Music for the King of Scots: Inside the Pleasure Palace of James IV
Binchois Consort / Andrew Kirkman
Hyperion (dist. PIAS)
This album’s subtitle might well lead you to expect a collection of dance tunes and songs of courtly love, written and performed for the amusement of King James IV and his court.
Yeah, that’s not what this is.
The music on this beautiful but sober, and frankly somewhat severe, program focuses on works of Marian devotion and — more interesting — music based on the story of the martyrdom of St. Catherine. Its core work is a parody mass built on the plainchant Horrendo subdenda rotarum machinamento (“subjected to the terrible machinery of wheels”), taken from the Carver Choirbook and, like all but one of the works performed here, written by an unknown composer; its harmonic structure is unusual for the time period, though it has all the astringent properties of mid-15th century polyphony, properties that are emphasized by the sound of the all-male four-voice Binchois Ensemble. Interestingly, this album is not only an exploration of the music of James IV’s court, but also of the physical acoustic properties of his chapel. That building is currently in ruins, but the sound engineers did their best to recreate its acoustics by recording the singers in an anechoic chamber, then using computer simulations of the chapel’s original structure and furnishings and applying electronic effects to recreate the chapel’s original acoustic characteristics. It’s an interesting approach that could make this album of equal interest to audio engineers and early music fans. And the singing is excellent.
Saxophonist Ken Field has a long and illustrious résumé that includes his tenure with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and with the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble as well as numerous soundtrack gigs. Like most professional musicians, he has found himself somewhat at loose ends during the COVID pandemic, and like many, he used the opportunity to explore new ways of creating solo music. In his case, that meant creating a cycle of six pieces in which he collaborated with producer Erdem Helvacioglu, using echo and looping technologies to create densely layered pieces that riff off the idea of “trans”: Transoceanic, Transcendental, Translucent, etc. If this description (or familiarity with Helvacioglu’s own work) leads you to expect shimmering and unchallenging ambient soundscapes, think again: Field’s playing is often melodically complex and chromatic, the layers of sound adding up to a whole that tends to be more harmonically jagged than serene or relaxed. This isn’t to say that the music isn’t beautiful, only that its beauty isn’t simple. Highly recommended.
Colin Currie; BBC Philharmonic / Juanjo Mena; John Storgårds
Colin Currie Records (dist. PIAS)
One of the great challenges of being a percussionist is the sheer range of instruments one must master: rudimental drumming, mallet keyboards, tympani, congas and cajón, and a wide variety of other esoteric and exotic instruments have to be part of one’s repertoire. Colin Currie is already a legendary percussionist, a master of many instruments, and on his latest album he champions the music of HK Gruber, and Austrian composer whose music is both breathtakingly modern and immediately accessible. The two concertos featured here are a relatively early three-movement work titled Rough Music, and the much more recent into the open…, a single-movement piece presented here in its world-premiere performance from 2015. Rough Music, despite its title, is joyful and tightly organized; it has moments of bustling busyness and exuberance but also heart-tuggingly lyrical passages, and the percussion writing is both virtuosic and sensitive throughout (and occasionally humorous; check out the slightly drunken trombone passages in the third movement). into the open… was written in tribute to a departed musical friend, and is almost programmatic in tone; the liner notes describing the piece’s genesis are quite heartbreaking. All of the playing is brilliant, and this is a wonderful album overall.
Johann Carl Bischoff
Six Sonatas for Cello
Claudio Ronco; Emanuela Vozza
Urania (dist. Naxos)
Johann Carl Bischoff was a composer and celebrated cello virtuoso in the court orchestra of the Duke of Anhalt-Dessau. He was also the inventor of an instrument he called the “harmonicello,” which had five gut strings that were fingered and bowed, supplemented by ten metal strings that vibrated sympathetically. This is the world-premiere recording of his six sonatas for cello and bass, which were written in Amsterdam between 1779 and 1782 and have one stylistic foot in the high classical tradition and the other in an emerging Romanticism. (Liner notes were not provided with the review copy, so I’m not sure whether either of the period instruments used here is a harmonicello, though both sound like conventional cellos to me.) The intonation is a bit shaky from time to time, but the pieces are delightful and this album is an important document of an unjustly neglected figure.
The magnificent Alexa Tarantino is back with her third album as a solo leader, and it’s a doozy. Opening with the wonderfully evocative “Spider’s Dance” by pianist Art Hirahara (serving as a sideman on this date) and proceeding through a generous program of originals, standards, and tunes by her other collaborators (vibraphonist Behn Gillece, bassist Boris Kozlov, drummer Rudy Royston), Tarantino puts her prodigious chops, her intelligence, and her leadership skills on full display. Also her wit: notice the fleeting reference to “Jeepers Creepers” during her solo on Royston’s boppish “Move of the Spirit,” for example. This program has some wonderful uptempo moments, but she and her group really shine on the ballads: the band’s rendition of Gillece’s composition “Mindful Moments” is particularly lovely, and Tarantino’s own “Daybreak” is a balladic midtempo number that really knocked me out — and it’s interesting to compare it to her much more knotty and demanding “Rootless Ruthlessness.” Overall, this is yet another triumph from one of the most impressive young talents on the scene right now.
Out to Dinner
I can’t resist recommending a second Posi-Tone release this month as well. The name of this quintet is a tribute to saxophonist Eric Dolphy and his classic 1964 album Out to Lunch. So is their sound: built on a straight-ahead foundation, the group’s compositions are nevertheless highly harmonically forward-looking, and their solos push the harmonic boundaries at all times, creating a sound that is one part hard bop and one part 1960s-style avant-jazz. Even when a tune is based in the blues (note saxophonist Nicole Glover’s 6/8-time “Rebecca’s Dance”), the changes still feel oddly sideways and slippery, as does the second-line beat on bassist Boris Koslov’s funky “Abe Duct.” There’s a fine cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” and a great version of Lee Morgan’s classic “Short Count,” but the for most part these are original compositions by the band members. For all jazz collections.
Jerry Granelli Trio
Plays Vince Guaraldi & Mose Allison
Vince Guaraldi (beloved composer of music for the Peanuts TV specials of the 1960s) and Mose Allison (quirky blues/jazz singer and pianist/composer) may seem like a strange pairing for a tribute album, until you consider the leader on this date: Jerry Granelli, who played drums on Guaraldi’s TV sessions early in his career, and who served as Allison’s drummer for decades. Here leading a trio that also includes pianist Jamie Saft and bassist Bradley Christopher Jones, Granelli explores with gleeful abandon two Guaraldi tunes and several pieces of Allison’s; the latter include such groove-based fare as “Parchman Farm” and “Your Mind Is on Vacation,” while the Guaraldi tunes bracket the program: it opens with the tenderly swinging “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and ends with, I’m sad to say, “Christmas Time Is Here” — one of Guaraldi’s most inexplicably enduring compositions, a tune that manages the seemingly impossible feat of making the approach of Christmas sound like reason for dejection and despair. (It was put to much more appropriate use in the sitcom Arrested Development.) Anyway, Granelli’s tender rendition makes the tune as attractive as it can be, and his treatment of the first Guaraldi piece is similarly loving — and he really gets kind of nuts on some of the Allison material. Recommended to all adventurous jazz collections.
New York Nowhere
No cat. no.
We end this month’s Jazz section with a wonderfully swinging outing by drummer/composer Reggie Quinerly. His fourth album as a leader, New York Nowhere finds Quinerly exploring a variety of styles within a generally straight-ahead, postbop-but-not-really-hard-bop approach. I say “not really hard bop” because while his tunes have something of that late-50s feel to them, there’s nothing overtly bluesy or soul-inflected here; “Celso” is a firm but gentle Brazilian number (check out the lovely octave passages on pianist John Chin’s solo), while “Reflections on the Hudson” is a sweetly lyrical, understatedly emotional love letter to his former home town. That said, “Wine Cooler Heads Prevail” does swing particularly powerfully in a way that certainly has Art Blakey looking down from heaven and nodding with approval. The trumpet-and-tenor frontline contributes to the old school flavor, but this is an album filled with fresh ideas as well as stellar playing. Highly recommended to all libraries.
3 Pairs of Boots
Dark Country Music
No cat. no.
When a singer is described as having a style that “falls somewhere between Cyndi Lauper and Shania Twain,” I’m going to want to at least hear what’s going on. And what’s going on in this case is a very impressive debut album by the husband-and-wife duo 3 Pairs of Boots: singer Laura Arias and songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Stern. Arias’ voice does indeed have the lightness and agility of Lauper’s, but can generate the more penetrating power of Twain’s, and the songs that Stern writes for her wander the borderlands that separate folk, country, and jangle-pop. To the group’s credit, they seem to care about genre categories hardly at all, hopping happily from boot-scooting honky tonk (“Devil Road”) to Bakersfield-meets-the-Byrds country-pop (“Take a Step”) to dreamier and more abstract acoustic fare (“I Am the Map”). It’s worth noting that both the album’s title and several of its songs are inspired by the true story of Bernice Ende (known as “Lady Long Rider“), a woman who began traversing the country alone by horseback in her middle age and has written a book about the experience. Recommended to all libraries.
Nobody’s Girl (to be released July 30)
Lucky Hound Music
No cat. no.
The Austin-based vocal and songwriting trio Nobody’s Girl (Rebecca Loebe, BettySoo, and Grace Pettis) are back with their second release and first full-length album. It opens a bit inauspiciously, with the hooky but hackneyed “Kansas” (its chorus built around an exceptionally tired cliché), but then quickly regains its footing: “Rescued” is lovely and jangly folk-pop that takes a surprisingly Beach Boys-y turn at the bridge; “Promised Land” is hooky in the verse and features swooningly gorgeous harmonies on the chorus; “What’ll I Do” is sturdy, meat-and-potatoes country-rock (and is that, er, a sampled drum loop on the bridge?). In fact, rockishness is something of a recurring theme; while this isn’t really a rock album, the overall sound is noticeably denser and crunchier than that of the group’s previous work, and finds them expanding their sonic palette in impressive and winning ways.
Down Where the Valleys Are Low: Another Otherworld for Judee Sill (EP)
StorySound (dist. Redeye)
Hmmm… a cover album consisting of songs by an artist I’m completely unfamiliar with, performed by a bunch of other artists I’ve never heard of? Not the most obviously interesting proposition. But then, learning about new artists is kind of a big part of what CD HotList is about for me, so I dove in — and was immediately grateful I had. Judee Sill is the kind of songwriter that artists like Andy Partridge and Carrie Brownstein obsess over, and her tragic life story (she died of an overdose at age 35) of course just adds to the fascination. And indeed, her songs are magical; she wrote both melodies and chord progressions that sound unlike anyone else’s without seeming willfully weird, and her lyrics draw on deep and archetypal images from religion, Americana, and her own drug experiences. These arrangements, created by producer Lorenzo Wolff using a different singer for each track, are deliberately very different from the original versions: “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” as sung by Michael Cerveris, has a weirdly Neil Diamond vibe; I recognized “There’s a Rugged Road,” but couldn’t remember whose version I’ve heard before — I loved this one by Osei Essed. The music is wildly varied here, but every track is absolutely solid. Kind of sad that the album consists of only seven tracks, clocking in at just under 22 minutes in total.
Digital Bonfire (digital only)
No cat. no.
The intersection of indie-pop and electro has always been musically fertile territory, and the duo Decouplr is the latest example of how interesting and fruitful it can be. The group consists of vocalist Bailey Walker and electronic musician Adam Laub, and together they sound like what Erasure might have if they had come up in the 2010s rather than the 1980s: more breakbeats, more glitchiness, less four-on-the-floor and less disco. Also less melodic bombast: Erasure always went for the anthemic chorus, while Decouplr are more about introspection, even within the context of beats and undeniable melodic hooks. Walker’s vocals are sometimes tastefully treated, given a gritty overlay or some kind of compression, but they’re always admirably clear — the better to hear her sharply intelligent lyrics. There’s significant variety within the album’s stylistic unity: “In My Pocket” is a sort of dreamy synth-pop with a strong jungle undertow, while “Punchline” is more rockish despite its entirely electronic setting. All of it is well worth hearing. For all pop collections.
Shake the Foundations: Militant Funk & the Post-punk Dancefloor 1978-1984 (3 discs)
Cherry Red (dist. MVD)
I’m such a sucker for these wonderful box sets from London’s Cherry Red label — partly because they always introduce me to artists I hadn’t known about but needed to, and partly because I work in academia and the box set titles often sound like scholarly monographs. Anyway, this one focuses on what may seem like an oddly narrow sub-sub-genre of postpunk popular music. Stylistically narrow it may be, but dance-oriented postpunk music had (and continues to have) a huge impact on the landscape of pop music generally. Think of bands like New Order, Gang of Four, Depeche Mode, Delta 5 — all emerged from the rubble of punk, and all blended punk elements with funk and dance elements to create something genuinely new. Brilliantly, this compilation contains none of those artists. Instead, it pokes around the darker corners of the immediate postpunk scene and pulls weirder, more challenging exponents out, blinking, into the light: a few you’ve probably heard of (Simple Minds, Haircut 100, the Stranglers); most you probably haven’t (The Higsons, Six Sed Red; Surface Mutants). Of course everything isn’t brilliant, but taken as a whole this document is simply fascinating and tons of fun: Fun Boy Three’s “Faith, Hope and Charity” is as arch and pretentious as you’d expect, but I mean that in a good way; “When Are We? (Now We Are)” by Space Mutants is a sort of avant-Latin fusion with fairly tuneless vocals and fairly skronky guitar in the background; Nightmares in Wax’s “Black Leather” is what disco might have sounded like if it had been the joint invention of Joy Division and the Cramps, with lyrics by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And if I haven’t convinced you to order this by now, I probably won’t be able to.
Celestial Scuzz (vinyl & digital only)
Fire (dist. Redeye)
Brothers John and Michael Gibbons are guitarists for the psych-drone band Bardo Pond, but on their own they’ve been recording as Vapour Theories off and on for years. Their latest is described in the press materials as “heavy ambient… like Brian Eno locked in a dark room with Sunn-O))))) rehearsing next door.” (To which my immediate reaction was “Wait — Sun-O))))) rehearses?”) Anyway, I might have described this music a little bit differently: maybe “the Meat Puppets on quaaludes” or something. The opening track, “Unoccupied Blues,” features one guitar playing a slowly-swinging two-chord progression while another solos, both of them so heavily distorted that the edges of their notes are sometimes blurred into nonexistence; “High Treason” is much more quiet and acoustic-based; there’s even a Brian Eno cover, though a slightly willful one (“The Big Ship”). There are no vocals, just lots of layers of guitars in various states of distortion, and it’s all pretty compelling.
Manbarani (vinyl & digital only)
Sublime Frequencies (dist. Forced Exposure)
Born in Southern Iraq and educated in Bulgaria, singer and songwriter Natik Awayez learned to play the oud (a fretless lute popular throughout the Middle East) as he was growing up between Omara City and Baghdad. Later he would travel to Yemen and work with local bands around the city of Abyan before fleeing that increasingly war-torn country for Sweden. After working with various bands and founding the Art Consulate, he eventually settled in Cairo, where this album was recorded. He explains the spiritual and musical genesis of his album this way: “Iraq is the source and Yemen the soul. As for Cairo, it has offered me snippets of time and a small abode, a handful of its most beautiful musicians and a lot of love. And so, Manbarani came to be.” So how does it sound? Light, complex, restrained but emotionally intense, and filled with melodies that, to these Western ears, evoke images of dusty streets, the smell of shisha, the taste of fresh flatbread. I really wish I knew enough Arabic to understand the lyrics, which I’m sure would complicate those mental impressions. For all libraries.
Masma Dream World
Play at Night (vinyl & digital only)
Northern Spy (dist. Redeye)
Devi Mambouka was born to a Gambonese father and a Singaporean mother, and spent her early childhood in Brooklyn before moving to Africa at age 12. So culturally, one might expect her (and her music) to be somewhat all over the place. Interestingly, though, the music on her debut album under the moniker Masma Dream World doesn’t really sound like a welter of world-music influences; instead, it sounds like something from another planet — or another dimension. True, there are elements of gamelan and hints of the call to prayer on “The Eternal Library,” and more subtly the music is informed by Japanese butoh practice, but for the most part these songs are so disconnected from anything most listeners will recognize that it ends up feeling like a visit to someplace you never imagined existed. As far as I can tell, none of the vocals are in English, but neither are they in any other language I recognize; the rhythms are regular and the musical patterns repetitive, but this isn’t exactly “trance” music. Basically I’m running out of ways to explain why I can’t explain what it sounds like, so you’ll just have to listen for yourself.
Youth Meets Jah Wobble
Acid Punk Dub Apocalypse
Cadiz Music (dist. MVD)
Two titans of the bass got together to create this dub-inflected summit meeting of an album. Jah Wobble (Public Image Ltd, Invaders of the Heart) and Youth (Killing Joke, about a billion production gigs) are such a natural combination that it’s kind of crazy they haven’t done this before. But better late than never, and Acid Punk Dub Apocalypse is a well-titled project. As you’d expect, it’s the dub aesthetic that unites the diverse program: instruments and vocals fade in and out, sonic spaces are huge and echoey, and the bass is everywhere. “Full Metal Dub” is reggae in 5/4, which I would have said was impossible. Turns out it isn’t, though I don’t know if it’s really advisable — dancing to this track would be a great way for someone my age to break a hip. “Rise Me Up” is more conventional reggae, a soulful plea featuring singer Blue Pearl, and “Keep on Moving” covers similar territory with a steppers beat and vocalist Aurora Down. “Chariot Sky,” on the other hand, has a bit of an East African highlife vibe, with hypnotic repeating patterns and glistening guitar, and also some slightly Muzak-y synth; “Panzer Dub” combines another odd time signature (7/4 this time) with a vaguely Latin beat and crunchy guitars. Great stuff all around.
Dr. Israel in Dub
Echo Beach (dist. Forced Exposure)
Dance a Dub
While we’re in dub territory, let’s check in on the always-interesting Echo Beach label, the Hamburg-based titan of modern dub music. Two recent releases apply a dub filter to existing recordings in different ways: one by focusing on the work of a single artist — Brooklyn avant-ragga-jungle firebrand Dr. Israel — and one by compiling radical dub remixes by Lee Groves of songs by artists as diverse as Ari Up, Horace Andy, Tackhead, and Seanie T. Dr. Israel (born Douglas Bennett) came to reggae the way many others of his generation did — via punk rock and hip hop. He helped to create the illbient sound in the 1990s, and his conversion to the Rastafari faith led him to seek out ways to blend his spiritual and political vision with a wide variety of musical styles and influences. Hence tracks like “Slaver” (here remixed by DJ Olive), “Addis Ababa,” and “Final Resistance.” His many fans will surely enjoy this generous collection of remixes and dubwise reconstructions of songs from his catalog. On Dance a Dub, dance music producer Lee Groves (Gwen Stefani, Janet Jackson, Black Eyed Peas, Goldfrapp) sets his hand to remixing tracks both new and old from the Echo Beach catalog, including the Martha and the Muffins song that gave the label its name. There are so many great songs here, and Groves shines a new light on each of them. Both albums are highly recommended.