Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tristan Perich’s Divine Violins

A concert doesn’t have to take place in an awe-inspiring setting like the Cathedral Of St. John The Divine to take on a sense of the sacred or ceremonial. But it’s impossible not to feel the weight of occasion when entering one of the world’s largest Gothic churches, even if it remains unfinished 125 years after the first cornerstone was laid. Yet as I walked through the cavernous space on May 9th for the world premiere of Tristan Perich’s Drift Multiply for 50 violins and 50 1-bit speakers I felt sure his work would rise to meet the expectations engendered by the space. 

The concert was part of Red Bull Music Festival, a three-week, city-wide festival of impressive scope. As much as I appreciate what Red Bull is doing, even this lifelong atheist couldn’t help thinking it was slightly incongruous to see coolers of their products for sale in a house of worship. After a moment I decided to embrace the dissonance even if I didn’t want to grab a drink. The last time I was here for a concert was back in 1981, as part of the Kool Jazz Festival - and I don't remember them selling cigarettes! 

The performers back then were jazz drumming legend Max Roach and his percussion ensemble M’Boom, who were joining forces with the World Saxophone Quartet. My recollection is that we were sitting even further from the stage than the anyone would be tonight and that the multiple drums created what felt like enormous cubes of sound that tumbled through the air before hitting the wall behind us and rolling forward again, chased by the white lightning of the four saxophones. It was intense, to say the least. 

Now, the stage was surrounded on three sides by seating and itself covered with the 50 seats needed for Perich’s piece, each with an attendant music stand and another small rod holding a four-inch speaker. Many of the chairs facing the front were taken already so I sat down in the first row at the south side of the stage. I recognized that sitting out of the path of the reverberations would be a different experience, yet still valid or they wouldn’t have put seats there. Perich, known for his One-Bit Symphony and other sonic explorations, is enough of an expert that I felt I would be in good hands no matter what vantage point I had. Also, even 50 violins wouldn’t create the bone-rattling racket of Max Roach & Co., so there would just be less air moving around to begin with. 

Before Perich’s piece was another world premiere by Lesley Flanigan of her own Subtonalities for voice and electronics. She sat at a table with a mic and a few pieces of equipment, which she used to dial in oscillating throbs or to loop her extraordinarily pure soprano - exactly the kind of voice you would expect in this space. I discerned sections - at least four, maybe five - in Subtonalities, a sense of structure that pulled me through. There were echoes of Popol Vuh and Fripp & Eno among the lush textures, her multitracked voice spiraling up towards the ceiling. If the piece felt a little long, that’s most likely due to my anticipation for Perich’s music. I can easily imagine losing myself in Flanigan’s textures in another context without giving a thought to length. I hope I will have that opportunity soon. 

Lesley Flanigan performing Subtonalities
There was a brief intermission and then the 50 violinists took the stage with astonishing ease - they must have practiced! - joined by Doug Perkins, the founder of So Percussion, who would conduct. He raised his baton...and they were off. I was instantly captivated, not only by the sounds, which displayed a high level of invention throughout, but also by observing the cross-section of players arrayed before me. Each one had a slightly different way of holding their instrument and bow and it was also fun to watch what an individual player was doing and try to pick out their contribution to the landscape. There were sections of nearly austere minimalism, with many violinists seeming to play similar figures, while others had an epic sweep, with players making big gestures and the electronics responding with starlit sparkle. 

A fraction of the 50 violinists for Drift Multiply
The entire length of Drift Multiply felt so assured and with frequent moments of sheer wonder that it’s hard to believe this is the first time anyone has ever used this configuration. I’m sure some of that solidity was due to Perkins’s expert time-keeping, a task in which he was aided by digital counters sprinkled through the orchestra. Even though the piece was substantial, I never felt that Perich had used up every last idea. Nor did it ever feel like a stunt. While there is certainly an element of performance or installation art, the whole thing was deeply musical and I hope that logistics don’t get in the way of future performances. There was a video crew and likely audio recording being done as well so I would keep an eye on the Red Bull website to see if they make it available for you to experience at home. Drift Multiply is a triumph of imagination and execution that may just give your living room, or wherever you listen, a touch of the divine. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Outliers, Part 1: Oracle Hysterical, Thomas Bartlett-Nico Muhly

This two-part miniseries will look at four albums that exist within similar Venn diagrams that overlap between contemporary classical, folk, and rock, which is a very interesting neighborhood indeed. 

Hecuba - Oracle Hysterical This group dubs itself “part band, part book club” so you can bet there’s a shelf-load of ideas behind their second album, which is based on the centuries-old Greek tragedy by Euripides. The basic plot, which has Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, descending into murderous madness to avenge the fall of her city and the slaughter of her children, has more than enough story to fill a few albums. This makes the concision of Oracle Hysterical’s nine songs even more impressive. 

The group consists of twin brothers Doug Balliett (double bass, viola da gamba) and Brad Balliett (bassoons), Majel Connery (vocals, keyboards), Elliot Cole (vocals, guitars, keyboards), and Dylan Greene (percussion) and for Hecuba they added Jason Treuting of So Percussion on drum kit. These modest forces are deployed remarkably well, leading to a variety of sounds from art song to folk-rock and from electronica to prog-rock. I even hear a bit of mid-century composed jazz in Bolero and elsewhere, always a welcome sound in my book. Connery wields her operatically-trained voice mostly with restraint so when she really unleashes it’s all the more powerful. Cole’s voice is more limited, almost conversational at times, providing another nice contrast. 

I really hope no one is turned off by the brainy background to Hecuba as the whole album flows and is filled with beauty and adventure. It’s no more challenging a listen than Home At Last, Steely Dan’s glossy take on the Odyssey. There is even a bit of wit, as in the deadpan refrain “Woe is me/woe for my children/Woe for my ancestors,” recited by Cole like a one-man Greek chorus in He Will Close Your Eyes. One analysis of the original by Euripides states that “there is almost no let up in the mood of suffering and anguish” in the play so its probably a good thing that Oracular Hysterical takes a lighter approach to the subject matter. There are certainly moments of darkness, like the spooky way Connery intones the lyrics of Letos Laurel or the fantastical 100 Tongues, which finds her voice chopped up in an aural impression of a shattered psyche. Cole’s mixing and Chris Botta’s electronics and post-production deserve special mention for that and much else on Hecuba. 

Hecuba, a mightily original work that finds Oracle Hysterical hitting their stride at least as much as a band as a book club, comes out on May 11th. Join them to celebrate at National Sawdust on Sunday, May 13th. No need to bear gifts - just buy a ticket

Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music - Thomas Bartlett And Nico Muhly This record also has a rich overlay of ideas that should lead the curious listener in all sorts of fascinating directions. First, there’s the title, which combines the name of one of the 20th century’s greatest vocal artists with a reference to Gamelan music, the Indonesian form that attracted the attention of Pears and his collaborator (and lover) Benjamin Britten. Britten first learned about Gamelan during a fascinating period in the 40’s, when he found himself living in a townhouse on Middagh Street in Brooklyn with the likes of W.H. Auden, Dashiell Hammett and Gypsy Rose Lee. Also in residence was Colin McPhee, a composer and ethnomusicologist who had studied the gamelan extensively while living in Bali. McPhee and Britten recorded his two-piano transcriptions, which made the music accessible to Western ears and performers. Thus Balinese music, which uses an orchestra primarily of bell-like percussion instruments to play repeating clusters of melodic rhythms, became one of the roots of minimalism. 

Whew. We haven’t even listened to the album yet and we’re already deep in the weeds of 20th Century classical music and literature along with one of the central forms of Asian music. But, aside from the three McPhee transcriptions included here this is all just the roadmap Bartlett and Muhly used, not the destination. And who are Bartlett and Muhly? The first, who also operates under the name Doveman, is a pianist, singer and composer who, in addition to his own records, has worked with a wide variety of artists from Sam Amidon and David Byrne to Chocolate Genius and Father John Misty. Muhly studied at Juilliard and worked with Philip Glass and has had a career that can easily be described as meteoric, having already had an opera produced at the Met (with another on the way), among other successes. 

All that doesn’t mean I like everything Bartlett and Muhly have done. Among the tracks I love on the playlist they conveniently assembled of their various activities is plenty of music that strikes me as insular, arch and even smug. But I was too intrigued by the background of Peter Pears to do anything but listen with an open mind. And I’m glad I did, because this is a collection of sounds and songs that envelop the listener in warmth and care, quickly becoming as familiar and comforting as an old blanket or a good friend. 

The McPhee pieces are busier and sharper-edged than the originals, which are gauzy wonders of piano, strings, percussion and electronics over which Bartlett sings in hushed tones lyrics that are full of poetic allusions, aphorisms, and compassionate advice. There is a seamless grace to this music, not doubt enabled by the excellent musicians Muhly and Bartlett have assembled, including Rob Moose and Yuki Numata Resnick (violins), Christina Courtin (viola), Clarice Jensen (cello), Hannah Cohen (harmony vocals), and Chris Thompson (percussion). But the end result is all Bartlett and Muhly, making a case for collaboration being the surest way to bring out individual strengths. By working together and drawing on music and history that fascinates them, they have created something uniquely beautiful that also feels genuinely new. And if this album leads some new listeners back to McPhee and the Gamelan or the marvelous music Britten and Pears created together, so much the better. The album comes out on May 18th and Bartlett and Muhly will be performing it at La Poisson Rouge on May 24th

In Part 2 I’ll be covering two more unique albums. But first, a trip to church with the Red Bull Music Academy. 

Friday, May 04, 2018

MATA's Bad Romance At The Kitchen

This year saw the 20th Anniversary of the MATA Festival, which puts on new music concerts around the city for three weeks every spring. Founded by Philip Glass, Eleanor Sandresky and Lisa Bielawa, Music At The Anthology seeks to promote the work of unaffiliated composers, presenting a highly curated selection drawn from hundreds of entires. Time and circumstance have prevented me from ever attending even one of their shows, although I jealously kept up with reviews and press releases. This year, those same factors made it possible for me to attend one of the concerts at The Kitchen, which had the attention-grabbing name Bad Romance.

It was also my first time at the current location of The  Kitchen, a legendary performance art space last incarnated in SoHo. One of my favorite memories of the astonishing rise of the Beastie Boys was when they played a set there as a hardcore band. Because we were young and snotty, we saw it as a moment of epater le bourgeoisie and we laughed about it for a long time. There was nothing funny about seeing Steve Reich’s Different Trains there, however, although it was equally unforgettable. The new space, a large black box with extremely high ceilings, is certainly flexible enough to put on any show along the continuum mapped by those two concerts. It was also perfect for this MATA concert as several of the pieces we saw had strong theatrical elements.

Piano Six Hands

The first was Aaron Graham’s Old Voltage for piano six hands, which had Miki Sawada and Paul Kerekes on the outside of the bench hammering away like a Conlon Nancarrow piece for player piano while Isabelle O’Connell, sitting in the middle, played lyrical, almost romantic, melodies infused with tango rhythms while delivering a spoken word monologue about "hallucinations, crowds, dances, memories and lovers." The contrast between O'Connell's part and the others was increased by the way Graham has prepared the piano to dull the sound of the upper and lower registers. Beyond the curiosity value, there was power and beauty to spare in the music, which was composed in 2015 and made its American premiere at MATA. 

Jenny Hettne‘s While She Was Dreaming for violin and and tape was also an American premiere. Performed with dazzling confidence by Pauline Kim Harris, its combination of glitchy sonics with a violin part that ranged from dense bursts to folkish simplicity added up to a work I would like to hear again - stat. Hopefully this performance will lead to more of this Swedish composer's work being heard in the city, as it seems to be a fairly rare occurrence. 
Garapic, Rogers & Evans Playing Light-On-Light
Saxophonist Erin Rogers led the performance of her own Light-On-Light, which was a world premiere and commissioned by MATA. It was full of humor and ideas, including the use of saxophones and other items as percussion instruments, gamely played by Matthew Evans and Amy Garapic. Perhaps she was partly inspired by David Van Tieghem, who used his drumsticks to convert literally everything into an instrument. Her own part was full of clicks and breaths, prompting me to ask my friend if he thought anyone else could perform it. He wisely responded that it would depend entirely on the notation, which is true for any set of extended techniques. Either way, it was a wild ride. Rogers's work for guitar and soprano, The Lone Tenement, will be performed twice in New York this month. Make a plan.

Two Pianists Below, Many Samurai Above
The visual element in Chris Perren’s Samurai Loops, conceived as it was for video and two pianos, was among the strongest of the night. The projection took a scene of two friends in mortal combat from Masaki Kobayashi’s 1967 film Samurai Rebellion, at first looping the movements of Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai so they began to resemble dancers instead of warriors. Just as I was settling into that concept, the images exploded into repeating patterns, with dozens of samurai now moving in concert on the screen. Even more dazzling was the rhythmic acuity, as the music matched each clash of the swords. Not so easy, as O'Connell confirmed after the show. While she and Sawada were able to use the electronic sounds to help them stay on track, they couldn't really see the screen while they performed. The music, while adjacent to minimalism, could also be lushly melancholic, with sweeping melodies that interacted well with the macho romance of the imagery. Perren, from Australia, also performs with Nonsemble and Mr. Maps, among other things. Watch Samurai Loops and then explore his world if you're as captivated as I am.

Charlotte Mundy In Basic Black
The second half of the night began with Steven Whiteley’s [      ] [    ] [  ] [ ] [] (yes, that’s the title!) for soprano and electronics. The piece convincingly explored the relationship of syllables and words to gestures and to the sonic environment. Some of the repetitive, quotidian phrases ("Darling you're so...") made me think of Scott Johnson's work using language. It may sound cerebral in a description but this was gripping stuff with a stunning performance by Charlotte Mundy, who embodied her demanding role completely, including some haunting (and virtuoso) laughter. I was already a fan of hers thanks to her great work on Ecstatic Music, the 2016 album by TAK Ensemble so I am glad I had the opportunity to see her on stage. Her website is sorely out of date, but if you follow Ekmeles, the vocal ensemble to which she belongs (or TAK), you're sure to be able to catch her. 

El-Ansary (left) Acknowledges The Applause
The penultimate work was by Bahaa El-Ansary, a young Egyptian composer who has been causing a stir in new music circles. This is not only due to the fact that there are fewer known composers from that region, but also because of the sheer emotional power and command of structure displayed by his work. Nightmare for guitar, violin and viola was a perfect example, with the trio’s forces marshaled with great economy and style. Dan Lippel’s acoustic guitar virtuosity deserves special mention, while Harris on violin and Carrie Frey on viola certainly had no trouble keeping up. As far as I can tell this was the first performance in New York, and only the second in the US, of any work by Al-Ansary. Programmers should explore his website, which is full of striking music, such as Lost, composed for harp and 30 cellos. That's not a combination you see - or hear every day!

Ken Ueno’s ‘Tard, another MATA commission, was wisely placed last on the program. Like Hendrix at Monterey, no one would have wanted to follow it. For this world premiere performance, Ueno was joined by the outgoing Artistic Director of MATA, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun, on vocals, along with Evans and Garapic on percussion. Each of them had an enormous bass drum, which were visual statements in their own right. Ueno and Du were both wearing whimsical garments (pants on the former and a shirt for the latter) made of multicolored puff balls, which were the only hints of levity in this bleak and searing piece. Unless, that is, unless you count the listing on Ueno's website, which credits him as "non-breather" and Du as "screamer." Those descriptions became clear shortly after Ueno took his place at a table set with a glass bowl filled with water and a small towel.

As soon as Evans and Garapic began wailing on their massive drums, creating an equally massive sound, Ueno bent at his waist and put his face in the bowl of water. He remained there for at least two minutes as Yun vocalized in composed agony. She and the drummers continued when Ueno pulled out of the water and stood silently glaring at the audience with what seemed to be barely controlled fury. The only let up in intensity was when Evans and Garapic switched from the drums to striking metal water bottles together, creating a sound not unlike the cloud chamber bowls David Byrne used in parts of his score for the Catherine Wheel. According to the program notes, presented as an email exchange between Ueno and MATA Executive Director Todd Tarantino, the original conception included contact mics on the bowl and a camera under it so the composer’s submerged face could be projected. Intriguing thoughts (“Hmmm” was Tarantino’s entire response) but it’s hard to imagine those bells and whistles making the work substantially more effective. 
Ueno Glaring, Du Screaming
As seen at The Kitchen, ‘Tard is a brilliantly enigmatic piece that asked more questions than it answered. That title, for one. Was it short for the repulsive neologism “libtard”? Or the scarcely less awful “retard”? Nothing good, that seems certain. And was the rage directed at us? Or a reflection of our own anger? Or just good theater? This was par for the course for an evening filled with works that seemed to explore the firewall where intellect and instinct collide. Kudos to MATA for bringing this important music to light. I can only imagine what I missed over the rest of the festival, not to mention the last 20 years!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

#RSD2018: Iris Blooms In Jersey City

When it comes to Record Store Day, I’m in it for the music not the promise of eBay resales or collecting some gussied up version of an old favorite just to pin it down like an asphyxiated butterfly. This is why I’m at least as excited about the used CD I tracked down this past Saturday during my observation of the 11th annual celebration of record store culture. 

Yes, I’ve heard all the complaints and read all the amusing think pieces (“The 10 Most Reprehensible People You’ll Meet On Record Store Day,” etc.), but for me it’s an opportunity to use the calendar to force me off my beaten path and check out a new spot. This year was similar to 2013, in that I had a few other hard-scheduled things I had to do, one of which involved using my car, which is why I ended up going out to Iris Records in Jersey City, which has been around off and on for about 20 years. 

I confess that I was also influenced by their canny Facebook advertising, which kept their existence front of mind for the last few months and also informed me that they would be opening at noon, just like any other Saturday. This would fit perfectly with my errand to Bay Ridge, even if it meant spending enough on tolls to fill a couple of potholes! Iris is run by Stephen Gritzen, with whom I have been acquainted for at least a couple of decades through our mutual friend, nightlife photographer extraordinaire, Catherine McGann. Steve is a such a stand-up guy that about 10 years ago when I mentioned to Cathy that I was desperate to find a copy of Basement 5 In Dub, he found it in his crates and had her pass it on at no charge. So, my visit would also be a chance to thank him in person for completing my collection of one of the most misunderstood bands of the 80’s. 
Lining Up For Goodies
I arrived a few minutes before noon and got on a line with about 30 other people. Besides the fact that I was adjacent to three smokers (including a cigar - yuck!), it was a congenial crowd, including at least a few people making Iris their second stop for RSD. I kept an ear out to hear what other people were looking for so I could help them if I spotted it first. Eventually the line started moving and I could see that Steve had two tables set up on the sidewalk with crates full of this year’s exclusive releases. I had already read though lists of what was coming out this year and had my antenna up for a couple of things. Due to budgetary concerns, it was important for me to stay focused and not get distracted by shiny objects that might not provide the musical satisfaction I needed. 

By the end of my perusal of the outdoor crates I had a small stack of items to sort through, including two items on my must-have list, Un Esercito Di 5 Uomini, one of three Ennio Morricone soundtracks out this year, and An Evening With Ornette Coleman Vol. 2. There was also an album of Laraaji remixes by the likes of Ras G, Dntl and others, a seminal punk album by The Lurkers recommended by Billboard’s Ron Hart, and a record of Mozart sonatas played by Florian Fricke of krautrock legends Popol Vuh. I decided to take a look around the rest of Iris before making my final cut. 

Located in an old apothecary shop, Iris has loads of atmosphere and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, with almost an equal amount of used and new LP’s plus a solid supply of 45’s and CD’s. There are  also some videos, books and memorabilia scattered about and the back counter has been converted into a DJ booth. I flipped through quite a few sections and found things to be fairly priced and often in excellent condition. New arrivals are conveniently segregated and there are also bins of budget vinyl where you can take your chance on a ragged obscurity or two. 
Digging In The Crates
As far as I remember, all CD’s are $4, which is more than fair and led me to take a cursory look through what Steve had. Bingo - a copy of The Moon Looked Down And Laughed, the second (and last) album by Virgin Prunes, which came out in 1986 and was hard to find in the U.S. even then. As I am a huge fan of theirs and lead singer Gavin Friday, this was a real thrill. The Moon... is a gorgeously gloomy (and occasionally wayward) album that can be seen as the missing link between Friday’s art-goth provocations and the brilliant song craft and interpretive genius of his solo career, which started three years later with Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves. I now see that Mute Records did a whole Virgin Prunes reissue campaign in 2004 that I somehow missed - I'll have to get the rest!

Now it was time to decide and pay before my hunger for lunch interfered with my judgement. It turned out not to be all that difficult. The Fricke album was a beautiful package but in the end it was Mozart and that’s just not a priority for me right now. Since I wasn’t familiar with all the remixers, I worried that the Laraaji album could end up being hit and miss. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some or all of it on Spotify at some point. At that point, it was easy to relinquish The Lurkers to keep my costs down while sticking to my original Morricone and Coleman plans. I consider myself lucky to find two exclusives, which is more than I usually get on RSD. 

Now that I’ve had a chance to listen, I’m even happier with my decision. Un Esercito Di 5 Uomini (Five Man Army) is quintessential Morricone, with all the rich melancholy and unusual contrasts that implies. Side Two is particularly staggering and this reissue replicates the Italian cover perfectly while using translucent blue vinyl for extra pizzaz. The Ornette Coleman, recorded live in 1965 and briefly issued 10 years later, features a lineup that was unfamiliar to me, with David Izenzon on bass and the great Charles Moffett on drums. Coleman himself plays more violin and trumpet than usual, almost making it sound like a quintet. Side One is dense and filled with raging fury, while Side Two is spacious and filled with the joyful melody-making that is one of his greatest characteristics, especially on the song called Happy Fool. Lots to unpack and the clear vinyl was a nice touch. 
My RSD Finds
I enjoyed my visit to Iris and even had a chance to thank Steve for the Basement 5 EP. I plan to make a return visit soon and also wouldn’t mind going back to Skinner’s Loft, where I had a fine lunch. On my way there I saw a freshly coiffed rock & roll dude in a leopard print jacket come out of a hair salon, towing a guitar and amp on a luggage cart. Next thing I know, he’s playing classic rock covers in the middle of Newark Street, where a block party was taking place. Apparently he’s a regular fixture known for his Bowie covers. Maybe I’ll see him again on my next trip to Jersey City. 

Coda:  On my way back to the car, I noticed that the hair salon also sold records so I thought “why not” and went in. After flipping a bit I realized that Iris was supplying these records, too! I found a pristine copy of Be Bop Deluxe’s The Best Of And The Rest Of, which has never been reissued and has a few tracks not found elsewhere. Call me an axe victim, but I like Bill Nelson in most of his incarnations so I picked that up, too. It was that kind of day. 

If you went out on RSD, how did you fare?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

In Praise Of Classic Rock Retirement

It’s now become a thing, aging icons like Elton John, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Rush and Joan Baez announcing their retirement from touring or even renouncing their careers entirely. While they may cite different reasons, from Parkinson’s disease to young children at home, it all adds up to one of the biggest sea changes in the landscape of popular music since The Beatles broke up. 

Cue the hand-wringing: "It's extremely worrisome,” agent Marcia Vlasic told Rolling Stone, echoing the thoughts of several others in her field. “Once these artists really do retire, who will be the replacements?" 

Ron Delsener, who has been promoting concerts since the 60's and is now Live Nation’s New York Chairman, takes a more sanguine view: “We'll always have superstars,” he says in the same article, "Justin Timberlake and the National, they're the new guys coming up—they'll be the new U2 or the new whatever." Hope for a big-ticket arena-filling future also comes in the form of the usual Top 40 suspects: Taylor Swift, BeyoncĂ©, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Lorde, etc. 

Except some of those acts are already proving soft at the box office. Taylor Swift, for one, riding the last gasp of poptimism and also pricing out her family audience; Lorde, for another, likely due to being more of a niche artist than initially suspected. 

So from a purely business angle, I can see reasonable arguments for both hope and despair. But from an artistic, soul-nourishing perspective, when it comes to classic rock retirements, I say: Bring it on!

By staying on the road so long and driving up prices far beyond inflation, these legendary acts selling the warm milk of nostalgia have turned concert-going into a sometime thing, a once-a-year special occasion, just at the time when musicians are coping with seismic changes that have forced them to secure most of their lifeblood from concert revenue. All the greatest-hits shows and complete-album residencies are cutting our younger artists off at the knees, which is where the true danger to the music itself lies. 

I see a couple of dozen concerts a year, with an average ticket price of $12, not only supporting local and touring artists near the start of the career, but also experiencing the intimate and spontaneous magic that may have led you to popular music in the first place. Sure, some of the bands I follow may lie at the more musically obtuse side of the equation, but plenty of others provide the sweet satisfaction of rock & roll at its best or deliver on the promise of the singer-songwriter model better than any arena-level star today. 

You have to ask yourself: Whose compass are you following? Are you following the received wisdom of radio stations with extremely limited playlists and just going with what’s comfortable and familiar? Or are you willing to put in a little bit of effort (and even less cash) to give something new a try and give a shot in the arm to young artists who were likely at least partly inspired by those hoary dinosaurs still roaming the arenas?

If you’re still reading, you may be wondering how you might go about getting out of the rut that has kept the concert business in a false state of security for far too long. You also want to avoid the path some of my bereft friends have followed, which is to turn to the increasing array of tribute bands. Even if some are astonishingly competent that’s still an investment in the past. 

So, here are some practical steps you can take - and ones that don’t involve my shoving my own taste down your throat. If you want to get an idea what I like, check out my Best Of lists from the last few years or follow my Of Note In 2018 playlists, all of which are linked below. 

  1. Download the following apps: Songkick, Bandsintown and Fans. Create accounts, turn on location sharing, and let them scan your music collection, whether on Spotify, Apple Music or any number of services. You can use these sites on a desktop as well but they really shine on a smartphone.
  2. Use the apps to see who’s playing closest to you in the near future. None of the artists you’re tracking may be on tour, but you can let the algorithm suggest things you might like. Bandsintown makes this easy with a slider on the Events tab that goes from “All Artists” to “Recommended” to “Tracking.” If you put it to Recommended, you will get an alphabetically arranged cloud of names with the artists you’re tracking in bold type and the rest in a lighter color. Songkick also has a Recommended tab where they explain the origin of the suggestion, i.e. “Tracked by people who track artist X,” which can give you an idea of what type of music it may be. Depending on where you live, you may also want to adjust the radius of your search to the maximum distance you’re willing to drive to see a show. 
  3. Start clicking some names. If a date and location seem feasible, use your preferred service (Spotify, YouTube, etc. - there’s also a lot of free listening on Bandcamp) to investigate the relevant music. If you subscribe to Apple Music, Bandsintown will let you click right through to some songs. If you like what you hear, buy tickets immediately (commitment!) and put it on your calendar. Invite an adventurous friend or two if that’s how you want to roll. 
  4. Go to the show. If it’s good, share about it on whatever social networks you use, inducing FOMO throughout your network. Also, say hi to the band - they may be at the merch table, which is certainly not going to happen at an arena concert. And buy something! Even a $1 pin or sticker will help them out. 
  5. Make sure to track your new favorite artist. Was the opening act good? Track them, too. That way you'll know when they're coming back while also giving the algorithm more information for new recommendations. Lather, rinse, repeat! After a few good experiences, you'll be completely disinterested when yet another Hall Of Fame act goes on their umpteenth retirement tour. You'll be living in the now.
The benefits to giving this a try are enormous, both for young artists and for your own listening life. The worst that can happen is that a band gets huge and you find yourself priced out (or sold out) of their next concert. But then you’ll be able to say you knew them when, which is always fun. Let me know how it goes!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Record Roundup: Hip Hop Hors d’Oeuvres

It’s just past the first quarter of 2018 and it feels like hip hop is in a fragmented place, with tons of variety but a lack of centralized power. It makes perfect sense that one of the most important albums in the genre this year, namely Black Panther: The Album, overseen by the mighty Kendrick Lamar, is a various-artists collection. But that just means that our table is set with a kaleidoscopic array of tasty bites. Here are some others that have me going back for seconds. 

Invasion Of Privacy - Cardi B. I have no problem admitting I was wrong when I called Cardi B. a flash in the pan. I thought the phenomenon of Bodak Yellow would lead to an over-wrought, overlong mess, a naked attempt for streaming dominance with no concern for musical quality (it’s happened before, right Fetty?). Instead what we have here is a concise, heat-seeking album that mostly shows her surprising versatility while not straying too far from her strengths. The opening cut, Get Up 10 is a perfect origin story with a brittle beat that’s supremely catchy. Next, she holds her own with Migos on Drip, injecting some welcome color into their trademark sound. Be Careful is another highlight, marrying her tough rhymes to a slinky groove that finds her comfortable enough to sing a little. 

Chance The Rapper threatens to take over Best Life with his sheer skill and exuberance but Cardi claws back her territory. Whether or not they were actually in the studio together, they make a great team, with his natural sunniness contrasting with her biting flow. I Like It adds some trap to familiar boogaloo for a killer party cut with a great guest spot from Bad Bunny, rapping in Spanish. This is the only explicit, if glancing, nod to part of her heritage (her father is Dominican, her mother is from Trinidad) but her inflections will be familiar to anyone who as spent time in one of NYC’s diverse neighborhoods. 

Further collaborations with Kehlani, YG and SZA could have led to an overload but they all feel in support of her rather than an attempt at propping up a limited talent. Besides the fact that Money Bag is a retread, my only real complaint about this impressive debut is including Bodak Yellow and Bartier Cardi, both old songs with multi-millions of streams, which smacks of either laziness or music-biz chicanery. It interrupts the listening experience to have these overly familiar singles in the track list. Take’em out and you still have a 40 minute album that makes this outsized personality the unlikely queen of hip hop. Well done. 

Fuerza Arara - Telmary If Cardi B. has a true affinity for Hispanic rap, she should invite this Cuban legend on her next project. Telmary Diaz has been pursuing her vision of Latin hip hop since the 90’s and shows no sign of losing her flair or intensity on this album. The grooves, drawing on a wealth of Afro-Caribbean and Yoruban flavors, are rich and beautifully produced, with the tuba-driven Como se Pone la Habana and the reggaefied Ibeyis being standouts. But really, the only knock on Fuerza Arara’ is that, at just over 30 minutes, it’s way too short. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a perfect place to start, however, and I envy you the journey through her past. Read up on some other exciting things happening in Cuban hip hip in this in-depth article from Topic.

Fever - Black Milk This Detroit-based producer and rapper, born Curtis Eugene Cross, has also been honing his craft for a while, gaining most of his reputation as a top-flight J Dilla disciple behind the boards. Through his own albums and many collaborations he’s continued to develop his rapping to the point where he’s now a true double-threat. Besides his conversational flow one thing that distinguishes him is his focus on storytelling and descriptions of an emotional landscape with a refreshing lack of braggadocio. Standout track Laugh Now, Cry Later (an inversion of Grace Jones’ advice) is a great place to start, but there’s not a bad track here. “They told me keep it pure, caught up in the allure, but, see, that’s not what I was looking for, wasn’t sure, I wanted more,” Black Milk raps on True Lies and throughout Fever he demonstrates the allure of keeping it pure. Catch it -and check him out live in the studio at New Sounds

The Brown Tape - Ghostface Killah & Apollo Brown One of the minor tragedies of our sensationalist moment is that Martin Shkreli’s adventure with that million-dollar Wu-Tang Clan album got way more attention than Ghostface’s last album. Sour Soul, from 2015, was an album length collaboration with Toronto-based jazz insurrectionaries Bad Bad Not Good - and it sounded like a million bucks, landing on my Top 20 for that year. Now that Shkreli is behind bars I hope people don’t make the same mistake and miss out on this latest from the greatest living Wu Tang rapper. The album is named after producer Brown, another luminary straight outta Michigan, like Black Milk, but might also refer to the thick, crackle-infused beats he’s cooked up here. It’s almost as if Ghostface challenged him to use the most unplayable vinyl in his crates to build the tracks. However it went down, it sounds fantastic. 

The Killah himself is in fine form, whether spitting furiously on Blood On The Cobblestones or waxing autobiographical on Rise Of The Ghostface Killah, which features his Clan brother RZA, who was probably looking greedily at Brown’s vinyl while recording his bars. Like Sour Soul, The Brown Tape is a short, sharp and shocking reminder of the strengths of one of the most venerable rappers still in the game, as well as a calling card for Brown’s grimy production skills. Don’t let pharma-bro Shkreli hog the spotlight again. 

Golden Chariots - Joey Gallo, Cole Hicks and J Clyde Full disclosure: Producer J Clyde is one of my fellow writers for Off Your Radar, the weekly newsletter covering forgotten or overlooked albums. But it's through that relationship that I've come to admire his deep musical knowledge, and not just about hip hop, but all things musical. While I've checked out and enjoyed some of his own stuff in the past, this collaboration with two Virginia-based rappers has a new sense of assurance and command. His use of samples is always on point and the rhythms are funky and unpretentious. Gallo has the smooth flow of a veteran and Cole (short for Nicole) contrasts nicely whether rapping or singing. This EP is a great introduction to three talents - hope to hear more soon. 

Catch up with everything I’m tracking in this realm with thisplaylist: Of Note In 2018 (Hip Hop, R&B, and Reggae). What morsels am I missing?

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Friday, April 06, 2018

Jonathan Wilson Takes Flight

The last time I saw Jonathan Wilson he was hundreds of feet away from me, across the Barclay’s Center, playing the role of the “Resident Hippie” in Roger Waters’s band on a night of his excellent Us + Them tour. Now, he was close enough to touch on the stage of Music Hall Of Williamsburg, leading his own band in a rendition of Trafalgar Square, the lead track from his new album, Rare Birds. Mere seconds into the mini-epic, the blowing snow and howling winds outside felt like a distant memory, as did the Pink Floyd jukebox in which he so expertly participated last November. Well, not entirely, as there’s a touch of Floyd in Wilson’s new music, along with bits of Beatles, country rock, Avalon-era Roxy Music and even New Age textures. But it’s all turned to his own ends in what is his most personal and original collection to date.
Dan Horne, Wilson, Josh Adams and Jason Roberts
His all-new band could not have been more perfect both visually and musically. There was Dan Horne, the bassist, a refugee from The Stooges in denim and a graphic Tee, holding down the bottom with weighty finesse. Jason Roberts, the guitarist, stylish in a buttoned-up jacket, doing the George Harrison shuffle as he levitated the room with his precise and passionate lead and rhythm work. The drummer, Josh Adams, was equally at home in spirited dialogue with Wilson in an explosive version of Dear Friend from the last album, or keeping metronomic time on a drum pad for Over The Midnight from the new one. Brooding and bearded, keyboard player Peter Remm added sweep and scope with synthetic sounds or more naturalistic organ and piano. All of them were brave even to audition for this gig as Wilson can play circles around most professionals on all of their chosen instruments. The fact that they made it is further testament to their prowess.

Roberts sharing a moment with Peter Remm
At the center of it all was Wilson himself, who owned the room whether on guitar or piano, his confident presence a world away from the first time I saw him on an even smaller stage, the Mercury Lounge, back in 2012. A contributing factor to his increased assurance may be his voice, which has become more flexible and expressive since the slightly tentative vocals on 2011’s Gentle Spirit. That his songwriting has also grown was illustrated when he swung into Desert Raven from that album, so satisfying with that twin-lead riff, but also checking the “classic rock” boxes with high fidelity. New songs like Me or Sunset Blvd mix things up in ways that take more chances, confusing some of his fans who reject his turn toward a more richly textured sonic palette, with swaths of electronics and tracks deeply stacked with collage-like touches that only an intuitive genius would even think to add. 

Laraaji and Wilson entering a new age
One brilliant leap he makes on Rare Birds is the aforementioned embrace of new age textures and attitudes, picking up threads from collections like Light In The Attic’s I Am The Center and (The Microcosm), along with reissues of albums by StairwayAlice Coltrane and Laraaji. The latter is one of the most prominent guests on the album, lending his warm yet rough-hewn vocals and hypnotic zither to Loving You. Laraaji was a special guest at MHOW, too, and one of the reasons I trekked out in the nor’easter to see the show, having missed the last time they performed together in 2014. He took the stage almost as if he were on his way somewhere else - and maybe he was - wearing an orange jumpsuit and carrying a matching shoulder bag along with his zither. Taking a seat at stage right, he and Wilson exchanged a brief glance before starting the song.

Laraaji’s calm, centered presence lent a sense of occasion to the performance and harmonized with the loopy Eighties-digital ashram feeling of the rear-screen projections perhaps better than anything else. As mesmerized as I was by Laraaji, I was also left baffled by an electronic instrument Roberts played on Loving You, a small board with a zigzag of caution tape on the side facing us. I imagine the other side had some kind of touchpad, as he was using his thumbs to cause a wondrous array of squirrelly and squelchy sounds to emit from his amp. He never let us see that side, however, and was careful to carry the thing offstage with him at the end of the night. On his set list he notated “T” or “J” for the Fender Telecaster Deluxe or Jazzmaster guitars he used on most songs; for Loving You it was just an inscrutable “I.” Feel free to weigh in if you know what the heck that thing was!

Roberts with the mystery instrument
 In the case of the title track from Rare Birds, however, the concert rendition was like an X-Ray of the song, with Roberts breaking down the multiple guitar parts into a series of statements, using a multitude of pedals with precision to create the necessary sounds, from pretty, chorused strumming to ripping, distorted lead lines. It was his (and, presumably Wilson’s) ingenuity that solved the guitar part, but it was his wicked joy in playing it that gave it life. When I listen to the song now, one of my pleasures is peeling part the mix in my mind to appreciate those guitar parts again. 

Roberts, playing all his parts with precision (on a Jazzmaster)
Wilson has always been unafraid to go to some odd places lyrically, putting over lines like “Wait, can we really party today?” with a glazed sincerity that makes them work. On Rare Birds, maybe due to the influence of longtime collaborator Father John Misty, he takes even more chances than usual, with varying results. 49 Hairflips, for example, runs the gamut from the bonkers to the sublime. The opening lines had me questioning my sanity slightly and certainly qualify as the weirdest Bob Marley reference ever: “We were burning, we were looting, we were learning one or two things about life/We should fuck right in front of them, just to show them our light/We’ll be fucking, we’ll be sucking, while the rest of them are posting their lives/Ah, these kids will never rock again/Sign of the times.” Er, ok. The chorus is equally wacky: “49 hairflips! 49 hairflips on DayQuil” - say what, now? But then he gets to this devastating couplet: “I’m not leaving these walls without the prettiest song I can find/Miss your laugh most of all, really miss it tonight.” 

His delivery makes it go down easy, though, and turns the opening lines of Sunset Blvd into a true tour de force: “There’s a cherry on top tonight/For men who look like Jesus tonight/If you play your cards right/You can be the son of god, tonight.” The way he swallows the last repetition of the word “tonight” tells an entire story in novelistic detail through sheer emotion. Moments like that make it very easy to forgive any poetic infelicities that may crop up. And when he's direct and to the point, as on the ecstatic There Is A Light, the results are truly glorious. Having Lucius sing backing vocals on the album version doesn't hurt, either!

In any case, Wilson has always been about the full package of composing, playing, and production and on Rare Birds he has advanced by leaps and bounds across all metrics, delivering that elusive thrill of hearing an artist not only meet their potential but exceed it by a wide margin. And onstage at MHOW last month he proved that he could be generous enough to share his expanded vision with the other musicians and the audience to deliver a storming and dynamic show that defines what a rock concert can be in 2018. Miss him at your own risk.
Snapshots of The Shacks
Up-and-coming New York band The Shacks opened the show, presenting a polished set of their 60’s-psych and 70’s-R&B infused songs. The main drivers of their sound are Shannon Wise’s wispy, yet rhythmically acute vocals and Max Shrager’s sharp guitar, which can veer from psych solos to Nile Rodgers rhythms. They reminded me a little of The Clientele in their single-mindedness and there was a touch of Saint Etienne in the canny critique embedded in their pop art. If I didn’t hear that one killer song yet, there are more tunes to choose from on their debut album, Haze, which just came out. Between Wise’s star power (she was already in an Apple ad) and their assured sound, however, I would say they are well on their way. 

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bon Iver’s Dance Music

When the email came from Mass MoCA advertising a work in progress by TU Dance and Bon Iver, I bought tickets instantly. I knew they would sell out quickly so a glance at the calendar to see that it was possible for us to get there was all it took for me to click through and seal the deal. I was right about it selling out and I was also right that my wife and daughter would be thrilled when I gave them the tickets as part of their holiday gifts last December.

In the ensuing months, I wondered what, exactly, Justin Vernon’s role would be in the performance. Would he be behind the scenes, triggering and tweaking an electronic score from a laptop? Or onstage, with a guitar and keyboards behind that podium he sometimes uses in concert? Or would he be front of house, at the mixing board, just observing how the dancers interacted with his music and making notes for further improvements? Would it be new music or repurposed tracks from the three Bon Iver albums? Mass MoCA’s marketing led me to believe that he would be active but in my mind I wasn’t expecting a traditional concert. We’re big enough fans that any of the above possibilities would have been satisfying - or at least interesting!

I didn’t take much time to research TU Dance but noted that they're an acclaimed company from Minnesota that seems to have done a great job involving the community in their work. Also, we’ve made many visits to Mass MoCA, including for an excellent Bang On A Can concert, and found their standards to be uniformly high and their vision always forward-thinking. So, I went into the show with both an open mind and high expectations.

The platform for the band before the show.
One question was solved as soon as we entered the theater to take our seat: Bon Iver would be performing live. At the rear of the stage was a raised platform with enough gear on it to make some serious noise. The program also revealed that the band realizing Vernon's music would consist of three other musicians: BJ Burton (electronics), Michael Lewis (bass, keyboards) and JT Bates (drums). As soon as they crossed the stage and began climbing the stairs to their platform, the applause was rapturous. While I could be wrong, it felt like the majority of the audience had been drawn there by the prospect of hearing something new from Bon Iver rather than a native interest in TU Dance or dance in general. As soon as the music started, an electric charge went through the room and my mind raced to catch up with the song, a powerful blast of electronics, slamming drums and throbbing bass lines supporting Vernon's heavenly voice, which has only grown more fascinating over time.

The view from our seats; dancers in white.
The projections were flashing on the wall behind the stage, combining type and imagery, and the dancers came running out, loose limbed, gesturing dramatically, exuding energy and using a series of movements that seemed inspired by vernacular (street?) dance. Their costumes were pretty cool, with plenty of extra fabric to emphasize their moves while not obscuring their toned physiques. But as the night continued, it was clear that that was pretty much all TU Dance had to offer. For this piece at least, choreographer Uri Sands seemed to run out of steam fairly quickly, only giving us variations on the same basic themes using larger and smaller groups of dancers. I couldn't avoid the fear that the Thriller dance might break out at any moment. There was one notable solo, with a dancer who seemed to exist within the rhythms of the music without explicitly following them. At times she seemed to be floating in a cocoon of fluttering fabric for an arresting effect. I don't want to belittle the hard work of the company, but I have to be honest and say that I often forgot to watch the dance, focusing on what was going on with the band on the platform, my eyes naturally drawn by the people producing the music.  

And what music! I felt pinned to my seat by the sheer passion of Vernon’s sound and songs, none of which sounded like a work in progress. The first five songs were especially cohesive and I found myself thinking, if that’s the first half of the next Bon Iver album, it may well be he best thing he’s ever done. The boldness of his most recent album, 22, A Million, was still there but wedded to a more direct rhythmic conception drawing on reggae, funk, R&B and hip hop, (likely a result of collaborating with dancers, so I’ll give them that!) and sounding even more explosive. 

After that opening salvo, Vernon mixed things up a bit. There was one song that started with an almost painfully serrated synth sound before developing into an absorbing collage, and another that was almost purely percussive, with a touch of Afrobeat via Talking Heads. An a cappella gospel number was stunning, putting the grit and unique timbre of Vernon’s voice on display for a jaw dropping performance that almost made me think I was seeing things: how can he just stand there and sing like THAT? Late in the set was an exquisite cover of Leon Russell’s A Song For You that brought the 40-year old tune right up to date and put Vernon in the realm of our finest interpreters like Thom Yorke or Holly Miranda. 

The fact is that there was nothing I didn’t want to hear again, except for a piece near the end with a narration about Jim Crow. To me, Bon Iver’s music is at heart about intimate interpersonal experiences, writ large and turned into universal (and sometimes oblique) epics. If Come Through was supposed to be about politics or racism, this interjection was both heavy-handed and too little, too late. Not all art needs to be woke, even in 2018. 

There was ecstatic applause after every song - at first I wasn’t even sure we were supposed to clap, but quickly didn’t care - and a standing ovation when the band took their bows. As the crowd moved out of the room mostly in stunned silence, a guy asked me what I thought. “This may be some of the best Bon Iver music yet,” I told him and he nodded vigorously. “So you’ve liked their other records?” I affirmed that I had been on board since the beginning, yet had only seen one prior concert, in 2011. That was also an incredible show, I told him, but with a much larger band. One marvel of the music in Come Through is how Vernon managed to simultaneously strip his sound down and beef it up. He agreed with that as well, before expressing doubts about the dance - then it was my turn to agree with him. 

I only took a snippet of video because I wanted to stay in the moment, but you can make up your own mind about the lopsided nature of this collaboration when the finished version of the collaboration is performed in St. Paul in April and Los Angeles in August - if you can scrape up a ticket! Bon Iver is also on tour, and I’ll be curious to see if any of this new music makes it into those shows. I just hope Vernon releases some or all of it soon.