, a trio consisting of pianist and clarinetist Tom Hodge, string bassist Tim Fairhall, and sound manipulator Franz Kirmann. Their latest album consists of originally composed music along with heavily-manipulated field recordings of Senegalese musicians. The resulting music is sometimes peaceful and sometimes harsh and intense, and all of it is exceptionally haunting. The combination of Hodge’s plaintively lyrical clarinet and stuttering bursts of radio static on “Abdou Kadre” is especially poignant and sums up the overall aesthetic of these compositions beautifully.
The Sea Ranch Songs (CD + DVD)
Cantaloupe (dist. Naxos)
This multipart work was commissioned on behalf of the Kronos Quartet as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Sea Ranch, a planned community on the northern California coast that is dedicated to preserving the natural beauty of its local environment. The composition is actually a multimedia piece that includes video footage of the area, field rcordings of ambient sound (church bells, coyotes calling, etc.), and interviews with people who live there. The music is sometimes strangely dark and grumbling (at first I suspected it was intended as an elegy rather than a celebration), but by the end the mood is one of quiet uplift. As always, the playing by the Kronos Quartet is outstanding, though these very attractive pieces don’t exactly stretch the group’s technical capabilities.
Discovering the Classical String Trio
The Vivaldi Project
MSR Classics (dist. Albany)
Although many string trios (whether for two violins and cello or for violin, viola and cello) were written during the classical period, only a few have remained popular–most notably Beethoven’s opus 9 trios and Mozart’s E-flat divertimento. But as the three musicians of the Vivaldi Project here demonstrate, there is a wealth of marvelous music in this repertoire. This album presents works by Johann Christian Bach, Carlo Antonio Campioni, Luigi Boccherini, Joseph Haydn, Christian Cannabich, Felice Giardini, and Giuseppe Maria Cambini — and if you (like me) immediately recognize only about half of those names, then your library (like mine) needs a copy of this disc in its collection. The music sparkles and the playing (on period instruments) is exceptional.
Paradisi Gloria: Sacred Music by Emperor Leopold I
Capella Murensis; Les Cornets Noirs / James Strobl
Audite (dist. Naxos)
When you’re the emperor, your music gets published whether it’s any good or not. Nevertheless, there have been several monarchs who were also very gifted composers, and one of them was the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (whose titles also included King of Germany, King of Austria, and King of Bohemia). He is known in particular for the funerary music he wrote upon the deaths of two of his wives and for the festal music he wrote for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Those pieces are collected here, and are unusually moving examples of early baroque choral music. The wonderful Capella Murensis sings these works with a perfect balance of pathos and devotion, and the recorded sound is excellent. Strongly recommended to all classical collections.
U.S. Army Blues Swamp Romp
U.S. Army Band
No cat. no.
One thing the U.S. military has always been able to do is attract exceptional musicians. When I was a teenager playing 18th-century fife-and-drum music back in Massachusetts, we all stood in awe of the U.S. Army’s Old Guard, easily one of the two or three finest ancient-music ensembles in the world. The Army’s other bands are outstanding as well, which isn’t surprising, but what you may not know is that the Army also has a great traditional-jazz group, known as the U.S. Army Blues Swamp Romp. On this album they play a mix of original and classic New Orleans tunes (“Tiger Rag,” “Milenburg Joys,” etc.) with a winning blend of precision, looseness, and humor. Recommended to all jazz collections.
I continue to maintain a sort of ambivalent wait-and-see attitude towards the jazz cello. I’ve heard it done well, I’ve heard it done terribly, I’ve heard it done okay. The problem I usually have with it is that when jazz guys play cello pizzicato, it very often sounds like it’s not quite in tune. On the latest quartet album led by the outstanding guitarist Joshua Breakstone, cellist Mike Richmond generally sounds pretty dang good, though there are notes during his solos that come off sour. The rest of the ensemble is so rock-solid, though, that overall the album works just fine. As always, Breakstone himself is a paragon of tone and insight. Highlight track: “Moe Is On,” by the criminally underrated bop pianist Elmo Hope.
Phil Norman Tentet
Ten & Now: Classic Sounds & Variations of 12 Jazz Legends
Mama (dist. Summit)
The prospective buyer, looking over the tracklist of this album, might actually despair: “Johnnie’s Theme”? (That’s Johnnie Carson, of the Tonight Show.) “Pink Panther”? “Linus & Lucy”? “Take 5”? Could there be a drearier-looking lineup of exhausted jazz chestnuts? And yet saxophonist Phil Norman and his middle-sized band do manage to breathe new life into these pieces, not only through exciting arrangements (mostly written by members of the group, though none by Norman) but also through thoroughly committed playing and production of crystalline richness. This album would have been even better if it featured more interesting and challenging material, but as it is it can be confidently recommended to all jazz collections.
Pianist and composer Leslie Pintchik is one of the finest bandleaders in the field of straight-ahead jazz right now, someone who not only writes with inventive wit and a keen melodic sense, but who also consistently draws the best out of her band members — and she plays piano like a combination of Bud Powell and Bill Evans, impressionistic without being arty, tunefully direct without being simplistic. This is her fifth album as a leader, and honestly, it’s hard to imagine her continuing to get better than this: six originals, four standards (including a limpidly gorgeous rendition of the Mancini/Mercer composition “Charade”), every one of them a gem. Put this one on the shelf next to one of your favorite Fred Hersch discs and see if they don’t just nestle together like perfectly-matched lovers. I’m already looking forward to her next album.
Rossano Sportiello; Nicki Parrott; Eddie Metz
And for dessert, a pure confection: this delightful program of standards and classic swing from the trio of Rossano Sportiello (piano), Nicki Parrott (bass/vocals) and Eddie Mentz (drums). The Arbors label is one of those that you can always count on for pure, straight-ahead jazz pleasure: it focuses on trad and swing, usually delivered by small combos, and all three of these musicians are regular features on Arbors releases. Each of them is a master: Parrott is stellar both as a singer and a bassist; Sportiello is one of the best swing pianists on the scene (listen to his quietly virtuosic intro to “Shoe Shine Boy”), and Mentz gives everyone plenty of rhythmic push with just the right combination of energy and humor. There’s simply nothing not to love about this album.
North by South
Compass (dist. Naxos)
Claire Lynch has one of the most arresting voices in bluegrass/newgrass music–at first it sounds young, even girlish, but then you hear the experience and maturity in her delivery. (For a good comparison, think of Dolly Parton at her best.) You also hear that maturity in her choice of songs and in her arrangements. On this album she has selected a program of songs by Canadian songwriters, both famous (Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn) and less so (Old Man Luedecki, David Francey). The music ends up sounding not so much like bluegrass, because of course this is mostly music that has nothing to do with bluegrass, and Lynch is wise enough not to force that. Instead she approaches each song as an individual piece of art, crafting a unique acoustic setting for each one that manages to showcase both her own gifts and those of the songwriter. Strongly recommended to all library collections.
Red Tail Ring
Fall Away Blues
This is the fourth album from Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp, both of whom sing, write, and play multiple instruments (though most often you’ll hear Premo playing banjo and singing lead, and Beauchamp playing guitar and singing harmony). This one is extra moody and rather dark, though not oppressively so: the original songs include a lament over a local mass shooting (“Gibson Town”), a warning about the dangers of fracking (“Shale Town”), and an ode (sincere, I think) to city life (“Love of the City”). Traditional numbers include a brilliant revisioning of the shape-note hymn “Wondrous Love” and a rollicking rendition of the fiddle tunes “Camp Meeting on the Fourth of July” and “May Day.” As always, their playing is quietly virtuosic and their singing is winningly rough-hewn.
Trail of Tales
The Bills have been playing adventurous acoustic folk-pop for two decades now, and their latest album finds them continuing to wander blithely back and forth across the boundaries that separate folk, rock, funk, country, and pop music. Their songs are alternately earnest and fun (and sometimes both), and all are bolstered by tight instrumental arrangements and tighter vocal harmonies. Sure, they get a little preachy at times, but that’s nothing new in modern folk music and it’s not even necessarily a bad thing. If you can’t take it, skip forward to the instrumentals, which are outstanding.
Joe K. Walsh
No cat. no.
Having spent years pushing the boundaries of American roots music convention, mandolinist and songwriter Joe K. Walsh now retrenches somewhat, pulling back into the stylistic center of modern bluegrass music and exploring its possibilities. And what he finds is that there’s plenty of room to move within that tradition: original songs like “Never More Will Roam” and “Red Skies” sound simultaneously ancient and modern, while his rendition of the standard fiddle tune “Cumberland Gap” breathes new life into that tune by giving it a new melodic structure and a crooked rhythm. Walsh is a pretty good singer and a wonderful composer and player, and this album would make a great addition to any library’s folk collection.
This month we’ve got a bumper crop of weird electronica, and first out of the gate is a new artist who goes by the name IOKOI, and who “plays with the barriers of reality and unconsciousness, creating a surreal performance in which she negotiates her identity, and enters a dialogue with the audience. She confronts the usual with capricious textures, oblique sounds and a subliminal voice.” Now, maybe that sounds more promising as an artistic/philosophical venture than as a musical venture that you might consider paying to listen to, but actually it works quite well: her voice is indeed subliminal in that you can only sporadically understand the words being sung, and the result is that the voice basically becomes one more sonic element in a dark and swirling welter of slow electronic beats, glitches, and dubby chord washes. There are recurring hints of dubstep and grime here, but they’re only hints; IOKOI’s sound really is unique, and it’s frequently very impressive.
All the Right Noises
I confess that I’m a sucker for a cheap-sounding drum machine, so Roman Flügel had me at “The Mighty Suns,” the second track on this Frankfurt-based artist’s latest album. This time out he veers away from traditional techno sounds, mostly avoiding the typical 4/4 thump and even, in some cases, steering clear of explicit rhythmic pulse altogether — so the plastic-Casiotone clicks and claps are often more decoration than foundation. Flügel has said that he sees the studio as something of a respite from his live DJ sets, so those who follow him primarily in that setting may be startled by the sound of his studio compositions — but probably not disappointed.
Rats on Rafts/De Kift
Rats on Rafts/De Kift
Fire (dist. Redeye)
Here’s something to clear the sinuses: a twist on the old punk tradition of split albums or singles (where two bands are featured, each providing half of the songs). On this one, the celebrated Dutch art-punk band De Kift collaborates with Rotterdam’s Rats on Rafts on a program that finds each band messing with the other’s sound and trading off on vocal duties. De Kift is famously brass-heavy — not your usual punk configuration — and their vocals tend to be both in Dutch and predominantly spoken and yelled rather than sung. Rats on Rafts sing largely in English and play in a more straightforward punk style. All of it is tons of good, noisy fun — maybe not essential for every library collection, but those with more adventurous pop collections should definitely take note.
Fiona Soe Paing
No cat. no.
With an album title like Alien Lullabies and a genre designation like “Off-world Electronica,” you can reasonably expect some weirdness — and your expectations will be met here. But it’s a salutary weirdness, one characterized by gently hooky melodies, huge dubwise sonic spaces, bloopy bass-driven electro beats, and a nice smattering of suitably spooky theremin sounds. This album actually has its roots in a multimedia collaboration between Paing and artist Zennor Alexander, one that evolved over a period of a decade and was featured at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Order the CD and you’ll get a copy of a DVD including animations from the live show as well.
Billed as “part Kate Bush, part Nick Rhodes, part Prince, all ready for the dance floor,” Cellars (née Alle Norton) makes electro-pop that harks back to the genre’s glory days without sounding exactly like a 1980s retread. Not exactly, that is, but sometimes substantially: “I’m Feeling” features — here they are again — gloriously cheap-sounding Casiotone beats and handclaps and sounds like something Madonna might have produced in 1983 if she had a better singing voice; the brief rap interlude on “Nervous” is perfectly, charmingly awkward. There’s a constant tension between the gloomy lyrics and the shiny surfaces of the production, and a sense of dark and wry humor pervades many of the songs. Recommended to pop collections.
Yes, this is a new Monkees album — a real one, not a compilation of 1960s hits. Furthermore, it features all three surviving members of the band (with a cameo by the late Davy Jones as well, on an older recording of Neil Diamond’s “Love to Love”). The songs are a mix of new compositions by Monkees members and invited contributions by a diverse array of fans including Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Andy Partridge (XTC), and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie). They haven’t really updated their sound, nor should they: sweet harmonies, jangling Rickenbackers, relentless ear worm hooks — and dang, they still sing quite well for old guys. Anyone who still thinks of them as TV goofballs should give this album a hard listen. I mean, they’re not the Cure or anything, but then, the Cure weren’t the Monkees either.
Fio de Memória
Brazilian singer and songwriter Luísa Maita released her debut album over six years ago, but her sophomore effort is well worth the wait. It’s willfully eclectic, veering from downtempo bass music to samba to Bahia drumming to rock, the constant thread being Maita’s gorgeous breathy voice. Believe it or not, Maita reminds me of Björk: as with Björk, you never get the feeling that Maita’s approach to the last song you heard is going to tell you anything about what she’ll do with the next one. But unlike Björk, you never get the feeling that she’s just jerking you around like a gleefully malicious five-year-old. This is a beautiful and deeply unusual album.
No cat. no.
Remember that Mystère des Voix Bulgares album that took the world by storm back in the late 1980s? You’ll be reminded of it by the Nightingale Trio’s quieter, starker performance of “Kaval Sviri” on this, their second album. But the Nightingales range farther afield in their material, and on Izvora you’ll hear lullabies, laments, hymns, and comedic dance songs from Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia, all performed with an engaging warmth and intimacy, not to mention admirable rhythmic and harmonic tightness — no mean feat when you’re talking about 7/8 time signatures and tricky modal harmonies. For those who generally find Balkan singing a bit too intense and hard-edged, the Nightingale Trio will come as a revelation. Highly recommended to all libraries.
Nordic Fiddlers Bloc
This three-fiddle ensemble brings together world-class musicians from three different traditions: those of Norway (Olav Luksengård Mjelva), Sweden (Anders Hall), and the Shetland Islands (Kevin Henderson). If you’re thinking to yourself “Wait a minute, Shetland fiddling is very different from Scandinavian fiddling,” you’d be both right and wrong. The Scottish fiddle style from this region is heavily influenced by Norwegian music, and when these three virtuosos get together they create a sound that is simultaneously a seamless blend of styles and a richly diverse tapestry of very different sounds. (Not sure how they do that; less sure that it matters.) Using conventional violins, violas, octave violins, and Hardanger fiddles, they build arrangements that are paradoxically both dense and light — and when they swing into a more conventionally Scottish tune set near the end the effect is electric. This one will be of interest to both folk and world-music collections.
Alsarah & the Nubatones
The second album from Sudanese/Nubian ensemble Alsarah & the Nubatones continues the group’s exploration of what it has dubbed “East African Retropop.” Manara focuses on questions of what constitutes “home,” and while those who don’t speak Arabic may not be able to follow the discussion closely, there’s no mistaking the bittersweet blend of joy, regret, and homesickness in these songs — not to mention the blend of traditional acoustic instruments, electronic textures, and globetrotting polyrhythms. Alsarah’s voice is a wonder, and the band’s grooves are supple and complex.
Every Little Spirit
Marcus Corbett is a singer, guitarist, and composer who has found a way to successfully blend his singer/songwriter background with North Indian classical music. Here he is working with multiple Indian musicians on a fusion project that does an admirable job of blending acoustic guitar with tabla, bansuri, and violin. As a singer and lyricist, Corbett still underwhelms (when the phrase “And when am I gonna get my money back?” emerges from the beautiful tapestry of the instrumental parts on “Get Set Free,” it’s a pretty jarring moment) but as with his previous album the music is so gorgeous that the disc is a joy to listen to anyway.