Friday, January 30, 2015

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Out Of The Past


As much great new music as there was last year, there was nearly as much reissued and rediscovered material. Some releases were attended with great fanfare, others arrived with not nearly enough notice. In the end, the cream from both categories rose to the top. 

AMERICAN MASTERS 

Wilco - Alpha Mike Foxtrot While there is little on these four superb discs that wasn't issued in one way or another prior to this box set, it all adds up to a magnificent alternate history of one of the greatest American bands of all time. In a year that saw all the members of Wilco pursuing their own projects, AMF is a rousing reminder of why we were interested. 

Their beginnings, scrappy and with only minimal promise in the wake of Uncle Tupelo's split (Doug Sahm bet on the other guys), are covered quickly. By the end of the first disc, they're in their full glory with songs like Sunken Treasure and Monday, included here as a live take and a demo respectively. 

The three remaining discs each hold a well-sequenced mix of stage versions of familiar songs along with hidden gems and cover songs Hoovered up from singles, soundtracks and compilations. After a few listens, including a couple of sessions where I let all 77 tracks run, the only question I was left with was whether Wilco is in the top ten of American bands or the top five. Essential. 

Hank Williams - The Garden Spot Programs The "old lovesick wandering cowboy" himself was a busy man during his short life, spending much time on the road and in radio stations in addition to the dozens of studio sessions for Sterling and MGM that make up most of his legacy as one of the bedrocks of Americans music. 

In the wake of the monolithic compilation of his Mother's Best radio shows from 2011 comes this remarkable find: 24 songs (including jingles) recorded for the Garden Spot show that were all thought lost. Williams is in spectacular voice throughout and sounds relaxed and jovial, even on mega-weepies like I've Just Told Mama Goodbye and At The First Fall Of Snow. The sound is crystal clear, the band is swinging, the songs are unimpeachable. Another special item from Omnivore Recordings

Hi Sheriffs Of Blue - NYC 1980 This rough and ready collection is 100% of a time and place yet so full of possibility that it still sounds like the future. Full review to come, but suffice it to say that Byron Coley has performed a public service by getting this material out. 

Love - Black Beauty Speaking of public services, fans of the brilliant Arthur Lee should high five High Moon Records for adding this great collection to the Love catalogue. Although a little uneven, it is a beauty indeed


Mutual Benefit - The Cowboy's Prayer Loves Crushing Diamond was one of the best and most distinctive albums of recent years. Yet there was much music by Jordan Lee that came before it, often released in extremely limited quantities during the course of his travels. Thanks to Other Music Recording Co. this gem is now widely available. Like an eggshell, there is both delicacy and strength to these sounds, a combination that keeps it from being too precious. But if you love it as I do, you'll hold it very dear indeed. 

Bayete Todd Cochran - Worlds Around The Sun Welcome return to the catalog for this jazz funk near-classic. Hopefully Omnivore Recordings will turn their loving attention to Cochran's even tougher follow up, Seeking Other Beauty. 

Various Artists - I'm Just Like You: Sly's Stone Flower 1969-70 In 2013 we got Higher,  which was quite wonderful and very nearly the career overview that Sly & The Family Stone deserved. Now thanks to Light In The Attic's brilliant work we get an incisive look at how the funk genius went from being "Woodstock Sly" on Stand! to being "weirdo Sly" on There's A Riot Going On. 

Pulling together the official releases of Sly's Stone Flower label along with demos and alternate takes, we hear him searching out that murky and divisive sound while also trying to make hits for Little Sister, Joe Hicks, and 6ix. Fascinating stuff. 

THE UK IS MORE THAN OK

The Clientele - Suburban Light Even if the reissue of this magnificent sigh of an album hadn't led to me having not one but TWO chances to see them live, it would still be a signature moment of the year. The extra disc of rare gems only doubles the pleasure - Driving South, for example, is one of their finest songs ever. Watching Alasdair MacLean, Mark Keen and James Hornsey commune with these songs - and with each other - made me think their hiatus may not be indefinite. 

The Led Zeppelin Reissues While I'm slightly underwhelmed by most of the bonus material, Jimmy Page's ability to keep drawing new sonic detail out of these monolithic albums is nothing short of astonishing. The first album comes with a punishing live set, which is a must to own, as for the rest - at least so far - getting the single disc versions may be enough of a feast. 

Michael Chapman - Playing The Guitar The Easy Way Light In The Attic continues their excellent series of Michael Chapman albums with this delight from 1978. Sort of an instructional album for experienced guitarists who have gotten "bogged down," Chapman's intricate playing may do a better job at inducing despair in players. The rest of us can just listen and enjoy the sounds of a master at work. 

New Age Steppers/Creation Rebel - Threat To Creation In which post-punk royalty (The Slits' Ari Up and PIL's Keith Levene, for two) meet Prince Far-I's backing band under the heavy manners of British dub maven Adrian Sherwood. The results, as the title suggests, are explosive. For someone like me, who still remembers laying hands on a copy of New Age Steppers's Massive Hits Vol. 1 in a dusty Boston record store, the fact that this is easily accessible on Spotify and elsewhere is a cause for celebration. All praise to the fine folks at Mexican Summer for unleashing this Threat. 

Wire - Document & Eyewitness 1979-1980 The words "post-punk royalty" above should have caused immediate thoughts of this band. After moving forward like a freight train with a remarkable string of albums over the last few years, Colin Newman and friends took a look back by revisiting this formerly hens-tooth rare collection of sounds made by a band imploding. 

On 154, the album just before these performances, producer Mike Thorne had managed to add a bit of pop sheen to Wire's spiky sound. As brilliant as it was, the record caused a crisis of conscience in the arty quartet, leading to the staged confrontations heard here. But there is a lot of music among the madness, as the band made clear by basing several songs on their recent album, Change Becomes Us, on fragments and ideas that first appeared here. The enjoyment and fascination of both albums is enhanced by tracking the connections between the two. Dive in. 

Gazelle Twin - The Entire City In my little corner of the world, the reappearance of Elizabeth Bernholz's striking debut from 2011 completely overshadowed her second album, Unflesh. I highly recommend catching up with both - strong, artful, and dark. 

Life Without Buildings - Any Other City Perhaps if they had lasted longer than this one album, Glasgow would be as identified with this band as much as it is with Belle & Sebastian. With chiming guitars and charming songs, they sound like they could pal around with The Vaselines and The Smiths. They keep things fairly simple in order to showcase the idiosyncratic vocals of Sue Tompkins, who comes off a little like a happier Poly Styrene. 

Tompkins is now an accomplished artist and perhaps her unique vocal style wasn't really meant to last beyond these few songs. But Any Other City is a one-off that should always be in print, awaiting discovery by successive generations, so thanks to What's Your Rupture for making it widely available again. 

COLLECTED CHARACTERS

Max Richter - Retrospective The young composer and "re-composer" (of Vivaldi, among others) gets the deluxe treatment from Deutsche Grammophon with this nice cube containing The Blue NotebooksSongs From Before24 Postcards in Full Colour and Infra, along with bonus tracks. From cloudy to crystalline and from ambient to industrial, Richter has covered a lot of ground. 

Placido Domingo - The Verdi Opera Collection Unlike the Richter set, which is priced quite steeply, this collection of six operas over 15 discs may be the bargain of the decade. The rapturous recording of Luisa Miller alone would be worth $40. Naturally, you don't get librettos at that price, but just listen - you'll get the whole story of these magnificent works of musical theater. 

LIVE IS LIFE

Jonathan Wilson - Spotify Sessions: Live At Bonnaroo I've seen Wilson twice, both times in the cramped confines of the Mercury Lounge and you can actually hear him revel in the big outdoor stage where this recorded. And rightly so: he has a big sound, an ambitious talent, and and endless virtuosity in all forms of rock music. He starts this set with a languid take on Angel, the early Fleetwood Mac slow jam, and just ramps it up from there. By the end, he's unleashing fire and has the audience firmly in hand. I wish I was there and I think you'll agree.

John Coltrane - Offering: Live At Temple University The auditorium at Temple University became the Temple of Coltrane one night in 1966. Apparently the Student Union lost money on the gig (they hoped Dionne Warwick's sellout show would make up the difference, apparently), so we owe them a debt of thanks for presenting it and preserving the music for eternity. 

Coltrane's playing ranges from lyrical to anguished, occasionally producing sounds that are still discomfiting today, like some of Hendrix's performances of Machine Gun. Pharaoh Sanders is also incredible, especially on Leo, finding a middle ground between jump blues and the avant garde. The expanded rhythm section of five percussionists led by Rashied Ali provides mainly a bed of constant rhythm, creating a swirl that nears chaos on occasion. Sonny Johnson, when you can hear him, is extraordinary on bass. His solo to introduce My Favorite Things is one for the ages. Alice Coltrane's piano sparkles on nearly every song, as if she were commanding 88 stars instead of keys. And yes, Coltrane sings, or chants, which is fascinating but still very musical and only increases the sense of occasion.

Coltrane only had months to live when he took the stage at Mitten Hall that night. Whether he knew that or not, he plays like a man with much at stake. Even though he included one audience favorite in the set, there is never a sense that he is aiming to please anyone than himself and the dedicated players that surrounded him that night. on Offering, you meet Coltrane on his own terms or you don't meet him at all.

Miles Davis - Miles At The Fillmore 1970 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 3) You could get caught up in the weeds of how this release interacts with earlier releases of those nights at the Fillmore (both East and West) when Miles and his cohort strafed the audience with phantasmagoric sounds. Maybe you have an unofficial bootleg (guilty), or some edited version of some of these sounds. Forget all that and just revel in this beautifully presented release. It was a time that Miles could do no wrong and it's about time it was put into the official canon. 

The Allman Brothers - Play All Night: Live At The Beacon Theater 1992 We mourned a lot of deaths in 2014, but this was the death of a legendary American band. Perhaps their time had come, but what I heard of their last shows displayed plenty of fire. I'm sure some of that material will be released eventually. For now we have this, an excellent set from their early 90's resurgence. They had some good new material, a couple of new members (especially the great Warren Haynes on guitar) - and Dickey Betts was still in the band. My wife and I saw one of these concerts and we were enraptured by the interplay, the soulfulness, and the sheer power they had to go anywhere they wanted. Nice to know it really did sound that good. Now, my hope is that Gregg will go on tour like he did in 1974 - I'll be there.


Bonus Track: Michael Jackson's Love Never Felt So Good, the original take featured on the deluxe edition of odds & sods collection Xcape is pure magic. It has everything that got us interested in the first place.


This concludes my round-up of the great sounds of 2014. In case you missed them, the other posts were:

Best Of 14 (Part 1)
Best Of 14 (Part 2)
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Old Favorites, New Sounds
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Hip Hop & Jazz
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Synths & Who's New (To Me)

Don't get left behind on the greatness of 2015 - the Of Note playlist is already filling up!


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Extended Play


The rise of vinyl proves that the death of the album has been greatly exaggerated. There are also those collections that are longer than a single and shorter than an LP, called EP's (for extended play). Whether released on plastic or digitally, EP's are still a great way for emerging bands to showcase more than a couple of songs or for established artists to keep up with demand with some bonus tracks or explore new territory. Here are the short-form albums that were part of what made 2014 a great year for music. I've also included a few one-offs, those occasional cases where one song was all you needed from a particular artist.

The Darcys - Hymn For A Missing Girl: When the Toronto quartet released this 21 minute epic on Record Store Day last year, I thought it signaled a promising new direction for the band. Taking all their love of darkness and inexorable drive into a long through-composed piece without losing any of their toughness, Hymn is a cinematic experience of a kind only hinted at in their three excellent albums (one a death-defying full-album cover of Steely Dan's Aja). 


Alas, it was not to be. The Darcys Hymn is also their epitaph as they announced their dissolution late last year. And it's a piece of music that will haunt you, from the ethereal choral beginning through the techno-ambient middle, which ends in a sonic smash cut to silence. From there, it builds back up, gaining speed and fury like a corroded TGV gaining traction on icy rails (Snowpiercer, anyone?), before heading into a long elegiac finale. It's simply great and I look forward to observing as generations to come discover the brief but potent catalog of The Darcys. 

Jason Couse (vocals, guitars, keys) and Wes Marskell (drums) are planning to continue working together, with an eye to translating their musical mastery into a more commercial enterprise. I wish them every success and have a feeling that whatever they end up doing it will be interesting. 

Isadora - Predators EP: I've often named them among Brooklyn's finest and this EP, consisting of three new songs and two from their debut, does a great job of consolidating their strengths. Come On Back, which I sang for a week after hearing it live for the first time, is one of the great songs of the year (cool video, too), featuring both a catchy chorus and visceral crunch. The song is undeniable and saw them start to get some well-deserved radio play. Their new management might have had something to do with that, as well. Whatever it is, momentum is building so catch a hold now. See them rule the stage at Mercury Lounge on January 21 - you'll thank me later. Album in 2015? We can only hope.

Moses Sumney - Mid-City Island: Sumney has a beautiful voice and a warm spirit, as evidenced by the five songs and sketches on this debut. There's some jazzy balladry here and some sun-kissed psych-folk, all adding up to a soaring and singular sonic vision. It all feels very dewy and fresh and I think we'll be hearing much more from Sumney in the future.

DeSoto - Sense Of Space: Matthew Silberman, an excellent sax player and composer, does more than blow his horn on this quirky and soulful musical adventure. I could go on about it at length - in fact I already did. The rest is up to you.

Seth Graham - Goop: Graham has been hoeing several rows in the underground scene for the last few years, running a label, creating album art, and releasing music. As expected, Goop is a bit of a mess, but in a very smart and colorful way. There is a sense of direction and editing to these atmospheric tracks which keeps you listening. One of the tracks is called This Is Just A Tape, a bit of self-deprecation that is likely a protective feint - Graham is talented and ambitious. Follow his winding path starting here.

Pere Ubu - Golden Surf II: This legendary band, with origins in the smog-filled halcyon of 1976 Cleveland, has been quietly resurgent in the last couple of years. David Thomas & Co. have drawn renewed creativity partly by embracing their dark side. This EP is a concentrated blast of their unsettling transmissions and is all the more effective due to that concision. If you want more they also released a full-length in 2014.

The GOASTT - Long Gone: Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl have been performing Syd Barrett's Long Gone in concert for a while now, helping the song to a more fully realized state than its author was capable of at the time. Fortunately they found time to put Long Gone on tape for posterity - and our listening pleasure. I'd like to think Barrett would feel vindicated. He knew it was a great song! The EP also features two songs that would have fit nicely on the wonderful Midnight Sun album.

Ex Hex - "Hot and Cold" b/w "Waterfall" & "Everywhere": Mary Timoney's work with Helium is one of the great lost edifices of the 90's. I even had to stick up for their smeared, off-kilter art-punk back then, endeavoring to enjoy a show at the Knitting Factory as my wife and my friend tried to convince me I shouldn't. Ex Hex has Timoney and a hand-picked cohort bashing through short, sharp songs in a much more straight-ahead vein than Helium. The album, Rips, has been getting a lot of love but all I really need are these three songs, a quick blast of power-trio fun. If I listen to more, it just starts to seem like a retreat.

Epic 45 - Monument: Specializing in ambient folk-based song-scapes, Epic 45 have an expert hand at combining electronic textures and live instruments, bringing to life a certain melancholy that feels universal and deeply personal at the same time. David Sylvian's Gone To Earth may or may not be a touchstone for them, but certainly fans of that landmark album will find a lot to like here. Then work your way back to Weathering, one of my Top Ten albums from 2012.

Singles

Of the ubiquitous songs that were unavoidable during the year, Pharrell's Happy was probably the most fun, delivering pop uplift on a cushion of his trademark chords, which are always just slightly unexpected. While it was so slight that it seemed to vanish as you listened to it, at least it didn't have the machine-tooled calculation of so much of the Top 40.

While Pharrell is behind one of the best dance songs in history (Hot In Herre, but of course), Happy's bounce wouldn't get me on the floor. That task would be left to Jungle's Busy Earnin', which had an insinuating groove and a martial tightness that made it irresistible. Yes, it was 90's enough that I half-expected to see Caron Wheeler and Jazzie B in the video, but who cares? As long as we're asking questions, who needed a whole album of diminishing returns? Not me.

Finally, I keep up with Memphis Industries mainly to keep up with the Brewis brothers who are always churning out something interesting, whether under the Field Music moniker or School of Language. This year, the latter formation released a pretty good album that felt a little rote and Peter Brewis put out an intriguing and arty collaboration with Peter Smith that is worth seeking out. But the one essential song that my email subscription delivered to me was an odd little gem called Cockeyed Rabbit Wrapped In Plastic, released under the name Slug, actually Ian Black, who used to play bass for Field Music. Every time it came up in a shuffle play, it had me scrabbling for my iPod so I could confirm exactly what it was before it disappeared again.

With patented prog-tastic drumming from Peter Brewis, this is a perfect construction of light vocals and heavy white funk. Cockeyed Rabbit is the sound of XTC (when they were Helium Boyz) meeting Bill Nelson (when he was Red Noise) and isn't that something you always knew you needed? It's up to you to make sure it doesn't become the great lost track of 2014.




Still To Come: The final rehash of last year will be Out Of The Past, featuring reissues and other older sounds.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Classical & Composed


I found time to write about only a few of the things I listened to in this realm throughout the course of the year. This wrap up includes those recordings and some of the many others of note.

Glenn Kotche took his compositions to new heights on Adventureland, really finding his voice outside of Wilco. It's a delightful and mysterious collection, more than living up to its title. 

Brooklyn Rider introduced me to the music of shakuhachi virtuoso Kojiro Umezaki a few years ago and I was grateful when (Cycles) came out earlier this year, collecting his emotionally charged and formally adventurous compositions.

The dog days of summer were enlivened by another wide-ranging installment of the American Composers Orchestra's Orchestra Underground series, Tech & Techno, which featured polished new compositions by a number of young composers. That album led me to Stereo Is King, a great collection of witty and fascinating work by Mason Bates, and I was glad for the pointer. 

Talea Ensemble is one of the finest new music groups in the country, if not the world. A new album by them should be a cause for celebration, and it is, for me at least. I just wish a few more people would come to the party - you don't know what you're missing. Their latest release, A Menacing Plume, focuses on the spellbinding music of Rand Steiger, an American composer and teacher who is probably more forward-thinking than some of the younger writers on the Tech & Techno Album. His use of electronics is seamless and completely assured. Like Varese, he's done his experimenting before composing his music. Talea Ensemble has chosen five of his chamber works and they're often sleek and purposeful constructions, with some of the sense of wonder Boulez inspires in his later pieces. 

Thanks to a terrific and dimensional recording and the utter conviction of Talea's players along with conductor James Baker, these are likely to be definitive recordings of these colorful works. I'll not soon forget the nimble woodwind playing or the physicality of Elizabeth Weisser's viola - you can feel the gut of the strings and the air in the resonating chamber when she plays. Marvelous. Special mention has to made of Ben Reimer's dazzling percussion on Elusive Peace which finds him playing the highly structured parts with ease and lightness of touch. Like the album as a whole, everything feels very naturalistic. Talea has no doubts about the worth of Steiger's music and neither will you after hearing this album.

I've had an ear out for Anna Thorvaldsdottir's music since Rhizoma came out a few years ago. The music on that collection was so intriguing yet also so reserved as to almost vanish as you listened. This year Deutsche Grammophon released Aerial, featuring six recent (2011-2013) works which hang together more like a concept album than a recital. This is bold music, equal parts beauty and terror, and it has a strong theatrical bent. Unusually, Thorvaldsdottir is credited with mixing, editing and production on several tracks - she obviously knows how to make things sound they way she wants. And it pays off - you'll be pulled through the album almost in a state of suspense.

Speaking of bold music, any composition by Mario Diaz de Leon is bound to make a strong first impression. His work in the drone-metal arena has left him unafraid of volume and power, but it's the finesse with which he deploys them in his concert music that makes it resonate beyond the first hearing. His piece, The Soul Is The Arena, is a highlight of There Never Is No Light, the extraordinary debut album by Joshua Rubin, a clarinetist and a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble. I doubt very highly that there is a better clarinet player in the new music world today and the ease with which he navigates Diaz de Leon's demanding work, and that of Mario Davidovsky and the other composers featured, is astounding. This is a signature release and one that will serve as an excellent introduction, should you need one, to both Rubin and some important composers.

The quantity of both stages and performance time for large-scale contemporary stage works is shrinking in the U.S. However, that doesn't stop composers from thinking big. A new release from Nonesuch featuring Louis Andriessen's La Commedia addresses this issue head on by allowing you to bring the performance, in the form of a film, into your home. That the film is directed by Hal Hartley in sumptuous black and white only sweetens the deal. While the music is often beautiful and creatively sets the words of the Bible, Dante, and others to make up a new narrative, there is a certain lack of dynamics overall, which I don't recall from Andriessen's other music. This makes La Commedia somewhat less than involving when just listened to. It really is ideally enjoyed as a visual experience - but how many people will take the time to get the most out it? All I can say is that it's worth it and kudos to all who made this realization possible.

Christopher Tignor's Core Memory Unwound is one of my favorite albums of our short century. While none of his subsequent releases have connected at that level, he can still surprise and intrigue with his singular style. Thunder Lay Down In The Heart has the feel of a theatrical piece, starting as it does with a scene-setting spoken word piece and moving through themes and variations featuring chamber instruments, electronics, and rock drums. I'm not to sure what it adds up to, but I can hear the sound of one of our more interesting musical minds at work.

Hauschka is the wizard of the prepared piano and also possesses a usually witty and warm compositional voice. Abandoned City features him at his chilliest, however, with tense rhythms and dense chord stabs. The album is as atmospheric as its title, and almost as urban. Thames Town suggests that a hip hop collaboration may be in Hauschka's future - I couldn't help but imagine how Pusha T would sound rapping over its spare instrumentation and dance beats.

Along with Joey Baron, Bobby Previte has been the go-to drummer at the intersection of the avant garde and jazz for at least a couple of decades. Terminals finds him stepping out as composer, interacting with other leading lights like Zeena Parkins (harp) and Nels Cline (busy man!) on a series of long, involving "concertos" for percussion and soloist. Y Percussion is the common denominator on this recording and, even if there is some meandering, each track is filled with drama and color.

Leif Ove Andsnes completed his Beethoven Journey this year and it would be hard to beat his recordings of these cornerstones of Romantic music. Not all Beethoven is equal to my ears, however, so if you buy aonly one disc in the series make sure it's the one containing Piano Concertos 2 and 4. This is old Ludwig at his most sparkling, especially in the 2nd Concerto, and the performances and recording are basically perfect. You can say that about the the final disc, which contained the 5th Concerto and the Choral Fantasy, except for the sparkling part. This is a side of Beethoven that doesn't move me, where his work sounds almost pro forma. But if you want to make up your own mind about this music, the Andsnes cycle is a great place to start.


Igor Stravinsky is of course known for his game-changing ballet scores and kaleidoscopic orchestrations. He also composed piano music throughout his career and now Jenny Lin has applied her masterful technique to a complete collection of those pieces - and I'm glad she did

Stravinsky knew his way around the piano, but Bach was the master of the keyboard and Igor Levit's new recording of the Partitas got a lot of people excited about this music again, including me. As part of my process of reviewing the album, I discovered Christiane Jaccottet's brilliant performance (on harpsichord instead of the modern piano employed by Levit) and that excited me even more.

Lou Harrison was an American composer who embraced exoticism and joy in equal measure. La Koro Sutro is one of his signature works and I was happy to see a new recording of it, although it maybe slightly more reserved than I'd like. If you can't find this one then by all means give it a listen. 


I'm not sure why Richard Reed Parry's Music For Heart & Breath excited me more in concert than in the fine recording on Deutsche Grammophon. Perhaps it was the stethoscopes or the fact that being on stage made the performers' hearts beat faster. In any case, approach it with fresh ears - you may like what you hear. There's definitely more here than just catnip for fans of Parry's band, Arcade Fire.

Bryce Dessner, guitarist for The National appears on Parry's album (indie rock mafia, anyone?) and also had his own work released under the imprimatur of DG. Unfortunately, St. Carolyn By The Sea, the piece in question, is a great argument against handing prestige recording contracts to any old rocker with some composing skills. Despite the expert husbandry of Andre de Ridder conducting the Copenhagen Philharmonic, nothing could make this music interesting. The recording is not a total waste as it includes a beautifully done concert arrangement of Jonny Greenwood's score from There Will Be Blood.

Dessner's dabblings stand in stark contrast to the rigorous work of Morton Feldman, whose String Quartet 1 was the subject of a definitive recording by the Flux Quartet, along with some of his other string music. I'm not sure this music as been played with more assurance, making this one of the most important string quartet albums in some time. If you like what you hear, check out their recording of Feldman's String Quartet 2, which goes on for over six hours.

On the lighter side, but perhaps no less important, the Nightingale String Quartet continued their traversal of the string quartets of Danish composer Rued Langgaard, who died in 1952 and whose music has been struggling for recognition ever since. Danes themselves, the members of Nightingale have a real sympathy for this music, but don't oversell it. Langgaard's writing has a lovely transparency, like looking through layers of water, and an easy melodicism that may come from some of Denmark's folk traditions. Kudos to the Nightingale for their three volume cycle, now complete, of these sweet sounds.

Soprano Anna Prohaska had a good idea, to create a recital of soldier's songs from composers as varied as Beethoven, Poulanc, Eisler and Ives, among others, and pulls it off beautifully. Eric Schneider's piano underpins her performance, which is emotionally open but never overwrought. Behind The Lines is an exemplar of the kind of intelligent programming we need more of in an age when so many works have been recorded over and over. '

When it comes to Richard Strauss, I tend to dislike the more popular works (all those big 19th century tone poems) but become extremely attached to his other music - the 20th century operas and his smaller works. Christiane Karg, a German soprano, did not have to work very hard to make me fall for Heimliche Aufforderung, her well-selected album of Strauss lieder. Her ease and warmth in these songs is matched by Malcolm Martineau's piano and, even without the rarer numbers, their performance more than justifies yet another Strauss release.

While 75% of baritone Gerald Finley's Shostakovich album is taken up with the Suite On Verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, already beautifully sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (among others), the real news is in his presentation of Six Romances on Verses by English Poets. I was not familiar with this song cycle, but it is prime Shostakovich and Finley inhabits these songs, more than ably accompanied by Thomas Sanderling and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

Whew. How is a discerning listener to keep up with all this stuff? I Care If You Listen magazine was one way I found out about some of these releases, along with the NYT Classical Playlist. Let me know if you have any suggestions along those lines.

Still upcoming: Great EP's of 2014 and Out Of The Past.







Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Of The Rest Of 14: Synths & Who's New (To Me)


Synthesized But Not Synthetic

Thank god Matt Taibbi is back, because Rolling Stone had the worst Best Albums of the Year list of, well, the year. U2, Bruce Springsteen? Only Jan Wenner thought those albums were among the best of 2014. And Taylor Swift at #10? I heard Wenner broke his sacroiliac contorting himself to pander to so many audiences. But one big thing they did get right was putting Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes on there. Much coverage focused on his method of releasing it as a BitTorrent file, but after you've downloaded the thing (you can also get it from Bandcamp) the music is what matters. And the music is very good, with Yorke's angelic tenor sounding better than ever over slightly off-kilter electronic grooves. Perhaps the only thing keeping TMB off my Top 20 was a slight sense of over-familiarity - as if this is pretty much the album we would expect him to make. But if Yorke is content to tread water, I'm happy to paddle next to him in his rarified ocean.

Fans of Washed Out and M83 should also delve into the soundscapes of Michael Hammond, composer, sound-designer, and singer, released under the name No Lands. An arty and ambient take on synth pop (think Talk Talk's Spirit Of Eden), debut album Negative Space is gorgeous and never ceases to be intriguing

Although some reviews seemed to expect dance music from Patten's Estoile Naiant, it was really a series of electronic collages that kept moving forward without resorting to cheap rhythmic techniques. Mouse On Mars is in his DNA, just as Kraftwerk and Neu are in the DNA of Finland's Siinai. Their album Supermarket was expertly executed and focused on telling the story of a trip to, yes, the supermarket. Delightful and eerie in equal measures. When I think of Siinai, I often think of Seekae (something about the vowels), who released two albums in 2014. The Worry, the more song-based of the two, finds him working out some personal stuff over moody and colorful backgrounds. I like his plainspoken voice better than James Blake's and find him less pretentious overall. Find Seekae.

It could be coincidence or it could be the ripple effect of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's Oscar-winning soundtrack to The Social Network, but either way three of the year's most striking electronic albums were also soundtracks. Mica Levi's score to sci-fi art film Under The Skin creates a chilling mental movie using very simple elements. I wouldn't have expected such bleak rigor from the leader of the irritating Micachu & The Shapes, and I hope her dark night of the soul continues. Cliff Martinez of Drive fame is always worth listening to and kudos to the producers of The Knick for going with his anachronistic electronics instead of a period score. As always, Martinez's work is as slippery as a murderous icicle and just as cold. Son Lux has long been a favorite of mine and a nice end-of-year surprise was having his Original Music From And Inspired By: The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby drop on Spotify. Beautiful stuff, on the more ethereal side for him but with that signature feeling of consequence throughout.

I was on the Twigs tip before she was FKA and eagerly awaited her first full-length. As much as I tried, however, I did not swoon for LP1, finding it static and over-thought, although I did like Video Girl. At first I thought part of the problem with her album was that Alejandro Ghersi, better known as Arca, didn't produce the whole thing. His &&&&& EP was so stunning, as was his work on FKA Twigs early EP2 (not to mention the stuff he did for Kanye West on Yeezus), that I thought he could have saved LP1. But then his own album, Xen, came out and it was just as stiff, seeming to wither on the vine while I listened to it. The one highlight was Thievery, which burst from the general torpor with a beat straight from the dancehall. Hopefully Arca and FKA Twigs will get over themselves and serve up something more tasty in the future - they've both got the talent to do it.

Feels Like The Very First Time

Here's a quick rundown of some folks I heard for the first time in 2014 and who I now consider in the club, so to speak. They weren't all new artists but they were new to me.

I loved Courtney Barnett's draggy sound, witty lyrics, dynamite guitar and pure rock'n'roll attitude, all of which suffused the catchy, heartfelt songs on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. After seeing her rip the Bowery Ballroom apart by turning all those qualities up to 11, I know she has an even better record in her. Can't wait.

Eddie Dixon's Bump Key, which I might have found on Bandcamp myself if he hadn't contacted me first, was full of fractured Americana. I've also been having a ball discovering his earlier albums.

I had a wonderful night in Nashville thanks to Wild Ponies and Catherine Ashby and I've really enjoyed reliving it through their recent releases, Things That Used To Shine and Tennessee Tracks. Both records are filled with great music and great potential.

I've long enjoyed Sylvie Simmons writing in Mojo Magazine and elsewhere - who knew that she was hiding her quirky light as a singer-songwriter under a bushel? Her debut album, Sylvie, was beyond charming.

Ian William Craig is an operatically-trained Canadian tenor who knows his way around the studio, seeming to construct the spooky, layered pieces that make up A Turn Of Breath out of scraps of half-remembered sound. Striking stuff.

Richard Dawson has one of the weirdest takes on British folk I've ever heard, torturing an out-of-tune guitar till it bleeds. It's hard to tell if he knows exactly what he's doing on Nothing Important but I can assure you it sounds like nothing else.

Ben Howard's cinematic folk is far more conventional, touching on Coldplay at times, but there is a passionate heart beating underneath it all, and the tracks on his second album, I Forget Where We Were, often build to a real intensity

When Nick Mulvey was a member of the Portico Quartet, they were nominated for a Mercury Prize. He was nominated again for his solo debut, First Mind, which draws on folk, jazz and latin rhythms some of the same nubby-sweater warmth of classic Cat Stevens. His voice is a reassuring burr and he packs a lot of incident, melody and intelligence into his well-arranged songs.


Lastly, TV Girl's French Exit was a fun trip on the lighter side. These guys know their sixties pop and their St. Etienne and put it all together into shiny, smart packages with a faint sense of amusement. Don't let them have all the fun - join in.

What new discoveries did you make this year?



Still to come: Classical & Composed and Out Of The Past.

P.S. Since Thom Yorke hates Spotify as much as Taylor Swift (although perhaps for different reasons (and they're both dead wrong)), he is not represented on the playlist above - don't let that stop you from hearing Tomorrow's Modern Boxes.