Saturday, March 17, 2018

Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations

Here are three tantalizing albums that include compositions combining acoustic instruments with electronics, two of which are also solo debuts by a couple of the finest musicians on the new music scene.

Streya - Olivia De Prato I’ve seen Olivia De Prato perform with Missy Mazzoli and she’s the kind of player that stands out in a crowd, dazzling with her utter command of even the most demanding techniques and the sheer expressive verve she puts into the music. Her work with the adventurous Mivos Quartet, which she founded, has also been exemplary. So, I was delighted when word of this solo debut came over the transom and even happier when I saw it was mostly world-premiere recordings of works written in the last decade. 

The opening piece, Ageha.Tokyo, written by Samson Young, could hardly be more spectacular if fireworks shot out of my earbuds while it played. Starting with some tactile, serrated sounds, De Prato enters with defiant notes which gain momentum and then start to soar as the electronics begin rounding out and growing more melodic. The verse of My Favorite Things threatens to burst out but Young keeps it at bay and things are soon back on the aggressive side. Young named the work after one of the largest gay nightclubs in Tokyo and it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine a beat-driven remix lighting up their dance floor. Young, based in Hong Kong, has a number of intriguing irons in the fire of electronic music and performance art and I’m grateful for this introduction to his world. 

Streya by Victor Lowrie, who plays viola in the Mivos, finds us in more familiar terrain, with De Prato in an angular duet with herself. Circular phrases spin into the ether, replaced by harmonic whistles or sharp strums, as the piece moves toward the anguished romanticism of early Schoenberg. Percorso Insolito is described by Ned Rothenberg as “an adventure in rhythm, space and color,” and it also has a nice meandering, interior quality, like a train of thought that never quite resolves. I know Rothenberg’s work mainly via his earthy sax playing so this was a valuable glimpse of his other interests. 

Taylor Brook’s Wane takes a smart idea - five multi-tracked violins, each in a slightly different tuning - and uses it to spin a kaleidoscopic tale in sound that has as many twists and turns as a good mystery. Rather than a bang-up finish where all is revealed, Brook prefers to leave questions unanswered with a woozy finish that shuffles uncertainly into silence. For more Brook check out the last Mivos album or the TAK Ensemble's Ecstatic Music, which focuses solely on his work. Tanz. Tanz by Reiko Füting is also based on an intellectual construct, in this case a study of the Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita, but maybe only a musicologist would know that from listening. I hear a tightly constricted approach, both in the palette of notes and in the length of the lines, that intrigues due to all it leaves out. The premiere recording of Tanz. Tanz was by Miranda Cuckson on an album of Füting's work released in 2015 called namesErased, which I'm looking forward to investigating.

Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers For Violin closes the album and will undoubtedly leave you wanting more. A distant cousin of her stunning Vespers For A New Dark Age, it has Mazzoli’s characteristically assured electronic textures combined with an incantatory violin part that De Prato brings to life with, as everything here, her wondrous playing and total commitment to the visions of her collaborators. Streya is not only a fantastic debut for De Prato but also an object lesson in how to put together a solo violin record in 2018, from the selection of pieces, to the recording, and even to the artwork - kudos!

For This From That Will Be Filled - Clarice Jensen Like De Prato, cellist Clarice Jensen is known for her role in a group, in her case the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, of which she is also Artistic Director. Somehow in the midst of all the ACME activity, Jensen has managed to assemble this meditative collection, which was originally conceived as an audio-visual performance with artist Jonathan Turner. The album features three works for cello enhanced by effects pedals, other electronics and production, and Turner-produced videos are on the way to add back the visual elements

The first piece, bc, was a collaboration with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, one of the finest film composers of our time who died suddenly last month at the age of 48. Slow, mysterious, almost in the realm of ambient music, bc is a deeply immersive piece that now provides a fitting receptacle for thinking about Jóhannsson's life and work, so unceremoniously cut short. Michael Harrison, whose last works for cello were written for Maya Beiser, contributes Cello Constellations here, a creation for solo cello, 14 pre-recorded cellos and sine tones. There's a lot of math, science and technology behind the 15-minute composition, but as a listening experience it is captivating, with the background of cellos a lush bed for the sparkling sine tones, which light up the mind like the artificial stars in a planetarium show. While there is no reason to make "use" of this music, it is hard to imagine close listening not leading to a sense of calm, at least until the last three minutes, when Harrison allows tension to mount before a slow fade.

The album ends with the title track, composed by Jensen and taking place over two parts. The first is short and darkly elegant, with multiple droning lines and swirling ostinato phrases. It has a structural thread, almost a narrative thrust that pulls you though. The second part is much longer, over 18 minutes, and has a glacial drama to it, with deep organ-like tones and a gradual sense of opening up. By the last third we are adjacent to Romantic and even Baroque territory, with burnished melodies for solo cello. A tape loop of what may be found sound appears in the background, once again lending a sense of story to the sounds. It seems to end in mid-sentence, only adding to the intrigue. But there is nothing unfinished about Jensen's album, which will be released on April 6th. For This From That Will Be Filled is a clear statement of purpose of what the cello can do in several enhanced environments, with a conception that is never less than fascinating and playing and recording that are always sublime.  

John Cage: Electronic Music For Piano - Tania Chen It's hard to imagine a more Cage-ian approach to this monumental half-century-old work. In typical fashion, Cage's "score" leaves a lot up to the performers but it's still rare for musicians to really take the ball and run with it as Chen and her collaborators have done here. Chen, a pianist and improviser, has made Cage a specialty of hers and has assembled the ideal group of collaborators in guitarist Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), multi-instrumentalist and author David Toop (known for being in the Flying Lizards and working with Brian Eno, etc.), and electronic musician Jon Leidecker (Negativeland, among other things). But all of these people never worked together. Instead, Chen recorded three versions of the piece as duos with each of them and then, working with producer Gino Robair, "played the duos simultaneously and, using a chance-based system, selected which sound sources were heard over time." Or not heard: this being Cage, leaving silences - sometimes as long as three minutes - is also part of the landscape.

And how does this all add up for the listener in the final result, which is over an hour long? Like a funhouse, but somehow serious, with tones and textures leaping up out of nowhere, sometimes just raw piano, more often heavily treated or combined instruments, guitar feedback or oscilloscope-derived notes. The stop-start-stop arrangement means that it's never an entirely comfortable experience, even after several listens, but who says art should make you comfortable? Occasionally, there will be a section (from 53:15 - 53:47, for example) that is so satisfying on its own that you will wish it went on for longer. Anyone for a remix album? Or should I fire up Garageband and try some cutting and pasting? I have a feeling that Cage, not to mention Chen and her posse, would actually enjoy the idea of this groundbreaking recording becoming further fodder for yet another creative process. Thanks to Chen, we have one more reminder of what a fertile field Cage's mind was and how its fruits can continue instructing us on what music is and how it can be made. For this, if nothing else, we owe Chen a large debt of gratitude.

For more electro-acoustic experiences, check out this nifty playlist put together by New Sounds.

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Missy Mazzoli: Lush Rigor

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Holly Miranda's Exquisite Mutual Horse

Mutual Horse - Holly Miranda How much of yourself do you reveal to others? If you’re an artist, for example, where does the persona that you present in your creations overlap with your innermost self, and how much do you keep hidden? And, does the level of craft you attain over time make it easier to unleash the full breadth of yourself in your music? Holly Miranda’s third album has me contemplating these deep thoughts - and in her case the answer to that last question seems to be an emphatic YES. On her last, self-titled, record (from 2015 and my number one album from that year) I was astonished at the leap her songwriting had taken. While she was always good, I felt she had finally created a set of songs fully equal to her interpretive gifts as a singer.

It’s not that I thought she would never make a better album, it just that I couldn’t imagine what that would sound like. Well, now I know: Mutual Horse represents a coming together of songwriting, arranging, production and, above all, singing, that puts Miranda at the pinnacle of both her art and the art form she operates within. Even my wife, who has always liked Holly without quite being a believer, starting saying things like “Dusty Springfield. Lucinda Williams. Holly Miranda” - and that was just during her first listen. 

Mutual Horse starts out modestly, with a simple melody played on bells over which Miranda sings “I was asleep/I don’t know how long I’d been out,” - giving that last word an edge, just a hint of what’s to come. After a full verse over the bells, she makes good on that promise, dropping the hammer with a huge descending chorus. Then, just as the last echo of Wherever You Are is still resonating, some disconnected sounds arise out of the void, soon exploding into the roadhouse stomp of Golden Spiral, a great showcase for longtime collaborator Maria Eisen’s baritone sax. It absolutely slew the crowd when Miranda opened with it at Union Pool last summer, and while the studio version adds a kaleidoscope of details and dub techniques it does so without sacrificing any of the song's elemental power. 

That one-two punch that opens the album is a good microcosm of the methods behind Mutual Horse, which finds Miranda and producer Florent Barbier crafting widely varied settings for each track, serving the songs with exquisite sensitivity to all their nuances. The results lead to sonic worlds unlike anything we’ve heard from Holly previously. Towers, for example, sounds like a transmission from a dead city radio, with Holly’s distorted vocal murmurs accompanied by Jonathan Ullman’s ticky-tack drumsticks and a drone from Eisen’s sax. Then there’s Mr. Fong's, a glammed-out fantasia that starts with some dark Duane Eddy guitar twang over which Holly sings a line both threatening and absurd: “Thinking of starting a war/Hiding receipts in the underwear drawer,” before sheepishly admitting she’s been “spending too much time at Mr. Fongs.” The chorus, when it eventually comes, is fantastic: a choir of voices (including Shara Nova, AKA My Brightest Diamond) singing “I dream in full color/ But your daylight moves me sideways,” in gloriously odd harmonies. If you follow Miranda’s Instagram, you know she has a wicked sense of humor - it’s wonderful to hear her letting some of that into her music. 

Having doses of surrealism like Mr. Fongs or Golden Spiral, with its donkey parked outside a 7-11, leavens the overall mood of the album, which has plenty of direct hits of emotion in songs like To Be Loved (“Only wanted to love and to be loved” - life goals), All Of The Way, Do You Recall, Let Her Go, which is at least partially informed by the death of her mother in 2018, just a month before the album came out, and others. There are also moments of pure love, like Exquisite, a tribute to her friendship with Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio, which he co-wrote and to which he also lends his quavery tenor. The level of craft displayed by everyone involved keeps all the naked emotions from feeling like oversharing, which should be instructive for some less-skilled artists whose songs feel like Snapchat posts that should have remained private and then allowed to disappear. 

Miranda’s genius with the songs of others is also featured here in the rescue operation she performs on Neil Young’s When Your Lonely Heart Breaks, from his mostly forgotten 1987 album Life. Over a percussion arrangement that's a cross between a samba and a marching band, Miranda delivers Young’s lyrics like an incantation, as if singing them was an act of self-care, willing herself - and us - to survive devastation. The only equivalent I can think of is Gavin Friday’s resurrection of Dylan’s Death Is Not The End, which was buried on Down In The Groove. Making a version of a song that's already beloved is the easy way out; true artists like Friday and Miranda have a different radar when it comes to finding songs to sing.

Finally, a note about Miranda’s singing. It seems like nearly every other song on Mutual Horse has her finding new places in her voice, like the liquid falsetto of On The Radio, or the sheer power of the opening track. But she’s not learning while doing; all of these expressive tools are wielded with command and confidence, allowing the listener to access the feelings behind them without being overwhelmed. Themes of sleep and dreaming have always been present in her music so it might be overly glib to say Holly Miranda seems more fully awake on Mutual Horse than on previous albums. But until her next release, that's what I'm going with. As Lou Reed said in What's Good: "Life's like forever becoming," and Mutual Horse is a magnificent manifestation of Holly Miranda's becoming.

Join me at Park Church Co-Op on March 22nd to celebrate the release of this wonderful album and wish her well before she leaves on a month-long European tour.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Words + Music, Part 2: Scott Johnson And Alarm Will Sound

In Part 1 of this mini-series, I looked at Landfall by Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, which sprinkled her wry and poetic storytelling amongst gorgeously dark strings and electronics. Here we have something quite different from a former collaborator with Anderson that also puts words and music together in intriguing ways.

Mind Out Of Matter - Scott Johnson and Alarm Will Sound Scott Johnson dropped two bombshell albums in the 80’s that have been in my musical DNA ever since. The first was John Somebody (1986), which I read about in the New York Times and bought without hearing a note. More than three decades later its introduction of Johnson’s brilliant method of turning speech into music has not lost its capacity to startle and delight. What he does is meticulously notate the intrinsic melodies in natural speech, and then use those melodic fragments as the seeds of wild fantasias incorporating the instrumentation and techniques of both rock and classical music, with a focus on his proggy and dense guitar chords and arpeggios. 

That description doesn’t do justice how John Somebody turns a banal party conversation (“You know who’s in New York? You remember that guy - the - he was sort of a, sort of a...) into sheer wonder, a feat repeated on the other pieces on the album, including one which uses laughter as its inspiration. Perhaps even more surprising was that Johnson was able to adapt his methods to create the soundtrack for Patty Hearst (1988), Paul Schrader’s spooky evocation of the newspaper heiress’s forced adventure with the Symbionese Liberation Army. The theme took the late Natasha Richardson’s voice from the film, as she (as Hearst) calls for her parents from the closet in which the SLA has confined her: “Mom? Dad?” It’s as haunting and indelible as those “la la la’s” from Rosemary’s Baby. 

Both records were in high rotation and I was even lucky enough to see Johnson perform John Somebody at Lincoln Center, which included probably the most six-string shredding that august institution had ever experienced to that point. After Patty Hearst, however, I lost touch with Johnson’s work, partly due to things happening in my own life and to the sporadic nature of his output. That’s why I missed a step in the evolution of his approach, namely the idea that he could use his speech-to-music method to deliver content as well as melodic inventions. If this description sounds slightly dry, that’s a reflection the one early example I found, How It Happens, which is a multi-movement work for string quartet and the voice of I.F. Stone, the legendary journalist. Even with Kronos Quartet sawing away dutifully and Stone spouting some interesting notions, it’s a lackluster affair. Maybe that’s why Kronos chose to sprinkle it among a few albums rather than devoting a whole release to it. Americans, from 2010, is far more successful, a dense and angry treatise on stereotyping and prejudice. I highly recommend one of our major ensembles revive this important work, so relevant to our times.

Mind Out Of Matter, based on a lecture by Tufts professor Daniel C. Dennett, is however a further evolutionary step, a leap even, in Johnson's craft. First there’s the music, performed with both precision and sparkle by the virtuosi of Alarm Will Sound, one of the finest new music ensembles around. While Johnson in his liner notes repeats his mission statement of combining both the instruments and traditions of rock and classical music, I hear an alternate lineage to the sound world of MOOM, namely that of composed jazz. This was the short-lived movement that grew out of the sessions by Miles Davis and Gil Evan that became The Birth Of The Cool. The main protagonists were people like Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, and even my old favorite Kenyon Hopkins. They took the sound and instrumentation of jazz and used it to create through-composed pieces devoid of significant improvisation. Check out Giuffre’s The Train And The River or Hopkins’s ballet score Rooms for some notable examples. 

So, while there is some of Johnson’s trademark guitar (played here by Caleb Burhans), alternately snarling, twanging or suspending chords like Pete Townshend, the woodwinds and brass dominate the overall texture. There’s also marimba and piano, percussion and a drum kit, and the rhythms are firmly in a jazz mode, never getting into a 4/4 rock groove, although there are touches of Latin-tinged funk. Take the first movement, Cow Design, which kicks off with a brass fanfare that quickly grows knotty, bolstered by the woodwinds and guitar and pushed along by the drums. It’s immediately involving and then there’s a hard stop to allow Dennett to enter with his first line: “Who designed this cow?” 

Chuckle if you like, but what follows is no joke as the professor goes on to compare how modern cows evolved from aurochs to the way “Religions started out wild and then were domesticated.” This being Johnson, however, there are strategically repeated lines, melodic development based on those repetitions, counterpoint reacting to those melodies, variations building on those melodies, and almost imperceptible segues to the next nugget of musical and spoken information. When you consider that Dennett, intellectually dynamic as he is, is not an especially melodious speaker, MOOM becomes more and more like a high wire act, and a spectacularly successful one at that. 

You may be excused for wondering if this content-heavy piece bears repeated listening, or if you extract everything of value from it at once, like a tea bag, and subsequent hearings just grow more diluted. MOOM is fundamentally a musical work and I think you would be doing both it and yourself a disservice if you approached from that point of view. I have found it nearly endlessly enjoyable to just let it go by, absorbing soundbites here and there, letting Dennett’s ideas take shape in my mind as if by osmosis. 

And what ideas! This is one of our great minds, synthesizing biology, anthropology, evolution and technology into a wonderfully original theory about the roots of religion, comparing it to everything from memes, to the common cold, and to parasites which hijack ants to colonize large mammals. For example, in the movement Good For Itself he says: “Every human group has religion, so it must be good for something. Every human group that’s ever been studied also has the common cold. What’s that good for? It’s good for itself. The common cold evolved because it can evolve. It’s not good for anything else, it just evolved because it can evolve. And ideas can evolve because they can evolve, too. They don’t have to be good for anything. The fact that they are universal only shows that they do a very good job of living in that particular ecological niche.” Heady stuff, indeed, and rich food for thought. 

You’re probably figuring out by now that Dennett’s view, while clear-eyed and respectful, is ultimately atheistic. This aligns with Johnson’s views (and mine), which he has promulgated in various essays over the years. Suffice to say that if you are not secure enough in your own beliefs to have them challenged, you might find yourself offended by some of what Dennett says. But more likely you will learn something no matter what your level of orthodoxy - and you may even find yourself feeling a bit of anthropocentric pride in the uniquely human development of belief systems. 

The final movement is called Awe, which begins with some ruminative, starlit sounds before Dennett enters: “The traditional accompaniment to awe is a sense of mystery. But we know that there is another kind of awe, which is accompanied not by mystery but dawning understanding.” And: “The idea that if you remove the mystery from the world, you remove the sources of awe, it’s just an obsolete idea. Modern understanding of the world is more awe-inspiring by orders of magnitude than the old mythological, threadbare visions of several thousand years ago.” I couldn’t agree more and my awe is now directed at Alarm Will Sound, conducted by Alan Pierson, for their perfect performance of a difficult work, and at Johnson for his alchemical work of creation, which probably shouldn't work as well as it does. There are some mysteries and miracles left in the world after all.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Words + Music, Part 1: Laurie Anderson And Kronos Quartet

This mini-series will cover two 2018 releases that combine words and music in unconventional ways. Both are by veteran artists who have found ways to stay in touch with the flame of inspiration that attracted our attention in the first place.

Landfall - Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet Laurie Anderson is a maverick performer and composer, a wonderful presence on the avant garde scene, and has always been on the side of right. I was also charmed and amazed by her marriage to Lou Reed - the ultimate downtown romance - and will forever feel indebted to her for the way she handled his death on so many levels. However,  since I saw a picture of her in a 1980's Life Magazine playing her violin with a bow made of magnetic tape, I have been more fascinated by the idea of Anderson than by her music. That ends here. From the first searching melody that opens the album, Anderson and the Kronos Quartet drew me into an immersive sound world, a place of sorrow, wit and mystery, that continues almost without pause for the work's 70-minute length. The mood of loss is pervasive, even if you aren't aware that Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath provided the main inspiration for the composition.

Naturally, strings are the main instruments, with Kronos executing Anderson's dark magic seamlessly alongside her violin and electronics. Also as expected, there is a spoken word element, although  less than on her some of her other albums. Anderson is such a master of pitched speech that you can choose whether or not to engage with what she's speaking about depending on your mood. If you do pay attention, you'll find that sometimes she addresses the storm head-on, as in Our Street Is A Black River: "October 2012. The river had been rising all day and the hurricane was coming up slowly from the south. We watched as the sparkling black river crossed the park and then the highway, and then came silently up our street. From above, Sandy was a huge swirl. It looked like a galaxy whose name I didn't know."

Other sections are more oblique, like a brief treatise on why people shouldn't tell you their dreams, which includes a dream-like tale of a naked man recording a flute solo into multiple microphones, which cover his body like flies. There's also We Learn To Speak Yet Another Language, which has a non-sequitur anecdote (or another dream?) about trying sing a song in Korean in a Dutch karaoke bar, "when the software crashed." The way she massages the word "crashed" is a synecdoche of her wondrous approach. The longest track, Nothing Left But Their Names, is also a vocal tour de force, which is remarkable when you consider her voice is processed to sound like a man in witness protection throughout its nine-plus minutes. The subject of this robot soliloquy, among others things, concerns a book "about all the animal species that have disappeared off the face of the earth," including "massive numbers of civets, big subsets of spotted lizards, every last mastodon," even "fifteen whole chapters on sloths."

If this remarkable piece wasn't already haunting, it gets truly spine-tingling near the end when Anderson says, "But you know the reason that I really that we cannot hurt them. We can't burn them, we can't melt them, or make them overflow. We can't flood them or blow them up, or turn them out. But we are reaching for them...we are reaching for them." You may want to pause the track and let this sink in. Then she goes on: "And, ah yes, the moon and the stars are up there, like acquaintances I had always meant to befriend. Yes, I meant to learn their names, but for various reasons having to do with lack of time and lack of ambition I never did do that. So they remained up in the sky, as nameless as if we'd never been here at all." Good lord - it truly has to be heard to be believed. There is a beautiful four-note melody that threads through the song, bare consolation for the feelings of existential dread conjured by Anderson's omniscient narrator.

Anderson and Kronos have been touring Landfall since at least 2015, with the addition of text on projected backgrounds classifying it as a multimedia work. It would be easy to think that some of the unresolved narratives or loose musical threads are due to the lack of any extra-musical elements here, however I prefer to live with the ambiguity or reach out with my own experiences to close the circuit. The only segment that yanks me out of Landfall's dream-state is Never What You Think It Will Be, which seems to be a refugee from the bad side of the 80's, with tinny strings and clumsy drums. But it's only 1:11, so I'll probably just skip it from now on. Aside from that minor stumble, Landfall is a new pinnacle in two careers full of high points and one of the most compelling albums of the year.

Next time: Mind Out Of Matter by Scott Johnson and Alarm Will Sound.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Moment Of Palm

There was a funny moment before Palm started their set at Market Hotel last week. They were supposed to go on at 10:30, but things were running a little late as they had to change over the stage from the previous band. The packed house watched and waited respectfully, but in a high-key of anticipation, until finally it seemed as if all systems were go. Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt, who both sing and play guitar, had tuned their instruments and set up some compact electronics. Drummer Hugo Stanley had arranged his kit, including an electronic drum pad, to his liking, and bassist Gerasimos Livitsanos had his Hofner "Beatle" bass ready. I literally inhaled, ready for the explosion of sound, when, without any kind of visible communication between them, the band walked off the stage, back through the audience, to parts unknown. "Where'd they go?" I said to the woman next to me, but she was equally baffled.

Somehow, that little moment exemplified what a tight unit and how secure in themselves as a band Palm is now, qualities that were only more on display when they returned a few minutes later and launched into Pearly, the lead track from Rock Island, their excellent new album. That song has been around a while so a roar went up when Stanley triggered the loop that starts the song and every stop-start-stop was echoed in the dancing of the throng, me included. While a recent performance on Soundcheck was a little stiff, there was no hesitation about getting into to the groove onstage. In fact, they were even more supple in concert than on the album, while still remaining furiously locked in. Part of the experience was the sound, of course, with Livitsanos's bass rich and thick, burbling along with each stroke of his thumb, and Stanley's bass drum punching me in the chest.

Even though there's a lot of tricky rhythms and mind-boggling repetitions, everything felt effortless throughout the show. That was partly due to Stanley’s facility, delivering the drum parts with a feeling of planned unpredictability, like a cross between Tony Williams and a classical percussionist. The lightness of the songs themselves also seemed to buoy the band, and by extension the audience, along on wave after wave of bright, shiny guitars and electronics, with sugary vocals by Alpert or Kurt as the icing on top. While Palm hasn't quite reached the hypnotic heights of Stereolab, who knew a thing or two about repetition, or the polyrhythmic proficiency of Talking Heads for that matter, I did find myself having a similar ecstatic response to Palm, closing my eyes and losing myself in the music. 

“This is our biggest show,” Alpert told us during her humble words of thanks near the end of the night, confirming my observation that Palm is having their moment. Between this concert and Rock Island (not to mention last year’s Shadow Expert EP, also great) I'm amazed at how far Palm have come from being a Slint-obsessed curiosity just a few years ago to being an essential band, even reinventing the two-guitars-bass-drums template for our era. Let their moment become yours; their month-long American tour starts on February 16th and then it’s on to Europe. 

The concert was presented by Ad Hoc, and the overall lineup seemed a little, well, ad hoc. Rapper and producer (and PhD student) Sammus opened the show and her lush beats, smart rhymes and winning personality made her ideal to warm up the room, even if there was no obvious crossover to Palm’s universe. She sang a little, shaded into spoken word at times and rapped with flexibility and nuance, although her voice was a little hoarse from a cold. I bet she made a few new fans, who will hopefully track down her fine 2016 album, Pieces In Space

Melkbelly, an arty punk-metal band from Chicago held down the middle spot, employing their two guitars, bass and drums in a far more conventional manner than Palm, often appearing to employ heaviness for its own sake. Sometimes the grinding guitars and shrieking vocals were a little amusing to me, but the band's complete lack of irony seemed to be reflected in the crowd, who cheered enthusiastically. No doubt, Melkbelly are good at what they do, but none of it had the inevitability of greatness. Also, Ad Hoc broke a cardinal concert rule by having an opening act louder than the headliner. Thank god for my Ear Peace ear plugs (unpaid endorsement!), which allowed me to retain enough stereocilia to fully enjoy all the details of Palm’s set. 

I also dug the music between sets, which was an on-point mix of post-punk funk and dance punk, keeping the crowd happily moving even when Palm went AWOL for a few minutes. The overall vibe of Market Hotel was good, too, gritty and welcoming, with the almost silent theater of the passing trains adding to the urban flair. There was a free beer tasting, which made some people happy since there was no alcohol for sale. That lack might have also helped the bands, as the merch table was very busy after the show. I waited my turn and got the t-shirt AND the vinyl. It was that kind of concert and I expect more transcendent moments from Palm in the future. 

P.S. Aren't you glad I didn't call this "Palm Before The Storm"?

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Saturday, February 03, 2018

Record Roundup: One Day In 2018

Having burrowed deep into the best of 2017 in my recent posts, I now emerge blinking into the light of a new year, which means more music to discover. I wiped the slate clean by archiving all my “Of Note” playlists (see list below), and started filling them up again immediately. Instead of focusing on one area, as I usually do in these roundups, here's what one day of listening to only new releases might look like, one month in to 2018.

The Morning Commute

Jonny Greenwood - Phantom Thread I may be one of the few who does not revere filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, but I have long admired his collaboration with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who has worked on the scores for his last several movies. Starting with There Will Be Blood, this has led to some of the most compelling soundtrack albums of the last decade or so. My favorite might be Inherent Vice, with its fascinating mixture of Greenwood’s Herrmann-esque cues and mostly obscure global pop. With Phantom Thread, Greenwood continues the streak, resulting in another immersive listening experience that stands on its own. 

While some of my impressions may change after seeing the movie (which also includes music by Debussy, etc.), it was only a few minutes into my first listen before I was reveling in Greenwood’s ability to turn the abstractions of melody and orchestration into what felt like a meditation on memory and emotion. Composing mainly for strings, with well-placed harp, piano and percussion, Greenwood has created several themes and variations that feel elementally human, easy to grasp but with depth and nuance. 

For the first ten tracks, it feels like Greenwood (and presumably Anderson) is probing, exploring, drawing outlines and making connections. Then, when he brings the hammer down in Phantom Tread III, its baroque grandeur is shattering. Everything afterwards feels like an uneasy detente. But that’s just a guess at a narrative, letting my mind drift on a crowded A Train on the way to work. Your results may vary, but that you will likely be captivated. The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences certainly was, so I will be rooting for Greenwood to win that elusive Oscar for best soundtrack on March 4th. 

At My Desk: I

Johnny Gandelsman - J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Gandelsman, a member of both Brooklyn Rider and the Silk Road Ensemble, sought out Bach's solo pieces to "focus inward" and find his own voice again after years of collaborations with musicians and composers from around the world. After several concerts he found himself growing into the works in such a way that he felt recording them would allow him to dig deeper into this epochal music. I'm glad he did, as even a brief survey of violin performances did not turn up one that was nearly as satisfying as what Gandelsman has given us here. The first thing I noticed was the rhythmic acuity, with phrases shaped to respect their melodicism but also the dance forms on which many of them are based.

The melodies themselves are presented without frills, giving a sense of the age of the music, which was after all borne out of a mind raised on folk songs and hymns. Everything from tempo to intonation seems dedicated to bringing the music to joyful life, rather than just paying homage to the master. The recording itself is also excellent, close and crisp but not without warmth. The liveliness and forward motion in both the performances and music prove to be a perfect accompaniment to cleaning out my inbox on a Monday morning. After about an hour, however, my inbox is empty and I find myself craving a change. Perfect timing, as the first disc is over - now I have more Bach to look forward to tomorrow.

Further Listening: If wanted a completely different single instrument experience, I might put on Matteo Liberatore's Solos, 12 adventurous, mostly improvised pieces for acoustic guitar. Liberatore's lack of interest in convention has him using everything from alligator clips to a bass drum pedal to elicit a vertiginous variety of sounds out of his instrument. Some songs are more rambling than others, but the tactile quality of the music is never less than fascinating. Try the fractured lyricism of Causeway if you just want to dip a toe. 

At My Desk: II

Hollie Cook - Vessel of Love While it has been nearly four years since Cook's last album, I admit I barely noticed the gap. That's because I never stopped listening to either her heavenly self-titled debut (2011) or the equally addictive follow up, Twice (2014). Both albums featured masterful Jamaican rhythms constructed by Prince Fatty, providing a perfect setting for Cook's high, airy soprano and her tales of loves found and lost and found again. I'm a big enough fan that I was slightly concerned when I heard she had not only switched labels, from world and dance-centric Mr. Bongo to all-American Merge Records, but also changed producers, from Prince Fatty to Youth. Now, Youth has had a fascinating career - bass player for Killing Joke, producer of everyone from Bananarama to Paul McCartney - and also knows his way around reggae and dub, hence the only minor worry.

Fortunately, any trepidation was for nought and I'm happy to report that while Vessel Of Love represents a slight update to Cook's sound, it's still in the same lane as the delightful "tropical pop" for which she is known. That update is mainly reflected in the density of Youth's tracks, with keyboards and horns stacked tall in the grooves, which seem a little less retro than Prince Fatty's approach. Fatty is not totally absent, however, as all the drum tracks were sampled from one of his beat packs. Youth's post-punk past is also reflected in the participation of two original members of Public Image Ltd., Jah Wobble, who plays bass on four songs, and Keith Levene, who plays guitar on one. Wobble is especially titanic on the spacey Lunar Addition, seemingly pulling notes out of deep craters of sound. But most of the playing is by Cook's excellent road band and all is subservient to her vision. Her singing is better than ever, too, richer and more confident. If you're not hooked after listening to the sublime Freefalling or Survive, I can't help you. I know I chugged through nearly an hour of proposal-writing with a lightness of spirit thanks to drinking deeply from Cook's Vessel of Love.

Note: Hollie Cook is on tour, touching down in New York on March 23rd.

Further Listening: If I wanted to continue in the Jamaican groove, Overdubbed by Sly And Robbie Meet Dubmatix would more than do the trick. A series of tracks by one of the ultimate rhythm sections repurposed by a Toronto-based reggae maven, Overdubbed is never less than funky and occasionally whips up a storm of echoes that approaches critical mass. Boom.

Coffee Time

Shame - Songs Of Praise I recently wrote about how some bands influenced by post-punk seem rotely imitative while other take the ball and run with it. Shame is in the latter group, a South London quintet who have done their homework with bands like The Fall (RIP Mark E. Smith!), Wire, Gang Of Four, Killing Joke, etc., and figured out ways to recombine all that wondrous DNA into something fresh. They also cite Eddy Current Suppression Ring, a noisy Aussie band that made a splash about a decade ago but whom you don’t hear much about these days. 

Not only does Shame know their history, but they also grasp the crucial importance of a tight rhythm section, and both bassist and drummer keep it locked while also finding room for creativity and even swing. The guitarists also divvy up responsibilities wisely, spraying off either gritty chords or sparkling melody for a heady blend. Concrete and Friction are two songs that exemplify this approach and the latter has some their most interesting lyrics. “Do you ever help the helpless,” sings Charlie Steen in the first of a series of questions most likely directed at himself. “Do you give them any time? Do you ever bully your conscience and detach from your mind?” The answer seems to be mostly “maybe,” which is fine - the boys in Shame are still young. 

Look, I don’t want to oversell Songs Of Praise. Shame are not the second coming. But this is a damned good rock album, with energy and invention to burn, and the promise of more and even better sounds to come. Just the thing to help me power through the end of the day, when I’m caffeinating and need to clear my head get stuff done before hitting the road home. 

Note: Catch Shame live in their New York debut on March 23 at Market Hotel - yes, the same night as Hollie Cook! - or find a date near you. 

Further Listening: If I needed to keep cranking, I might play Open Here by Field Music or Rock Island by Palm. Both are filled with dense, shiny, optimistic song constructs that will make you sit up in your chair. Further listening is necessary to say much more than that, but it's obvious that these are records that will sustain me throughout the year. Palm's album comes out February 9th - come celebrate that night at Market HotelHolly Miranda also has a new album on the way and Golden Spiral, the latest single, is a glammy stomp with enough brute force to power a semi truck up a steep grade. Pre-order Mutual Horse here or pick up a copy at the release show on March 22nd at Park Church Co-Op

The Evening Commute

Maya Baiser - The Day This new album by “cello goddess” Beiser weds two post-9/11 compositions by David Lang, World To Come (2003) and The Day (2016). The newer piece was conceived by Beiser and Lang as a prequel of sorts, a meditation on the quotidian, all the varieties of experience that could be reflected in the lives of this who died on that tragic day. The Day features a spoken word text based on a Google search Lang did to complete the sentence “I remember the day that I...” The memories ranged from “I got into college,” and “I saw the advertisement” to “I heard he was tragically killed,” and “I realized my children had ruined my dreams,” a truly full range of recollections. Read crisply by actress Kate Valk and arranged alphabetically, the words can recede or come to the foreground depending on your attention. Either way, combined with the dark melodies of Beiser’s multi-tracked cello, it’s haunting and startlingly effective. 

World to Come also includes vocals, Beiser accompanying herself by singing syllables, sometimes just tuned percussive breaths, while playing Lang’s searching, interweaved cello lines. As in the first piece, Beiser’s playing is virtuosic and it is hard to imagine a better, more committed version of either work. In a recent live performance at Paula Cooper Gallery, Beiser’s immersion was obvious and some of the more melodic gestures seemed bigger and more shapely, even romantic. Both Lang and Beiser have stayed connected to the cello’s humanity in these works, making for a richly emotional experience. The use of pre-recorded cello was slightly distracting in the live context, but on the album there’s no reason to even think about the mechanics behind this gorgeous music. There are future performances in the works, some featuring a dance component, so keep an eye on Beiser's calendar. Unless the book I’m reading is totally gripping, I might just let my mind drift with the music as the A train fills up and empties again on its way to the last stop. 

Dinner Time

SiR - November This album is not much longer than SiR’s excellent EP from last year, but it further develops his vision of spare, futurist R&B. There’s a vague theme of space travel - at one point we are informed that there are 33 trillion kilometers left on our journey - but it’s mostly relationship jams, of an either edgy (Something Foreign) or cozy (Something New) variety. It’s a pretty seamless listen, with only I Know marked for deletion due to its irritating hook. SiR also has wit, which makes some of his occasionally retrograde views go down easier. The mostly mellow November provides a fine accompaniment to the clink of knives and forks on China as my wife and I catch up on the events of the day over a meal. 

SiR is part of the TDE crew, along with Kendrick Lamar and SZA, and will join them and others on the Championship Tour, which is sure to be one of the highlights of the spring concert season. Find a date near you

Further Listening: If its my turn to make dinner, I might throw on #1 by Guy One, the first album this Ghanaian singer and bandleader has made outside of a remote corner of his country. His form of music is called Frafra, but this is "Frafra made in Berlin," where it was produced by Max Weissenfeldt, who's known for his work with everyone from Jimi Tenor (Finland) to Alemayehu Eshete (Ethiopia). This translates into songs that start in a modest, even disjointed, fashion before developing into dense, world-beating grooves that you wish would never end. Everything You Do, You Do For Yourself is the only song with English lyrics, but it’s really about the interaction between Guy and the backing singers, as they find new ways to call and respond while the drums, horns and keyboards combine into a tasty stew. Vortex by Wayne Escoffery is the tenor sax player's most furiously involving album yet, fueled by his rage at the direction of this country after the 2016 election. Backed by a stellar group (David Kikoski - piano, Ugonna Okegwo - bass, and Ralph Peterson, Jr. - drums, plus a few guests) and playing mostly original tunes, Escoffery proves that if you're passionate enough you can create mind-blowing jazz while still firmly in the post-bop mainstream. Who’s cooking now?

After Dinner

Ethan Woods - Mossing Around As I learned at the record release show for this vinyl-only EP, Woods has a bit of a following. I had only known him as someone who sang backup with Ocean Music on occasion, but he filled the room at C'mon Everybody with enthusiastic fans, who snapped up every last copy of the three-song 10 inch. Woods, who also performs as Rokenri, is definitely a singular presence, creating a mood that is alternately wacky and spiritual, spinning tales backed by his guitar, Aaron Smith's laptop, and Alice Tolan-Mee's keyboard and violin. Call it "chamber-freak-folk-tronica," if you must call it something. The EP perfectly replicates the atmosphere, as it was all caught live on a field recorder by Richard Aufrichtig, who also put it out on his King Of Truth Records. At the moment, my favorite song on the EP is Alone, with a deeply meditative groove that affects my breathing and slows me down, just the thing for the end of the day. 

We usually catch up on TV after dinner, but Mossing Around is the perfect length for that space where we're finishing up what needs to get done before we crank up Netflix or whatever. I wish you could hear it (maybe I should host a listening party!), but the best thing I can say is to keep an eye on Woods as his next full-length album, entitled Burnout, will be out sometime in 2018 - and presumably with wider availability. Maybe some of these songs will be reprised there, but either way it's bound to be interesting!

How's your 2018 going so far, musically speaking? Let me know what you're listening to and keep up everything I'm paying attention to by following one or all of the playlists below.

Of Note In 2018 Playlists
Of Note In 2018 - Includes all the tracks in the genre-specific lists
Of Note In 2018 (Classical)
Of Note In 2018 (Electronic)
Of Note In 2018 (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
Of Note In 2018 (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
Of Note In 2018 (Reissues)

The 2017 Archive
2017 Archive (Of Note)
2017 Archive (Classical)
2017 Archive (Electronic)
2017 Archive (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
2017 Archive (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
2017 Archive (Reissues)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Best Of 2017: Rock, Folk, Etc.

By the end of 2017, this was the biggest category of all the ones I was tracking. This was partly due to it being a catchall for everything that didn’t fit elsewhere, but it was also just a good year for rock and folk music. Not only was my Top 25 dominated by it, including bands like The Clientele, The Courtneys, Spoon, Hiss Golden Messenger, Warhaus, etc., but my listening was as well. Whether seeking catharsis or comfort, it was often something from this realm that hit the mark. And if you’re still debating the medical status of guitar-based artists, you’ll find plenty of signs of life below. First,  some of the excellent albums I covered in previous posts but couldn’t shoehorn into the Top 25.

Beck - Colors
Iron & Wine - Beast Epic

Historian - Expanse
Mastodon - Emperor of Sand

These artists were on the included Epic Tracks playlist, which also had great songs from The Feelies and LCD Soundsystem among others - maybe you’ll like the rest of their albums more than I did. 

Versing - Nirvana Yes, it’s very cheeky for a band from Seattle to call their album Nirvana, but this is no Kurt Cobain homage. What we have here is a four-piece, two-guitar steamroller with touches of Kraut-and math rock. When I saw them open for The Courtneys at Park Church Co-Op, they were drilled and tight as hell, gaining confidence and even swagger from that solid foundation of technique. My instant reaction was that these guys have worked really hard and now they’re ready. Are you?

Wire - Silver/Lead So many bands draw on Wire’s influence (Versing, for one) that it seems almost unfair that they’re still making records this good forty years on from their debut. Silver/Lead is the fourth release since their last lineup change and it’s just a hairsbreadth off from the standard they set with Change Becomes Us in 2010. So that means all the sleek interleaved guitars and hypnotic rhythms you could ask for, married to insinuating melodies delivered in an almost conspiratorial whisper. And is that nearly a love song I hear in Forever & a Day, with Graham Lewis crooning “Ooooh I want you to stay”? Maybe you CAN teach old post-punks new tricks. 

Ulrika Spacek - Modern English Decoration Two guitars? Driving rhythms?  Wire influence? Two guys named Rhys? Check, check, check and check! In short, a very modern English rock band, and a very good one. This is their second album and if you heard The Album Paranoia, their debut from 2016, you pretty much know what to expect. It’s nice that there are still some things we can count on these days.

UV-TV - Glass The post-punk dream is also alive for this Florida trio, who work up an impressive storm of sound for a three-piece. The best songs have Rose Vastola on lead vocals - she's a force of nature - but there's only a slight let-down when Ian Bernacett takes the mike. By managing to sound more original and fresh than some others mining this territory (Omni, Preoccupations) they not only got my attention but kept it.

Self Defense Family - Wounded Masculinity Just for song titles alone, SDF is always worth keeping an eye out for and this four-song EP and the single Bastard Form are no exception. Musically speaking, the first is late-night, spoken-word musings with skeletal backing, like outtakes by The Doors but without Jim Morrison's grandiosity. Mary Devoured By Horses is especially cinematic and haunting, Lynchian, even. Bastard Form is also subdued but high-tension, with a steady pulse on both songs. One could question why the band hasn't put out an album since 2015, when they usually release nearly "enough" songs each year. The answer is that they have become masters of the short-form collection, which is only further borne out by 2017's releases.

Palm - Shadow Expert By honing their sound - mathy rhythms, post-minimalist guitars, sweet vocals - and their songs, this Philly foursome has come up with their most impressive release yet in this six-song EP. Rock Island, their second LP, drops February 9th, 2018 and if they can maintain the quality it should be truly extraordinary.

Crumb - Locket This is another band that just keeps getting better and better, with their jazzy, exploratory sound meshing perfectly with singer/guitarist Lila Ramani's smoky deadpan. Four songs are not enough when they are this woozily delightful. They must have more material, as they are going on an extensive tour this spring, so here's hoping an album is coming in the near future.

Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology Hypnotic rhythms power Weaver's songs, which draw inspiration from the Velvet Underground, Can and The Walker Brothers circa Nite Flights - a sure sign of great taste - but her light touch is all her own.

Chastity Belt - I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone While it may be a cheap comparison to lump these Seattle rockers together with The Courtneys just because they’re both all-girl bands, the fact remains that they provide similar satisfactions: tuneful, chiming guitars, driving rhythms, clear, honest singing. Now, Chastity Belt is not yet the unstoppable force The Courtneys have become, but the way they continue to grow up in public makes for compelling listening on several levels. I’m rooting for them - they’re just the turn of a key (sorry) from greatness.

Diet Cig - Swear I'm Good At This I've been following this guitar and drums duo since it seemed like they were more of an idea than a band. Now, they are an unexpectedly polished music-supervisor's dream, with great tunes and up-to-the minute lyrics (Link In Bio, etc.). I truly admire how hard they've worked and the album is a feast of fun - but I might get hungry again soon.

Angel Olson - Phases This grab-bag of covers, outtakes and previously uncollected songs occasionally finds Olson slipping into vocal mannerisms. But it's mostly another example, like 2016's My Woman, of her imperious, phenomenal power as both a singer and a songwriter. 

Jen Cloher - Jen Cloher When an artist releases a self-titled album in the middle of their career, it usually signals some kind of reinvention or at least a request for reevaluation. Smart move on Cloher's part, as not only does she have more attention on her now as the partner of Courtney Barnett (in love and in their company, Milk! Records), but this is also her most assured - she calls it "honest" - album yet. Barnett helps out on guitar and vocals but the songs are all by Cloher and they reveal a keenly observant and emotionally connected songwriter. She also knows the power of the groove, as evidenced by Analysis Paralysis, which locks into that Velvet Underground swing and doesn't let up for almost eight glorious minutes. I was not a fan of Lotta Sea Lice, Barnett's collaboration with Kurt Vile, but I am happy to report that at least one great album came out of their little corner of Melbourne in 2017.

Warbly Jets - Warbly Jets This is that other kind of self-titled album, a debut, and the two word review is: It rocks! Big riffs, bigger choruses, thrashing rhythms, and smart production distinguish these California boys from the competition. Two of the Jets have a New York pedigree, with Julien O'neill (synth) formerly in Napoleon and Samuel Shea (vocals, guitar) an erstwhile member of Spires, two bands I enjoyed a great deal. Warbly Jets is far more commercial sounding - arena ready, even - than their NYC bands, but it is also way too sincere and, above all, FUN to feel like a cash grab. This is one to gleefully throw in the faces of all those "rock is dead" blowhards.

Roger Waters - Is This The Life We Really Want? Speaking of arena-ready, consider the fact that over 30 years after his last album with Pink Floyd, Waters still tops concert sales playing material that's even older. This is due partly to the quality of most Pink Floyd, but also to his brilliant use of stadia as the perfect theatrical venues, with spectacular, immersive production values setting a new standard on tour after tour. While I've respected his abilities to stay on top of the touring market, I certainly didn't have any expectations for a new album from Waters. But when I heard he was working with genius producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck, Paul McCartney) and had even added contemporary guitar/production wizard Jonathan Wilson into the mix, I was intrigued. The results are far better than anything Waters has been involved with since Animals in 1977 (yes, even The Wall, which is a bit of a mess to these ears), filled with darkly moving meditations on the state of the world in jewel-like settings devised by Godrich, Wilson and other experts like drummer Joey Waronker and keyboard player Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. 

There are two things holding back ITTLWRW from true greatness, however. The first is Waters's voice, a dry and pinched instrument which, while he does the best he can with it, is ultimately ill-suited to his melodic ambitions. The second is the overwhelming sense of familiarity. Even though he is obviously one of the architects of the classic Floyd sound and has ownership over its moody magnificence in that sense, in another he's practically ripping himself off. Still, it's a highly listenable affair and a more than credible calling card to take on the road. I saw the show and the new songs sounded even better with a some live energy behind them and fit in well with the classics, especially a large chunk of Animals. The visuals were often astonishing and Waters had some of the best back-up you can imagine, including both Wilson and Waronker, guitar god Dave Kilminster, and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius on vocal support. The cherry on top was his blunt anti-Trump messaging, which was very satisfying to see writ large in an arena setting.

Gregg Allman - Southern Blood Roger Waters is 74 and not the most productive record-maker so I wouldn't be surprised if his latest album turns out to be his last. Unfortunately, we know this is Allman's last, as he died in 2017. It's a decent capstone to his career, with some impeccably chosen songs (Tim Buckley's Once I Was, Dylan's Going Going Gone, Little Feat's Willin'), but Don Was is kind of a cheesy producer and poor health had drained Allman's voice of some of its bluesy richness. Things definitely take off more on the live songs included on the deluxe edition, which makes sense as Allman was one of the great road warriors of all time. Ride on, Midnight Rider.

David Bowie - No Plan The now-classic Lazarus with two excellent songs and one good one from the Blackstar sessions, thankfully freed from the slog of the Lazarus cast recording.

Matthew E. White & Flo Morrissey - Gentlewoman, Ruby Man Like a lot of albums of cover songs, your own relationship to the material included here may dictate how much you enjoy their interpretations. So, for me that means I can't stand the takes on the Velvet Underground's Sunday Morning or Leonard Cohen's Suzanne - some songs are sacred. The exception is Frank Ocean's Thinking About You, which works great as a duet, and it's nice to think about the song becoming kind of a standard. It is in my house! Grease is just a bad song, but almost everything else is pure gold, especially opener Look At What The Light Did Now, rescuing a Little Wings song from obscurity, and the Euro-pop of Nino Ferrer's Looking For You, with its spectacular synth solo. Kind of a holding-pattern album for White, however, as we await his follow-up to 2015's Fresh Blood.

Mastodon - Cold Dark Place Mastodon may also be in transition, as they followed up Emperor Of Sand, very nearly a return to the heights of Leviathan and The Hunter, with this somewhat exploratory four-song EP. While it still gets heavy, there's a space-rock vibe and a new level of delicacy and detail to the layers of guitars that is truly glorious. Where to next, boys?


Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness This hushed, interior album reveals itself only after several listens, but when it comes into focus it's a knockout. Byrne possesses some of Nadia Reid's dignity and grace as well as her ability to conjure indelible melodies seemingly out of thin air. The production, focusing on her voice and finger-picked acoustic, is beyond sympathetic even approaching perfection with little touches like the breathy synth on Melting Grid. A special album, indeed.

Florist - If Blue Could Be Happiness When I saw Florist open for Mutual Benefit back in 2016, I was immediately captivated by the songs and singing of Emily Sprague. I bought the debut album, The Birds Outside Sang, from the merch table and confirmed her skills at constructing songs that were delicate yet sturdy and very personal. This new album is quieter and features more acoustic guitar and perhaps one too many slow songs, but her lyrics are as connected as ever and married to melodies that display a deep understanding of how someone like Leonard Cohen made things work. Sprague is so sad on this album yet so charming and lively on Twitter - perhaps her recent move to California will allow some of that to bubble into the music.

Hand Habits - Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void) Like Florist, this is really the project of one woman, Meg Duffy, also originally from upstate New York and now located in California. Duffy plays guitar and keyboards and has been on the road with Kevin Morby's band for a while. Although she has released a few intriguing if unfocused songs under the Hand Habits moniker going back to 2014, this is her true debut. And a very impressive one at that, with a distinctive, trebly sound and songs that draw you through the album like chapters in a good story. By the time you get to Demand It, the sixth song, you should be fully onboard - I know I was.

Caroline Says - 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong Both the name of the band (based on the Lou Reed song) and the album are either acts of extreme self-deprecation or hubris. I'm going with the former, as Caroline Sallee's whole approach is so gentle, with touches of fun, that you can't help think she's having a laugh. But it would probably be more like a rueful chuckle, if these mostly melancholy tunes are as true-life as they sound. The album jumps around a bit, from indie rock to almost straight folk, betraying a slight lack of focus. Based on the promise contained within, and the fact that it was recorded some time ago, I don't however, her next album should be a stunner.

Big Thief - Capacity While I miss some of the band feel from Big Thief's debut album, Masterpiece (speaking of hubris vs. self-deprecation!), leader Adrienne Lenker is the real deal. Her singing is always aimed at true communication and the way she develops hooks almost casually, as with that little "ooh" on Shark Smile, is brilliant. Mary really feels like a solo track as Lenker pushes into her  high register accompanied only by piano and some atmospherics. It's gorgeous and whether it bodes an even more solitary sound in the future or the band becomes more prominent again, sign me up.

Aaron Roche - HaHa HuHu This record is so singular I wish I had more time to talk about it here. From quiet instrumentals, like album closer Sig Beeg Sig Moor, which has guitarist's guitarist Phil Keaggy duetting with Roche, to The Terror, featuring the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, or Florida, "Recorded live in a stairwell by Aaron Roche and Helga Davis," this is quite a journey into a very talented, very eclectic mind - and one with a killer rolodex. Roche is so eclectic, in fact, that I first discovered him as the producer of The Perfect Nothing Catalog, featuring the work of composer Conrad Winslow, and one of my favorite classical albums of 2017. I have no idea where Roche will go next, but I can tell you that I am following him on every channel I can.

I live for new songs from Holly Miranda and 2017 was bookended by Midnight Oil, a moving Chris Williamson cover released to benefit the Standing Rock protestors, and Exquisite, a stunning duet with TV On The Radio's Kyp Malone. Even better, the latter was the first single from her third Album, Mutual Horse, out on February 23rd. A good sign for 2018!


Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer - Not Dark Yet This is the first album these singing sisters have recorded together and it is also the best thing Lynne has done since I Am Shelby Lynne back in 1999. The production is rich, the song choices are on point, like the Dylan-penned title track, Merle Haggard's Silver Wings, or even Nirvana's Lithium, and nothing gets in the way of their voices, which are masterful. They also co-wrote the closing track, Is It Too Much, which deals head-on with their tragic past and how the bond of their sisterhood helped them survive it. If they want to collaborate some more, either as songwriters or just singers, you'll get no argument from me.

Wild Ponies - Galax While this sometimes triggers my anti-hoedown reflex, at least Doug and Telisha Jones come by it honestly, having recorded the album in a barn in Virginia featuring a combination of Nashville pros and local heroes. I also miss Doug's wicked Telecaster, which has been MIA since Things That Used To Shine came out a few years ago. But when they sink into a ballad like Hearts And Bones (not the Paul Simon song), it's sigh-inducing, a pure breath of fresh country air.

Whew. Listen to tracks from all of these artists here or below, and if you want the full dump from this category, dig into the 13-hour 2017 Archive (Rock, Folk, Etc.). Keep up with 2018's glories, goodies and near-misses here and, as always, let me know what I'm missing.

You may also enjoy: 
Best Of 2017: The Top 25