PICK OF THE MONTH
Tunes 2011-2019 (2 discs)
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
William Bevan managed to record eponymously under the name Burial for several years before his growing popularity led to an inevitable unmasking. He was the first signing to Kode9’s now-legendary Hyperdub label, and his first album was released in 2005. He released one more full-length in 2007, but since then he has focused on smaller projects, releasing a long series of EPs consisting of several tracks each. This generously-packed two-disc set draws on those releases, bringing together the entirely of Street Halo, Kindred, Truant/Rough Sleeper, Rival Dealer, Young Death/Nightmarket, and Subtemple/Beachfires; unfortunately, none of the music is new, but the collection does provide an outstanding survey of the work of one of electronic dance music’s most mysterious and consistently compelling figures (and six of the tracks have never before been released on CD). Of course, in the case of Burial the term “dance music” should be taken with something of a grain of salt. Some of his work deploys no beats at all, but instead builds dark, glitchy, and sometimes oppressive and slightly frightening atmospheres out of samples, synth chords, and disembodied shreds of vocals; most of it, however, is rhythmically engagiung even if it’s dark and dense.
If you want some context for Burial’s work, it’s also worth checking out the recently-released digital-only Hyperdub label compilation Hyperswim. It features releases by label head Kode9 and Burial, alongside work by other luminaries like DJ Spinn, Lee Gamble, Ikonika, and Cooly G. Here the variety of styles and approaches is much broader, extending into hip hop and avant-garde pop, but the label’s overarching aesthetic is pretty consistent.
Blue Griffin (dist. Albany)
This lovely collection of chamber works for violin by Chinese composers opens with Gang Chan’s flowing and mellifluously pentatonic Morning of Miao Mountain, for violin and piano. It’s a gorgeous and immediately accessible piece, played with limpid grace by violinist Fagye Sun, and it does not exactly prepare one for the somewhat spikier and more challenging works to come, three of which are written by the celebrated contemporary composer Bright Sheng: The Stream Flows, A Night at the Chinese Opera, and Three Fantasies. Things get soft and lyrical again with works by Huwei Huang (E’Mei Mountain Moon Song) and Qingxiang Zhang (Jade Gate Fantasy), and the program ends with a piece for unaccompanied solo violin written by cellist Daniel Tressel and commissioned for this recording by Sun. Her playing is magnificent throughout, as is that of her accompanists. Highly recommended.
Christobal de Morales
La Grande Chapelle / Albert Recasens
Lauda (dist. Naxos)
This collection of motets by one of the towering figures of the Spanish Renaissance focuses on Lent, the period preceding Easter. The music is liturgical in function: responsories, antiphons, introits, and motets intended for use during worship on the three Sundays leading up to Holy Week. As one might expect, the prevailing mood is somber and dark, an effect that is heightened by the almost all-male makeup of the ensemble La Grande Chapelle. I can’t stress enough how deeply beautiful this album is; every passage aches with devotional passion, but the singing is carefully restrained and always impeccable in both intonation and blend. This is the most impressive recording of Easter music I encountered in 2019, and I recommend it strongly to all classical collections.
Johann Sebastian Bach
The Six Partitas (2 discs)
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
There are lots of people playing Bach on the piano these days, but I’m not sure there’s anyone doing so with greater authority, facility, and insight than Angela Hewitt. Her latest foray into the Bach keyboard repertoire is this magnificent recording of the six keyboard partitas. It follows a year spent performing these works in concert halls around the world, and is one component of her “Bach Odyssey” project, which will end in 2020. Attentive readers may note that she recorded these pieces once before, in the mid-1990s, but she now approaches them with an additional 20 years of thought, practice, and experience. Her playing is exquisite as always, and she makes perhaps the most sensitive and tasteful use of dynamics–and even of subtle rubato–I’ve ever heard. Bach is not just a genius clockmaker under Hewitt’s hands, but also a soaring singer. For all collections.
Loudspeakers (2 discs)
New World (dist. Albany)
Charles Amirkhanian has composed enthusiastically for the Synclavier–a pioneering sampling keyboard–during much of his career. Three of the pieces on this two-disc set consist of sounds sampled and then altered using that instrument, and the fourth reflects his fascination with a much earlier example of a mechanical-music instrument: the player piano. The album opens with the latter, the ten-movement work Pianola (Pas de mains), which consists of the sampled and manipulated sounds of player pianos. By turns puckish and forbidding, it’s a bit like a musical carnival ride. Im Frühling draws on sounds recorded in nature, some of which (burbling water and bird calls, for instance) remain recognizable, while others are distorted beyond recognition. Son of Metropolis San Francisco is quite programmatic in tone as well, though (predictably) more urban and less pastoral–here the samples include human speech and the piece gives the impression of a random exploration of the radio dial. The title work is dedicated to Morton Feldman, and manipulates recordings of Feldman’s speaking voice in a way that is both playful and affectionate.
Tomba Sonora (CD + Blu-Ray disc)
2L (dist. Naxos)
The Emanuel Vigeland Museum in Oslo is both a major work of art itself (consisting mainly of an enormous barrel-vaulted room entirely covered by a huge fresco painting by the artist) and a mausoleum; Vigeland designed and built it as the place where he would be entombed. The room’s acoustic properties have made it a popular performance and recording venue, and singer/composer Kristin Bolstad wrote five pieces for voices and strings specifically for the space. Music constantly emerges slowly from silence, and overtones are as important to the harmonic and temporal structure of the pieces as the fundamental sung and played tones are. The result is both beautiful and deeply eerie, and is perfect for listening in a dark room all alone. Strongly recommended to all collections. (The Blu-Ray disc includes the same music in a variety of different “3D” mixes.)
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Steinway & Sons (dist. Naxos)
Since we’re coming up on Beethoven’s 250th birthday, we can expect a bumper crop of new recordings of familiar material from his vast corpus of compositions. This set of three piano sonatas (nos. 6, 18, and 23 “Appassionata”) plus the opus 51 Rondo in C major, is performed by the brilliant young pianist Young-Ah Tak, and the program order reflects the effort and care she has put into approaching this repertoire. It opens with the charming Rondo, and then moves with increasing intensity from the relatively simple and straightforward 6th to the darker and more contemplative 18th, and then to the celebrated, much-recorded, and supremely challenging 23rd. Tak plays with supreme confidence but never virtuosic arrogance, approaching these monumental works with both authority and humility. Recommended to all classical collections.
John Luther Adams
Become Desert (CD + DVD)
Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot
Cantaloupe (dist. Naxos)
“Become Desert completes a trilogy that I didn’t set out to write,” says composer John Luther Adams. The previous two related compositions are Become Ocean and Become River, but this one is the most ambitious in terms of instrumental forces (it involves five distinct instrumental and vocal “choirs”). It explores and deploys sonic space to a degree unprecedented in Adams’ always space-conscious work: opening with quietly shimmering percussion and strings, its texture and harmonic density gradually thicken, even though the harmonic movement itself is close to static. By halfway through its 40-minute length, the whispering breezes have turned into majestic cliffs of sound; by the end, everything has subsided again into a whisper. Exceptionally beautiful despite its minimal harmonic materials, Become Desert is a uniquely lovely and immersive listening experience. (The DVD offers two different mixes of the work, along with a slideshow of desert images that loops during playback.)
Vibraphonist, arranger, and composer Lolly Allen leads a crack team of sidemen on her second album, on which she explores the sounds that were bubbling on Los Angeles’s energetic jazz scene in the 1950s: plenty of Latin rhythms (“Mambo Inn,” “O Grande Amor,” Luiz Bonfá’s “Gentle Rain”), some soulful hard bop (Horace Silver’s “The Hippest Cat in Hollywood”), but also some straight-up bebop, which was still happening on the West Coast several years after it had become somewhat passé in New York. Allen demonstrates not only exceptional instrumental, compositional, and arranging chops, but also a wonderful adroitness as a bandleader, taking charge of a shifting ensemble that includes varying combinations of piano, bass, drums, sax, guitar, trumpet, and trombone. Particularly impressive is her ability to work in tandem with a pianist–always something of a challenge given that vibes and piano perform pretty much identical functions in a jazz combo. A triumph overall for a major young talent.
For a very different take on the vibes-led jazz combo, consider this debut from a trio that calls itself Yimba Rudo. Consisting of vibes player Kevin Norton, bassist Steve LaSpina, and drummer Jim Pugliese (all of whom have broad and deep experience in New York’s jazz and avant-garde scene), Yimba Rudo plays jazz without stylistic constraint, swinging when they feel like it but mostly following musical paths that avoid groove in favor of melodic and harmonic exploration. This isn’t skronk, and it isn’t free improv; there are clear predetermined structures to pieces like “Over and Inside the Rainbow,” but they’re structures that leave lots of room for personal expression. All three of these musicians have been all over the place, in terms of genre and style, over the course of their long careers, and you can hear that experience in every note they play.
Sonar with David Torn
Tranceportation (Volume 1)
SONAR is a Swiss quartet made up of Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner (playing “tritone guitars”), Christian Kuntner (“tritone bass”), and drummer/percussionist Manuel Pasquinelli. On their fifth album they’re joined by famed avant-jazz guitarist David Torn, and the resulting music raises all kinds of questions–first of all, what makes a guitar a “tritone guitar”? (Aren’t all guitars tritone guitars?) The next question is “Why don’t these four long pieces feature any chord changes to speak of?” But if you keep listening, you get past those questions, because what these five players manage to do is convince you that there are lots of ways to engage the listener that don’t involve complex (or even simple) chord progressions. Knotty and interlocking rhythmic patterns ebb and flow together; melodies unfold and then fold up again; Torn’s unique and otherworldly guitar effects soar and shudder and insinuate. Imagine if Terry Riley wrote music to be played by King Crimson, and you’ll get the idea. Very cool.
Delfeayo Marsalis & Uptown Jazz Orchestra
Jazz has been so focused on complexity and virtuosity for so long that it can be easy to forget that its roots are in fun and celebration. Which, of course, is another way of saying that its roots are in New Orleans. Which, of course, is where Delfeayo Marsalis has been holding court for the past ten years at the Snug Harbor club with his Uptown Jazz Orchestra every Wednesday night. On Marsalis’ seventh album as a leader he takes that large ensemble through a diverse and relentlessly fun set of tunes that nod to gospel, son, R&B, and jump blues, but that never lose touch with that slippery, funky second-line feel. By turns seductive, funny, swinging, bombastic, and subtle, these tunes never, ever lose their sense of joy; Marsalis is not only a top-notch trombonist, but he’s also one of the best bandleaders out there. For all jazz collections.
Isabelle Olivier & Rez Abbasi
Harpist Isabelle Olivier and guitarist Rez Abbasi have teamed up to create a truly unique program of music that runs gleefully back and forth across the boundaries that separate jazz, classical, Pakistani, and experimental music, in the process trampling those boundaries into nonexistence. Accompanied by tabla player Prabhu Edouard and drummer David Paycha, they begin (startlingly enough) with a respectful but still genre-bending take on “My Favorite Things.” With that, the engagement with jazz standards ends, and the remainder of the album is given over to original compositions, most of them by Olivier. Some of these pieces (“Other Tones,” “Looking for Dad”) are tightly and obviously structured; others (“Timeline,” “Stepping Stone”) are maybe a bit more amorphous. Not all are equally compelling, but all are interesting and well worth hearing–and some are deeply beautiful.
Stylistically, bassist and composer Massimo Bolcati is a serious multiple threat. On his second album as a leader (his normal gig is as part of the celebrated trio Gilfema), he shows off both his compositional chops and his unique approach to arranging: note his perfectly disjointed take on Thelonious Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” his puckish deconstruction of the 1980s pop hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” his weirdly funky version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and his deeply, straightforwardly funky take on Dave Holland’s “How’s Never.” Also notice how modestly but firmly he leads his quartet, directing the music with a clear vision but never centering the band’s sound on his own contributions. That’s a mark not only of musical maturity, but of personal maturity as well. An excellent album and a great choice for any jazz collection.
Two astoundingly fine albums are released simultaneously by the quietly legendary Ben Winship, a mandolinist, singer, and songwriter who has spent lots of time as a sideman and an increasing amount of time producing and engineering other people’s recordings in his Henhouse studio in Victor, Idaho. When he started calling in IOUs and recording a bunch of his own songs (resulting in guest performances by the likes of Ivan Neville, Mollie O’Brien, Chris Coole, and Travis Book), it became clear to him that the music was falling into two genre categories: full-band folk-rock Americana, and stripped-down old-timey stringband music. Accordingly, he ended up putting music from each category onto separate albums: Acorns is the more trad (or at least trad-sounding) material, while Toolshed leans towards modern country and roots pop (with a little bit of table and tuba thrown in for good measure, and even a strong nod towards hip hop in one case). What’s immediately striking about both albums is the consistent solidity of the songs: whether he wrote them or arranged them, every single one of them is a winner, and that’s extremely unusual for any artist in any genre. And his singing voice is simply perfect. Both albums are strongly recommended to all libraries.
No cat. no.
The band name, the album title, and the press materials’ characterization of this music as “experimental folk and environmental Americana” might lead you to expect something precious and self-conscious. But give it a chance, and the visceral directness and unfussy beauty of these songs will captivate you immediately. To be honest, I’m not sure Humbird is a band at all; in reality, it seems to be little more than Siri Undlin, who wrote and sings all the songs; there are apparently some sidepersons involved, though the information provided (to reviewers anyway) is sketchy on that score. Highlights on this concept album–organized around questions of control and the female body–include the heartbreakingly lovely title track, the more densely arranged but equally delicate “Sea Shells,” and the subtly funky “Persephone.” Every track is strong, and some are overwhelming.
Rearrange My Heart
Look at the cover of this album and you see a young, hipstery bluegrass band. Cue up the first track and you hear West-African-sounding choral harmonies accompanied by a Latin handclap beat, which then segues into a Klezmer-candombe tune sung in Spanish. So what’s going on here? Stylistic, political, and sexual insurrection, frankly, all delivered with a swinging multicultural beat and lots of melodic-style three-finger banjo. You’ll also hear relatively straight-ahead bluegrass and newgrass, jazzy New Acoustic instrumentals, bluesy acoustic gospel, and rhythmically crooked experimental string band music. Throughout the album the vocal harmonies are tight and thrilling, the arrangements are sparkling and unique, and the politics is unapologetically in-your-face. This would make a great addition to any college library collection.
Miracle of Science (reissue)
Shiny-Tone (dist. Megaforce)
Originally released in 1996 on the now-defunct Razor & Tie label, Marshall Crenshaw’s Miracle of Science is now reissued on Crenshaw’s own Shiny-Tone imprint with three bonus tracks. Its original release showcased an uncaged Marshall Crenshaw, one who was no longer beholden to major labels and who had acquired enough home recording equipment to do much of his work at home, playing multiple instruments. I knew he was a world-class songwriter and a fine guitarist, but until I heard this album I didn’t realize what an impressive multi-instrumentalist he was: he does a fine job not only on bass and keyboards, but on drums as well (though he cedes the drum stool to others on the most demanding tracks). Interestingly, the majority of these songs are covers–some of them from slightly surprising sources, like former Hüsker Dü member Grant Hart (“Twenty-Five Forty-One”) and Michel Pagliaro (“What the Hell I Got”). All of them demonstrate Crenshaw’s unparalleled skill as a pop artist, though. Recommended.
Laugh at Your Peril: Live at the Roundhouse (2 discs)
Cadiz/Live Here Now (dist. MVD)
There’s something to be said for a band that has been playing (off and on) for four decades, and whose sound hasn’t noticeably changed during that time. Forty years after Killing Joke’s first album, they’re still making unbelievably dense, swirling, heavy, and paranoid music that has clear roots in punk rock but sounded utterly unique then and continues to do so today. These two discs document a show at London’s famous Roundhouse venue from the band’s fortieth-anniversary tour in 2018, and it offers songs from across their career, along with the between-song political interjections that fans have come to expect from frontman Jaz Coleman. Out of the sonic vortex emerge a few unusual moments: “Labyrinth” is very nearly funky, whereas “Asteroid” is unusually fast and more conventionally punky; this live version of “The Wait” is even more aggro than the studio original. Great stuff, and a fine introduction to an important band.
Mesh & Lace (reissue)
After the Snow (reissue)
The musical evolution charted by these two reissues from 1980s new wave/New Romantic darlings Modern English is absolutely fascinating. Mesh & Lace, the band’s 1981 debut, is nothing special: originally issued on 4AD, it finds the group embracing all the stylistic trappings of that label’s signature sound: dark, swirling atmospheres with alternately gothy and shouty vocals and a minimum of melodic interest. (Labelmates like Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil added compelling songs to this recipe and created magnificent works of pop art as a result.) Mesh & Lace is an interesting curiosity, but not much more than that. Then came the band’s second album, After the Snow, marking the band’s move to Sire records and containing the song “I Melt with You.” Which (you’re welcome) will now be stuck in your head for the next three days simply because you’ve read the title. It was an utterly brilliant piece of romantic post-punk pop music, and could not have marked a more complete turn from the band’s early sound. As for the rest of that album, it offers a more continuous though still transitional sound: somewhat brighter and somewhat more tuneful. But the poppy melodicism and sunny lyrics (“it’s getting better all the time”) of “I Melt with You” stand out stylistically even here. Both albums include a generous helping of outtakes and alternative versions as bonus tracks.
Sunset Service (Extended Edition) (reissue; digital only)
Earlier this year, Belgian EBM artist Locked Groove released his debut album. Titled Sunset Service, it found him exploring a variety of contemporary electronic dance genres with a particular focus on hard-hitting techno, trance, and rave stylings. A few months later came a teaser: an EP offering three tracks from that album in remixed versions by Alan Fitzpatrick, Prequel Tapes, and Anastasia Kristensen. (Then in the fall came another, two-track remix EP.) And then, in November, the mother lode: a new extended edition of the original album containing nearly four hours of music across 35 tracks, including the five from the earlier EPs. On this version, Locked Groove’s already broad stylistic palette is increased by those of his various collaborators: Fitzpatrick’s take on “From Beyond” brings a Big Beat flavor to what had been a thumping house track; Skream and Scuba funkify and deepen the original techno groove of “Do Not Freak”; Carlton Doom takes the soully vibe of “Soma” and gives it a darker and more rhythmically crowded feel, and so forth. Four hours of this may be a bit much for a single sitting, but dipping in and out of this generous collection is very rewarding.
Dreaming of Ghosts
Dreaming of Ghosts (digital only)
Trees and Cyborgs
These artists are keeping information about themselves close to the vest, but Dreaming of Ghosts seems to be a duo consisting of Trees and Cyborgs label head Robert Koch and singer Fiora. In the words of the press release, “They create music to explore their rediscovered relationship to space; dwelling calmly and slowly in the terrifying emptiness. And as they wait without time; alone but not alone. At peace in the uncomfortable dissonance. Worlds begin to reveal out of what seemed void. Bold new realities expand and take form. And reaching out, wide and open – difficult questions find answers while others remain forever unresolved.” On a more concrete level, this is experimental dream-pop–not very hooky, but certainly very pretty and filled with interesting details. Fiora’s voice is suitably breathy for the genre, but not wispy or wimpy, and Koch’s musical soundscapes provide lovely accompaniment. Recommended.
Antoinette Konan (reissue)
Awesome Tapes from Africa
This album by singer, songwriter, and ahoko player Antoinette Konan was originally released in 1986, and is simultaneously a pure product of its time (those synth drums!) and a truly unique document of a brilliant musician too little known outside her home of Côte d’Ivoire. She made a name for herself by blending the traditional sounds of the ahoko (a locally-popular percussion instrument) and baoulé culture with those of Western synth pop, along with her own multi-tracked vocals. Konan produced the album herself, working closely with arranger Bamba Moussa, and it’s a delight: her voice is pretty if not always polished, but her singing is completely assured and confident, the harmonies tight and lovely, and while the arrangements may sound a bit dated to 21st-century ears they’re still thoroughly winning. The digital transfer sounds fantastic.
Tenor Youthman/King Toppa
G.O.D.S. (Good Old Dancehall Style) (digital only)
If you miss the days of squidgy 1980s digital dancehall music–and really, who doesn’t?–then the German/Russian ragga team of Tenor Youthman and King Toppa are here for you. The former’s stage name is a clear homage to Tenor Saw, whose “Ring the Alarm” was a defining single of that period, and whose melodic tendencies as a singjay are strongly shared by Tenor Youthman. Producer and beatmaker King Toppa is also thoroughly steeped in the early-dancehall verities, but he does an admirable job of fusing old-school with modern elements, and when he dubs things up he does it with flair. Thematically, the album offers a nice blend of conscious and dance-oriented material. A solid and thoroughly enjoyable album.
Piranha (dist. Redeye)
Calico Soul is a “nomadic duo” consisting of Darlini Singh Kaul and Joy Tyson, who are accompanied on this album by a large array of instrumentalists from a variety of world traditions. On the back of the package it says two important things: “File under Global Fusion” and “Songs in English, French, gibberish, Swahili inspired, Yoruba inspired, Zulu/Xhosa.” These notes are important because they might reasonably lead the potential listener to say “No, thanks.” This, however, would be a mistake. For now let’s leave aside questions of cultural appropriation and just focus on the music itself: it sparkles, bounces, rocks, and occasionally soars, from the relatively rockish “Djanya Wofu” to the constantly time-shifting “Desert Sun” and the percolating funkiness of “Ey Budida.” Sometimes the duo sing in unison and sometimes in harmony, and at all times they communicate a completely infectious energy and witty joy. Highly recommended.
Danny T & Tradesman
Re-built for Sound (digital only)
Back in January 2018 I strongly recommended Built for Sound, a dancehall-reggae collaboration by Danny T and Tradesman, two stalwarts of the surprisingly fertile Glasgow reggae scene. On Re-built for Sound, the ante is upped aggressively: eight remixes in a variety of heavyweight ragga, jungle, and EDM styles provided by the likes of Chief Rockas, Aries, Stalawa, Bim One, and Samurai Breaks. It’s hard to identify highlights on such a consistently outstanding album, but Chief Rockas and Kirifi’s Amen junglist take on “Dance a Gwaan” and the gloriously low-and-slow Bim One Remix of “Distraction Trap” (featuring Earl Sixteen) are both particularly strong. This collection makes an excellent companion to the original album, both of which are strongly recommended to all libraries.
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