Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Best of 2015 (So Far)

Isn't it wonderful when an album becomes like a public square and a huge variety of people come together to debate and celebrate its merits? Kendrick Lamar's extraordinary To Pimp A Butterfly definitely falls into this category and as such is probably the most important record of the year so far. 

But it is part of the critic's duty to balance the personal and the public and to speak from their heart, which is why To Pimp A Butterfly is not my number one album at this point.

That honor goes to Holly Miranda's self-titled second (or third, depending on how you count) album. While PhD theses may not be written unpacking dense political themes, hearing her completely blossom as an artist is a thrill in its own right. Also, watching a lesbian couple sing along to All I Want Is To Be Your Girl at Holly's recent concert does lend some weight to her place in the culture at this time in history. 

With that said, and with further ado shown the door, here's my Top 20 of the year so far. 

1. Holly Miranda - Holly Miranda We've known for some time that Holly Miranda is a genius interpreter. Now she finally has written a batch of songs consistently worthy of her gifts as a singer. 

2. Gecko Turner - That Place By The Thing With The Cool Name If I were king of the world there would be no more war because we would all be too busy dancing to Gecko

3. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear With a novelist's eye for detail, a golden voice, and Jonathan Wilson as his producing partner in crime, FJM strikes again. Turning his withering gaze on himself as much as the American landscape, no one can make you laugh until you cry (and vice versa) like the former J. Tillman. And if there's a better performer hitting the stage in 2015, I'd like to know about it. 

4. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly Much has already been written about the complexities of Kendrick's masterpiece but let's not lose sight of its simpler charms, such as the fact that it is the most groovalicious hip hop album in quite some time. Give some credit to George Clinton and the Brainfeeder crew of Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. But the star of the show is always Kendrick, a true virtuoso rapper who has made more than the most of his voice, which is not a naturally beautiful instrument. Believe it or not, I think he will only get better as he matures away from his focus on using dysfunctional relationships between men and women as a central metaphor for power and control. 

5. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass As a fan of Matthew E. White's cosmic Americana for the last few years, I was pre-disposed to like Natalie Prass's debut, which was produced by him and features the brilliant cast of characters from his own albums. However, I did have to fight through a slight overreaction to her chirpy vocal quirks to get to the core of her greatness. It was worth the journey, though, to connect with her rock-solid songwriting, which finds common ground between Stax and the great American songbook. There's also a toughness under the vocal delicacy that keeps it from effervescent into the ether.  

6. The Amazing - Picture You Elegance and reserve are not often on the list of psych-shoegaze virtues but this Swedish quintet empahtically make the case for them on their third album. The long songs gradually reveal more of the band's depth and versatility with each listen. Guitars are the main focus, but the production eases in organ, horns, strings and woodwinds in a most beguiling way.

7. SWR Vokalensemble - Italia Marcus Creed leads the talented singers of the SWR in an intelligently programmed selection of Italian choral music with captivating results. 

8. Jamie XX - In Color I don't care for the XX but I loved We're New Here, Jamie's full-album remix of Gil Scott-Heron's final work so I thought I'd give this a try. Gosh  am I glad I did! Aggressively hip, kaleidoscopic and alternating between melancholy and joy - sometimes in the same song - this is easily the electronic record of the year. Guest appearances by XX colleagues are brief and work well in this context but I think Jamie has more fun without them. Good times

9. Patrick Watson - Love Songs For Robots Watson has always been an expert at creating moods but on his latest he sustains one across the whole album. I think of the album as one long piece, a sleek and cinematic epic, so lush and gorgeous that your neck hairs will be permanently tingling. Glorious stuff. 

10. Matthew E. White - Fresh Blood White is no stranger to lush textures himself and follows up 2012's Big Inner with another deeply felt set of songs. He's got some of Curtis Mayfield's touch for the dramatic, both in the way he deploys horns, strings, and backup singers, but also in the way he cares so much about people and their connections. He's one of the good guys

11. BADBADNOTGOOD with Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul In which the Toronto-based post-jazz trio hook up with Wu-Tang mainstay Ghostface and create a collection of noir-inflected tracks that don't compromise the agendas of either party. Ghostface sounds invigorated, spitting gritty tales over horns and strings  and BBNG go all in on embracing their dark side. The best hip hop album no one is taking about. So I'm talking about it. 

12. Missy Mazzoli with Victoire and Glenn Kotche - Vespers For A New Dark Age Night is falling in Missy's world, too, so grab on and soar the heavens on the wings of soprano angels. 

13. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green Dazzling acoustic player Walker plies his trade in some of the sun-dappled territory marked out by Tim Buckley on such albums as Happy/Sad and Blue Afternoon - a realm not visited enough in my opinion. 

14. Leonard Cohen - Can't Forget: A Souvenir Of The Grand Tour I'm not 100% sure why, but I have found Leonard Cohen's latest albums to be no more than intermittently satisfying. For every great song like Nevermind (now the perfectly doomy theme for season two of True Detective), there are a few that seem too self-regarding. It's as if he got so caught up in being LEONARD COHEN that he couldn't just be himself. This album, an unusual hybrid of live takes of old songs, new songs recorded at soundchecks, and covers, has completely cracked the code. He's in terrific voice and his band is with him every step of the way as he transforms such classics as Field Commander Cohen and Joan Of Arc while introducing witty new gems like Never Gave Nobody Trouble. Somehow it all works together for his best collection since Ten New Songs. 

15. Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL - Mad Max Fury Road OST George Miller's surprising return to brilliantly brutal cinematic form was ably assisted by Holkenborg's smashing score. Like a cyborg Wagner, Holkenborg welds electronics and symphonics into unstoppable heat-seeking missiles of sound. You might want to be careful about driving under its influence. 

16. Noveller - Fantastic Planet Sarah Lipstate wields her guitar and a raft of electronics to explore the tributaries left by the innovations of Fripp and Eno in the 1970's and Glenn Branca in the 1980's. Beautifully atmospheric

17. Pond - Man It Feels Like Space Again Mojo Magazine docked these guys a star for being too weird. If I need say more, I'll just refer to the 3-D production, sly melodies and their supremely rhythmic take on neo-psych.

18. Bob Dylan - Shadows In The Night This may be Dylan's most atmospheric album ever, wandering the dark corners of Tin Pan Alley in a hand-picked selection of songs associated mainly with Frank Sinatra. Dylan's engagement with the clever lyrics of another era have smoothed out his voice and brought out a delightful wryness in his delivery. The production is a minimal, charcoal sketch surrounding Dylan, who stands firmly in the spotlight. Old dog, new tricks - yet again. 

19. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit The Aussie treasure returns with her first official full-length and slays with her carefully observed story-songs. She also plays a mean guitar and drives the band harder when it's called for. She's great live, too - catch her if you can. 

20. Ibeyi - Ibeyi These Parisian twins are descended from Cuban musical royalty. Based on this stunning debut, their deeper roots in Nigeria are also not too distant. Yoruba rhythms and themes collide with contemporary hip hop-based production and Ira Gershwin-influenced lyrics, all delivered as if it were no big deal by their heavenly voices

The new Apple Music has 19 of the 20 albums here - give a listen to a playlist of songs

Spotify has 18 of the 20 - listen below.

What's topping your list?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Conversing Across The Centuries Part 2: Italia

As NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas recently detailed, finding classical music in the streaming era can be difficult, and the same goes for keeping up with new releases. I subscribe to The New York Times's classical playlist on Spotify, which provides the occasional lead but seems unfocused overall. I get some scoops from various label newsletters, as well as by signing up on the websites of new music ensembles. There are also a few excellent PR firms that update me in this arena, which definitely helps.

It was one of those firms that tipped me to Orli Shaham's excellent Brahms-themed collection, which I reviewed in part one of this micro-miniseries. Even with all those tributaries feeding my classical needs, I can't for the life of me remember how I found out about the album I discuss below, or even what drew me to it. Read on and remember that you heard about it from me!

SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart - Italia Part of a series focusing on the choral traditions of various countries, Italia is a brilliantly sequenced survey of Italian compositions from the 19th and 20th centuries. While Italy doesn't have the same depth of choral music that Germany and England boast, it does have Verdi, who slathered his operas with choral music at every opportunity, with profound dramatic and musical impact. Also, his Requiem is one of three essential entries in the genre, alongside Mozart and Brahms.

So Verdi is a natural place for conductor Marcus Creed to begin, opening Italia with two of Verdi's 4 Pezzi sacri. A quick survey of other takes on this oft-recorded masterpiece immediately reveals the SWR's strengths as they deliver a performance of elevated clarity, seamless vocal blend, and transporting engagement with the subject matter. Before the first of the pieces is over, you know you're in good hands and ready to buckle in for a trip to wherever they want to take you. 

The next stop is in fact Yliam, a 1960's work by Giacinto Scelsi reminiscent of some of Ligeti's interstellar excursions, a sound that will be familiar to fans of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this concise and intense piece for female singers, the sopranos and altos pursue separate lines that occasionally criss-cross like strands of DNA in the air. Scelsi was an autodidact in both composition and mysticism and he ties both interests together nicely in Yliam. Scelsi's work blends smoothly into another Verdi piece, O Padre Noster, which is not without its own brand of incense-laden Catholic mysticism. The baritones and basses really distinguish themselves here, singing with a veiled power that is all the more impressive for its restraint. 

Then we come back to 1960 with Luigi Nono's Sara Dolce Tacere (Such Sweet Silence, perhaps?), a setting of Cesar Pavese's La terra e la morte (Earth and Death) for eight soloists. Creed wisely chose something by Nono that fits with the preceding Verdi and Scelsi pieces rather than going with one of Nono's explicitly political works. Sara Dolce Tacere has the feel of a group dialogue or a study in dynamics, with voices rising and falling, seeming to appear and recede like waves on a stony shore.

Ildebrando Pizzetti was born in 1880, when Verdi was entering his last and possibly greatest decade, premiering operas such as Aida, Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra (a personal favorite), and Otello. This extraordinary run may have had an effect on other composers born then  - the "Generation of 1880" - as they largely avoided creating operas. Pizzetti himself was unintimidated, however, composing more than a dozen operas, all largely forgotten, and even a Requiem. His Tre Composizione Corali, however is nothing so grand. While fairly conventional, it creates a peaceful atmosphere with song-like melodies and a chant-like blend of voices. The third piece, Recordare, domine, may be a little overlong at 10 minutes but that's a minor complaint. Nono the Marxist would probably object the loudest to Pizzetti's inclusion here, as the latter was occasionally cozy with Mussolini's fascist government. 

Pizzetti's conservatism is quickly blown away by Scelsi's TKRDG, also a three-part work, for six male voices, percussion and electric guitar. This is just a fantastic and fascinating piece, incorporating Japanese and Indian influences with both irreverence and respect, creating a ritualistic soundscape that the SWR inhabits completely. The interaction between the vocalists and the instrumentalists is more natural and assured than other recordings I've heard, aided in part by the excellent production, and may make this the definitive rendering of this important piece. In my mind, TKRDG connects the avant garde elements on Italia to that other Italian genius, Ennio Morricone, who is a big fan of Scelsi - your ears will likely agree. 

The album closes with Goffredo Petrassi's five-part Nonsense, based on limericks by Edward Lear and composed in 1952. Petrassi's long life nearly covers the entire period represented here, as he was born in 1904 and died in 2003. He was known for being open to new ideas and his writing in these short, lighthearted pieces seems tied to no particular era. It's a delightful way to end the collection and leaves you marveling at the SWR's versatility and verve. I look forward to exploring the other releases in the series and seeing what Creed and the ensemble do next. 

P.S. Creed is on a roll this year, having just released L'amour et la foi, a wonderful album of vocal music by Messiaen performed by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble. Even if you're familiar with 3 Petit Liturgies and the other pieces this is worth a listen.

You might also like:
Il Mondo Musica Italiana

Thursday, June 25, 2015

See Lucinda Williams

Though I've been a fan for 20 years, I've never seen Lucinda Williams on stage. This is not due to any edict on my part, just the means and motive never matching up with opportunity. 

So suffer this fool gladly, or at least kindly, if what I'm about to say is common knowledge: Lucinda Williams is a master. Or maybe she has only become more so now that she's getting close to a 30 year career. In any case, she is at that rare place as a performer where she is both completely herself, a true original, while never shutting the audience out. 

Her comfort zone includes areas of extreme power, enough to even be discomfiting at times. A case in point is Unsuffer Me, now quite a different beast than the version I remember from West, which was maybe a little overproduced and shy of itself. No more. It's a journey into the blackest heart of darkness, such that a chill went down my spine when she first intoned "Come into my world of loneliness, of wickedness, of bitterness, anoint my head with your kiss." This is longing and bottomless need, expressed with and utter lack of self-consciousness.  

In this, as in all things during the concert I just saw in Prospect Park, she is perfectly matched by guitarist Stuart Mathis, who must be one of the best six-stringers around now, on the road and on record. He came loaded for bear with about eight gorgeous instruments, which he deployed perfectly, fitting their strengths to each song. How Mathis comes up with one solo after another that feels fresh, emotionally engaged, virtuosic, wonderfully gritty and a little dangerous is one of the wonders of our age. The bassist and drummer were spectacular as well, locking into that groove that distinguishes William's best work. It's hard to imagine a better band on tour this summer.

The concert was also an expertly sequenced slice of her vast catalog of songs, showcasing a lot of the tougher side of her canon. This connected completely with her body language, which has her moving in a way that has nothing to do with display. This is the way I dance, she seems to be saying, get used to it. 

Her toughness always contains compassion, though, which allows her to deliver songs like Drunken Angel with a hard-won tenderness, as if she just wrote it yesterday. She can also have fun, belting out The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go with a delightful insouciance during the encore. 

So here we have an American treasure, still propelled by the jetstream of one of her finest albums (Where The Spirit Meets The Bone), in excellent voice, phrasing like a jazz singer, and accompanied by an excellent and sympatico trio of musicians with plenty of personality of their own. What are you waiting for? See Lucinda Williams. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ornette And Self-Recognition

My parents were out at a museum opening. I hung over the side of the bed, watching the hall, waiting to hear the front door open. I wasn't a particularly needy kid but for some reason I couldn't get to sleep until they got home. It might have been a sort of silent protest against what I saw as an egregiously early bedtime. I was around 12 years old and not tired at all.

They eventually returned and there were all the usual noises of closets and coats before they headed down the hall to their room. They came in to check on me and were glad to find me awake as they had a little present: A postcard from MoMA featuring a great Roy Lichtenstein painting of military machinery. "Here," my father said, "we thought this would be something you would like."

The way he said it, I knew that they didn't think much of Lichtenstein but were happy to find something with which I would find affinity. And did I ever: it was art-love at first sight. I remember feeling a sense of recognition: here is something just for me, as if custom-made. My parents had found something for me that I didn't even know I was looking for - a tacit acknowledgment of something I didn't yet realize. I was different than them, and maybe from a lot of people. 

I pinned the postcard to the wall above my pillow, next to the autographed photo of Walter Koenig, and went to sleep. It was wonderful waking up in a world where I knew I could find art that would feed my soul and with a little more self-knowledge to help me find it. 

A few years later I was getting ready to leave a friend's house after an afternoon spent listening to music. "Here," he said, handing me an LP, " I think this is a bunch of noise but you might like it." It was Ornette Coleman's early masterpiece, Free Jazz. He was right on both counts - it was a bit noisy and I loved it. 

While there was a lot to absorb in the two side-long collective improvisations that made up the album, the thing that immediately grabbed me was Ornette's tone on alto, a sound as immediately recognizable as Jimi Hendrix's guitar, and filled with a feeling of complete exuberance. There was the sound of life itself coming out of that plastic sax and I had to hear more. 

Through a friend of a friend of a friend I found myself in music critic Chip Stern's apartment where he was selling promo copies. Besides a white label copy of Remain In Light, I also scored Body Meta, Ornette's first album with his electric band, Prime Time, and Soapsuds, Soapsuds, a series of duets with bassist Charlie Haden. 

Body Meta was a revelation, from that first mind-blowing appropriation of the Bo Diddley beat, to the explosive tangles of sound when Ornette and his cohort achieved maximum liftoff. And it really felt like that, the room shifting around you as guitar lines shattered and reformed, the bass hovering just in front, then just behind, the beat, and Ornette's joyful squall slathered all over everything.

The first "new" Ornette album I bought was Of Human Feelings (now unconscionably out of print), which was recorded in 1979 - recorded digitally, I might add - but not released until 1982. It was put out by Antilles, a subsidiary of Island records, and could sort of be seen as a pop bid by Ornette, like Star People by Miles Davis. While it has its catchy moments it was unlikely that smooth jazz radio was going to play this stuff, though. I loved it instantly and was by then a fan for life.

It was much later that I learned about his history of rejection, how he was denied entry into the academy, although he had a mind full of symphonies, then laughed out of L.A., and almost laughed out of NYC, his plastic sax and wild ideas magnets for derision. But he persevered, making a series of landmark albums and even getting the opportunity to record one of those symphonies, Skies Of America, for Columbia Records. But, unlike Miles Davis, who always managed to muscle into the center of the culture, Ornette remained an outsider and I can't deny that that's part of his appeal for me. 

When I first heard True Dat (Interlude) from OutKast's debut album, I nodded my head vigorously to Big Rube's words: 

"An OutKast is someone who is not considered to be part of the normal world

He is looked at differently
He is not accepted because of his clothes, his hair
His occupation, his beliefs or his skin color
Now look at yourself, are you an OutKast? I know I am
As a matter of fact, fuck being anything else
It's only so much time left in this crazy world."

I imagine Ornette might have felt the same way. But it's the music that helps us find each other, starting with the musician's self-recognition in the sounds that resonate with them. Never mind the pronouns, Lou Reed was talking about himself in Rock & Roll: "She started dancing to that fine fine music/You know her life was saved by rock & roll."

So I'm an Ornette person. I know this about myself as much as I know that he's not for everyone. The other album I bought from Chip Stern, Soapsuds, Soapsuds, featured a gorgeous fantasia on the theme to Norman Lear's mock-soap opera, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. As it happens, my family was obsessed with that show and it was in fact the catalyst to getting my bedtime officially changed so I could stay up and watch it. Hearing Ornette float those iconic notes alongside the ruminative bass of Charlie Haden was another startling moment of recognition. Sure I was an Ornette person but maybe - just maybe - Ornette was a Jeremy person, too.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

I'll Never See The Who - And I'm Ok With That

In the year I was born, four arty scrappers who couldn't decide between the High Numbers and The Who as a band name were playing some of their first gigs in England. In one recording from those days, they repeatedly launch into I Gotta Dance To Keep From Crying in between covers of songs by Bo Diddley, Little Richard and their more advanced contemporaries, The Kinks. Like The Yardbirds, they also did Here 'Tis and Smokestack Lightning, but they didn't have the unstoppable energy of McCarty, Dreja and Clapton working together. They also couldn't match John Lennon's throat-shredding blast through Money - but they tried. Overall, they were pretty good, maybe a cut above your cousin's band, but only just. 

Imagine being there, watching one of the greatest bands of all time in their nascence. Would you be able to tell that great things were coming? Or would you think they were merely another noisy bunch of strivers like David Jones and the Lower Third playing just down the street? Of course, I'll never know, as crawling was still in my future and seeing music even further off. So I missed The Who in 1964 and I'm OK with that. 

When Keith Moon died in 1978 I was just on the cusp of my serious concertgoing years. During the decade prior, The Who had become perhaps one of the most formidable live acts in human history. Even Liszt and Paganini, who both tore it up in the 19th century, would have hesitated before following Townsend, Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon on stage. In performance they had excelled far beyond any of those they emulated in 1964, and minus The Beatles, in songwriting as well. This I knew full well from the Live At Leeds album, of which I knew every note, and fascinating studio works like Who's Next, Quadrophenia and Who Are You. But thanks to a combination of my age, lack of discretionary funds, and an older brother who was more into jazz than rock, I never saw The Who in those years either - and I'm OK with that. 

Kenney Jones was soon behind the drum kit, and while he had skills and pedigree, he lacked charisma and The Who were irrevocably a different band. While I could enjoy You Better You Bet, it took me years to realize that Face Dances is one of the best pop albums of the 80's. I think I considered seeing The Who at Shea Stadium in 1982, but it was probably too expensive and I was slightly disturbed at the idea of my heroes The Clash as an opening act, especially so shortly after they had ruled the stage at Bond's. Then The Who officially broke up for the first time and I spent the rest of the decade seeing Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, PiL, Dead Boys, Beastie Boys, Bad Brains, Gang of Four, Pere Ubu, Bob Marley, David Bowie, etc., etc. So I never saw The Who in the 80's - and I'm OK with that. 

I could go on, describing endless reunions, retirements and special appearances, but if it wasn't already over, the death of John Entwistle in 2002 sealed The Who's fate as a performing entity. They could no longer claim much more than a shadow's connection to their glory days. Even with the release of the terrific Endless Wire in 2006, which I played incessantly for several months, I felt no pull to see them live. Mounting their stadium tours left them too beholden to a past they could only hint at and I wasn't interested in watching them try. Daltrey and Townsend play Endless Wire at The Beacon? Two still-vital creative artists performing new songs? Sign me up. 

So I'm OK with never seeing The Who, or the Stones or Pink Floyd, to name a couple of other bands who have toured as a simulacrum of themselves. It's the same for me as Hendrix, The Doors, or The Beatles. I can accept that the time-space continuum just did not make it possible and I'm just too into the music to suspend disbelief that what I would be hearing could live up to the remarkable legacies of these bands. In the case of The Replacements, I was lucky enough to see them in their heyday, at The Ritz, and it was just as great as you can imagine. While I would love to see Paul Westerberg perform some of his most recent material (which is getting less recent all the time, dude), I didn't want to mess with my memories. Based on some of his remarks at ending the current reunion run, which only featured 50% of the original band, I think Westerberg may feel similarly.

All the above is not even to mention the need to husband the limited resources - of both time and money - I have to see shows. For the cost of one ticket to see Clapton on his 70th birthday, I can have infinitely more satisfying experiences seeing Matthew E. White, Father John Misty, Kate Tempest, Natalie Prass and Holly Miranda - and that's just this year alone. The time is now for these artists, not in the past.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Conversing Across Centuries, Part 1: Orli Shaham & Brahms

Assembling a collection of pieces from wildly disparate times and/or places can be a delicate operation. David Greilsammer triumphed in this area with last year's Scarlatti/Cage album, now firmly installed in my mind as one of the great piano records. So far this year we have two other recordings that successfully converse across the centuries - one is reviewed below and I'll get to the other next week.

Orli Shaham - Brahms Inspired I'll admit to being an inconstant Brahmsian. While I am devoted to his Clarinet Quintet and find Ein deutsches Requiem fascinating, not a lot of his other music has compelled me. I may even be guilty of selling back a CD of his songs, but digital music was expensive back then and I needed to husband my resources. Even now, if you don't move me you are gone. 

When I heard about Orli Shaham project, I was intrigued, however. She had obviously been on a very personal journey with old Johannes, even going so far as to commission works to aid her pan-optical view of his music. Also, the three Brahms pieces included were all late works and I thought I might find some of that spare and utter mastery found in the Clarinet Quintet with which to connect. 

The first piece on the album, a collection of six pieces simply called Klavierstücke, Op. 118, instantly pulls you into the world of romanticism, melodies and lush chords swelling and crashing like breakers on the beach. Listening to Shaham's assured and stylish performance I realized that, despite the efforts of the Second Viennese School and Stravinsky, the 20th Century was essentially romantic, at least until the Minimalists struck a chord (or an arpeggio, ad infinitum). This is the equivalent of realizing that all your favorite television character actors had already had full careers in vaudeville. In other words, the past is ever present and Brahms more than holds his own even now, in yet another century. 

After Op. 118, we get Bruce Adolphe's My Inner Brahms (an intermezzo), a short homage commissioned for the album. Adolphe is a New York based composer and educator known by millions of public radio listeners for his Piano Puzzler segments on Performance Today. A distillation of his improvisations on themes by Brahms, it's a lovely little bit of time travel. The three pieces that follow are all works that inspired Brahms - Schubert's Impromptu, Op. 90, No. 3, Schumann's Romanze, Op 28, No. 2, and Chopin's Berceuse, Op. 57. They all go down easily and give you an idea of what might have been swirling in Brahms's head as he composed. They also prove that I will always be a Schumann person - the clarity of his textures and conception is immediately evident and very attractive. 

Brahms's Drei Intermezzi, Op 117, follows and, if anything, it's Schumann's influence I feel the most. This leads me to start wondering how much Shaham's performances themselves might be influence by all the crosstalk between composers. Whatever the reason, the three intermezzos are simply, but never simplistically gorgeous. Shaham seems to find little stories between the notes, and to delight in their telling. 

Disc 2 starts with another commissioned piece, After Brahms - 3 Intermezzos for Piano, by Avner Dorman. Dorman is Israeli-a born and one of the most successful young composers in that country. He and Shaham have crossed paths before, with Nigunim, a violin sonata based on Jewish themes commissioned and performed by her and her brother, the great Gil Shaham. The first of his intermezzos really puts the "passion" in the Allegro con motto apassionato, with furious downpours of notes coming to a crashing halt on the left side of the keyboard. It's short enough that it's actually great fun and Shaham blows past the difficulties with aplomb. the other two pieces in the set profitably explore other variations on the "whisper to a scream" template.

After Dorman's romantic apotheosis, Bach's Partita No. 1 comes as somewhat of a relief, especially in Shaham's lighter than air performance. It feels like her fingers are just barely touching the keys. Even so, I admit to feeling a slight bit of ear fatigue at this point - but there is nothing saying you need to listen to all 120 minutes of piano music at once. However you get there, don't miss the Schoenberg miniatures that come on Bach's coattails. Schoenberg, one of my favorite composers, was a crucial bridge from the perfumed drawing rooms of the Romantic era to the spiky bustle of Modernism. He had cred in the new world partially because his early works were so accomplished. If he had composed nothing after Verklarte Nacht, Gurrelieder and Ewartung, he would be known as a major late-Romantic composer. 

Obviously, Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, is not one of Schoenberg's big deals. But mashing up six tiny pieces into a work less than six minutes long without it ever feeling frugal is no mean feat. Shaham seems to use a magnifying glass to find the individual character of each little section, like painting a Kandinsky on the head of a pin. Put down your phone, slow down, and observe the process with your full attention - trust me, you will be rewarded. 

The final piece is a true mash up, with Brahms's Klavierstücke, Op 119 interleaved with Brett Dean's Hommage à Brahms für Klavier. While Dean's work was originally commissioned by Emmanuel Ax, like the other new music here, this is a World Premiere recording. Dean's work is probably the most radical of the new pieces, finding the connection between modern cacophony and the 19th Centuries cascades of notes. There's also a touch of knotty jazz to his writing, bringing us right up to date. But Brahms, and ultimately Orli Shaham, have the last word. The third Klavierstücke, Rhapsodie in e-flat major, is so tuneful and open-hearted that you may be inspired (sorry) to go back to beginning of this wonderful collection. Thanks to Shaham, I think I'll be a better friend to Brahms from now on.  Brahms Inspired is out on June 9th. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Holly Miranda Is Here

I've probably told the story of how I came to Holly Miranda too many times. Suffice it to say that I've been a fan since 2009 and that being her fan seems to involve a lot of waiting. At first I was collecting the free songs she dropped on the Internet, waiting for her to release something official. Then I got Sleep On Fire, her first EP, and found myself waiting for her first album (or her first "real" album, as she had recorded one as a teenager). The album, The Magician's Private Library, came out and, while it was quite good, I still found myself waiting for a record that reflected all of her talent. I was also waiting to see her on stage, and finally did in Prospect Park  as an opening act. Then, of course, I was waiting to see her as a headliner. 

Somewhere in there she started a Pledge Music campaign so I was now waiting for an album in which I was essentially an investor. Actually, that was in 2011, so it was there was a lot of waiting ahead. During all that time, I did get to see her headline at the Knitting Factory in 2013, which was fantastic. That same year, she released Everlasting and Desert Call, two of her best songs yet, featuring the kind of singing and emotion that just stop you in your tracks. That made 2014 the hardest year of waiting, because I knew she had finally figured out how to reveal her full talent in the studio. While she did let us pledgers know about some of the mitigating circumstances behind the delay, I did start to worry that she was stalling out somehow, getting lost in side projects and backing other musicians. 

Then, earlier this year, the dam finally broke. Some songs appeared on Spotify and pledgers were notified that the album was coming in May. I tried not to get too hung up on dates, to just let it happen, but it all happened on schedule: Holly Miranda was released on May 18th and it is brilliant. The waiting is finally over. 

Mark My Words opens the album with chiming guitar and sleigh bells, and then Holly comes in, intimately singing "Sneaking words into your pocket, bleeding lyrics from my veins," a perfect invitation for all that follows. The song is a slow build and her singing instantly impresses with its clarity, control and soul-singer phrasing. The song ends with powerful, chunky guitar, and drops us into the breezy strumming that opens All I Want Is To Be Your Girl  This is an instantly hummable  singalong: "The days are shorter but the nights are long/We could fuck in the sun and dance till dawn/And all I want is to be your girl." Of course, our puritanical culture will keep the song in this form off the radio, but this should be a pop hit. It goes down so easy that all those Swedes who machine-tool the Billboard charts will look up from their Pro-Tools and say, "Damn. Why am I working so hard?"

Then we get Everlasting, a swoon in song with no small debt to John Lennon at his best. The vocal arrangement is elaborate, with a chorus of Hollies and some deep male underpinnings just above the subsonic. Bowie does stuff like that, but few others even try. Whatever You Want has a touch of the 80's but is cheese-free, with Miranda more than holding her own with an army of guitars and clattering percussion. Come On alternates from spare to full-on, and there's a bit of girl-group innocence and yearning: "I've been waiting for a blue moon to cover me/Get me through this lonesome night ahead of me."

Pelican Rapids has the feel of a bedroom recording, in the best way, with Miranda singing along to herself accompanied by electronic drums and keyboards. It's an overture to Desert Call, which like Everlasting was re-recorded for the album. It's both longer and more luxuriant than the earlier version while still retaining the same classic, elemental feel. That great baritone sax solo (by Maria Eisen) I heard at the Knitting Factory is well-represented here and Miranda sounds so at home singing alongside the throaty horn, her true musical foil. 

The Angelo Badalamenti songs Julee Cruise sang for Twin Peaks have become more and more foundational, most recently (and unfortunately) in the faltering attempts of Lana Del Rey, who sings like someone who is never quite sure what's going to happen when she opens her mouth. Holly Miranda definitely doesn't have that problem and brings some of Badalamenti's dark romanticism to both The Only One and Heavy Heart. Each song is lead by rich piano parts, with that bari sax droning underneath, and features a bit of theatrical flair. Music supervisors take note. 

The penultimate cut, Until Now, is so good I almost don't want to share it with you, or anybody else. In a way the whole beautiful album builds to this point. It's mostly just Holly and her acoustic, with gorgeous touches of electric guitar swooping in the spaces between. "Never opened my eyes until now/Never really realized until now," are the opening lines and we're instantly plunged into the white-hot moment when friends become lovers. "You've got some kind of sweetness," she sings in the chorus, her voice ascending in a curlicue of pure longing  "Tied up in that string I've been tugging on/ But I'm pulling now." This is almost Nick Drake territory, where you get wrapped up in the song and wind up feeling protective of the singer. Then again, I've always been rooting for Holly Miranda, and my cheerleading will continue. But I have a feeling the real cheering is about to begin, and it will be louder than ever. 

Join the applause when Holly Miranda returns to the Knitting Factory on June 13th.