Sunday, March 31, 2019
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column, #126, is now live at Perfect Sound Forever. This one is about the sheer joy I feel now that I get to review analog components again. You can read it here.
Seems like things have been quiet in Norway lately--only three new releases from 2L Recordings and nothing from personal favorites Lars Jakob Rudjord or Ingvild Koksvik in quite some time--until now. Lars has just released a new EP, Arpeggio, just in time to celebrate Nils Frahm's Piano Day 2019, a global celebration of that particular instrument. As Lars explained to me, Arpeggio is "a little more conceptual this time," with three versions of the same composition named "Warpeggio," "Harpeggio" and "Arpeggio." As you might imagine, all three variations are derived from the same basic structure, obviously an arpeggio. Lars takes this delicate, simple theme and does what he does best, creating a hypnotic study that highlights both his stunning Scandinavian influences and the inner workings of his piano.
The latter element is one of the things that draws me deep inside of Lars' recordings--I've never heard another pianist who is so generous in showing off the mechanics of his instrument. That means you not only hear the pedals and the soundboard and the sound of his fingers on the keys, but you can also hear the hesitant way his ideas pour out and the thoughts that occur in his head just milliseconds before the note is played. You can sense it in the way he phrases these patterns, the way he makes each pass slightly different than the last.
In other words, these are three variations of the same piece that flow together as one single evolving composition. On his last release, Indiepiano, Lars excelled at being both intimate and a little icy around the edges--I can't help but think of Norway when I hear his music. "There's a minimalism at work here, reminiscent of the '80s, where Lars keeps the main piano melodies slow and deliberate and pleasingly repetitive," I wrote in that review. "It's the quiet textures that he subsequently adds that really dig out the contrasts." While I feel that Arpeggio is representative of that work, and these three variations could have been included in that release without sounding out of place, there a new step here that Lars has taken.
It all comes down to introspection, a motif I hold close and dear to my heart. Sometimes I feel nervous in recommending Lars Jakob Rudjord's work to friends because it is so light and beautiful that the deeper layers aren't noticeable at first. Where this music perseveres is in the almost invisible connections that are made in your synapses, the complex emotions that emerge through the simple melodies. (His wife Ingvild is able to accomplish this as well.) There's no doubt that Lars creates music that is simply beautiful, but it's up to you to explore and discover the hidden treasures.
You can listen to Arpeggio via your favorite streaming platform, or by visiting his website.
My latest review for Part-Time Audiophile is recently discovered set of recordings from Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake, hidden in a vault since the mid '60s. You can read it here.
Saturday, March 30, 2019
The ORG Music reissue of Cecil Taylor's classic Silent Tongues from Montreux '74 is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. You can read it here.
There's little to prepare you for the stripped-down, raw blues rock on The Black Tones' debut full-length album, Cobain & Cornbread. It comes out of nowhere, unapologetic, in your face. This Seattle-based duo--twin siblings Eva (lead singer, guitar) and Cedric Walker (drums)--came up with the name of their new album based upon their response to the question "What does your band sound like?" Eva explains it like this: “It sort of creates this offspring of rebellion and soul. We eat gumbo in our flannel shirts, and we eat red beans and rice while head-banging!”
Eva and Cedric consider it blues-punk, which seems apt. The name of the band follows that minimalist guitar-and-drums aesthetic explored by The White Stripes and The Black Keys, but this music is wildly original in the way it crosses so many borders. Eva's voice has the same full-throttled passion that you hear in gospel singers, which comes into play during songs such as "Rivers of Jordan," but when you transfer that voice into something more edgy, like the apoplectic "Mama! There's a Spider in My Room" or "Ghetto Spaceship," it's still a perfect match. Eva also plays organ, banjo and harmonica, so she's the one tasked with mixing it up while brother Cedric keeps the beat in a loose, heavy-on-the-crash style that isn't really that far from Meg White or Patrick Carney.
Again, I don't want to make comparisons, but the three bands are compelling as sort of an equilateral triangle of roots rock, of taking things back a few decades and revisiting the Mr. Toad's Wild Ride that attracted us to the genres in the first place. There's something brutally honest about the way The Black Tones approach their sound. Their influences are impressively hip, and they can reinforce both the antisocial tendencies of punk and the troubled history of the blues in a way that clearly states their ambitions--even when they're singing songs with titles such as "Chubby and Tubby" and "Plaid Pants."
If you want to get a taste of what this music is all about, the Tones have put up plenty of clips on YouTube. But Cobain and Cornbread is hardly a studio-based distillation of that energy. This album has that majestic feel of a live performance, of something that was laid down quick and dirty, a capturing of a unique moment that might never happen again. If you live in Seattle, you might already know about the magic of the Walker Twins. If they ever come to my neck of the woods, I want to see this amazing band for myself.
Thursday, March 28, 2019
I keep mentioning the trends in contemporary jazz, but I'm never sure if they're real trends of just my hyped-up and insular reaction to the way I receive the latest music releases. To me, it always seems like they arrive in genre groups--big band, tango, free jazz, female voice, etc. Over the last couple of weeks we've circled back to women jazz singers tackling the Great American Songbook, and I have quite a few to review. Many of these singers employ the same approach--they surround themselves with the best musicians and then let their voices do the...er, talking. I'm starting off with Ashley Pezzotti and her new album We've Only Just Begun because she's sort of a touchstone for what follows. She has a classic jazz voice from the sweet and angelic side of the street, and the arrangements of her quartet are honorable, precise and authentic.
Yesterday I wrote another review for Part-Time Audiophile which will appear in a couple of days, one of those vault discoveries that's been hiding out for fifty years from singer Jeanne Lee. Lee took so many chances, and her vocals are challenging because they deconstruct the norms of the jazz chanteuse. Pezzotti represents the opposite tack since she's someone who can take you back to a time where sheer beauty was valued beyond all else in jazz. Both styles are valid, and you need one to appreciate the other. But that aforementioned sweetness is what gets to me when I listen to Pezzotti's voice, a pure sound full of that elusive inner light, all without attempts to do something that has never been done before. Crossing frontier lines is noble, but there are simply times when you want to stay home and be comfortable and feel loved.
If I remove all the flowery language and big words, I find that I'm smitten with her voice. At just 23 years old, Pezzotti still knows how to find the joy in songs such as, well...here's the thing. Many of these songs are not from the GAS, but "inspired" by them. That's Pezzotta's one-two punch, that she wrote many of these songs and made them sound just like those jazz standards. In a way, she tricked me, and I'm impressed. It's her voice that sells this idea, however, that she's smart enough to make old guys like me feel dumb. Are you sure you're only 23? It takes an old soul to create this type of magic.
When I looked further into her quartet I expected a bunch of old vets, ones who could help her cast this spell. To my surprise, these four--sax player Alex Weitz, pianist Emmet Cohen, bassist Bob Bruya and drummer Kyle Poole--look young as well. I shouldn't keep focusing on youth, even though the album's title seems to emphasize it. Perhaps the clue is in Pezzotta's childhood where she started voice lessons at the age of four. That means she's going on twenty years of experience, which provides a much better perspective for the richness of her delivery. When performers this young are this seasoned, it's satisfying to know that they have decades of music-making in their future, and we can all sit back and enjoy the simple pleasure of beautiful music. That is, in essence, the joy of jazz.
My latest review for Part-Time Audiophile covers Gregg Belisle-Chi's Book of Hours, which bridges the gap between rock and jazz. You can read it here.
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
My latest review for Part-Time Audiophile, of violinist Gregor Huebner's evocative Los Sonadores, is now live. You can enjoy it here.
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Can you guess what "yyymf" stands for? I had no idea when I first grabbed this CD, but after a couple of listens I immediately figured it out. You might too if you just listen to it.
Right after Pixies' 1989 album Dolittle came out and became my favorite album of all time, I immediately started asking my hardcore punk brother if there were any other bands just like them. He tried to hook me up with several bands, and none of them had that same magic, that same perfect balance of the angry/fast and the intelligent/artsy. If I'd heard Mythological Horses back then, I probably would have said, "Here we go! This is fun! This'll do!" Band members Shawn Holley (guitars, vocals), Kurt Bloch (guitar), Kurt Danielson (bass) and Jest Commons (drums) look a little dog-eared in their band photos, so I kind of assume they were around when Doolittle came out. That's not to infer they've ripped off Pixies--they don't really devote themselves entirely to quietLOUDquiet--but there are similarities in the plaintive lead guitar, and Commons sounds a lot like David Lovering. A lot.
Shawn Holley can scream like Black Francis, but he's the biggest tangent. He's got one of those hyper-nerdy New Wave voices that we used to hear a lot during the early '80s. I feel like he could probably sing a pretty faithful version of Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf" if he wanted to. But here's the thing--I'm not saying that Mythological Horses are derivative. I just think they dug the same music I did when I was younger, and they took it a step further by actually forming a band around these New Wave themes.
I'm starting to see a movement towards resurrecting the original New Wave sound, the one that came along around 1979 or 1980 that let all us nice kids know that there was a compromise between hardcore and all that shitty dinosaur rock that had become truly boring. Mythological Horses shines in one area, it's the two guitar attack, the one that reminds me a lot of Ramones' "Road to Ruin" days. Those were the days when we found out that punk could have a sense of humor, a coherency and an attitude that wasn't consumed with anger. This is such a fun album, a blast in the classic sense, and you might find yourself screaming "YYYMF!" before it's all over.
Monday, March 25, 2019
Remember FM radio stations that played so-called "beautiful music"? Back when I was young and living in Southern California, we had station such as KBIG and KOST that played a lot of easy listening music, the sort of music that was supposed to soothe you and take you away from all your problems. I know all about this because my dad always listened to this type of music when he came home from work. He had a hell of a nasty commute, fifteen miles that took him an hour on nasty Orange County freeways, and he needed KOST and KBIG to decompress when he came home. It was little more than elevator music, of course, but it's weird that these radio stations don't seem to exist anymore.
I think for the most part "beautiful music" has been replaced by smooth jazz. The "relaxed groove" and "melodic interplay" of the smooth jazz group Urbanity definitely fits into this genre. Normally I would cut a wide path around this kind of music because it just doesn't excite me that much. But something happened today, a relatively troubling news day, of course, and I've been in sort of a foul mood for the last 24 hours. Urbanity, the eponymous album from Urbanity, wasn't even near the top of the review pile and yet I felt compelled to play it again because I just didn't want to listen to something angry, agitated or edgy. I can't believe it, but it totally worked. This album really mellowed me out.
I've reviewed Urbanity before, tackling their last album Urban Soul back in July 2017. I felt a little disappointed with that title since I had expected something more funky, more Sly and the Family Stone than Larry Carlton. "Urban Soul did grow on me, despite the initial disappointment of having to critique more lite jazz," I wrote, and my ultimate recommendation was to have these two Australian gentlemen--guitarist Albare and keyboardist Phil Turcio--ditch the drum machines and the synthesizers for a modern sound. I feel like they've done exactly that on Urbanity--Turcio is still handling all the programming, including percussion, but it seems he has a much better grasp of it now, switching to a more natural and modern beat.
The real reason I like Urbanity, as well as Urbanity, is because it's hypnotic if you're in the right frame of mind. This is really well-recorded lite jazz, with plenty of air and space and depth. Yeah, we audiophiles like to call that soundstaging, but here it's more of a knowing embrace, an aural first (or second) martini. It relaxes me, and I don't even have a nasty commute to deal with since I work from home. My dad, who's about to turn 88 in a couple of months and hasn't had to deal with a daily commute in 30 years, would probably like it too.
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Percussionist and singer Linette Tobin's latest album with her group Pangaea, The New Shape of the World, is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. You can read it here.
Friday, March 22, 2019
My latest music review for Part-Time Audiophile explores the relationship between humor and jazz with the Nick Sanders Trio's Playtime 2050. You can read it here.
Thursday, March 21, 2019
My latest review for Part-Time Audiophile is yet another book review, albeit with a CD included. This is from bassist Joris Teepe--and his tribute to Rashied Ali. You can read it here.
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Most jazz lovers understand how this genre intersects with the blues, and how the two mesh perfectly together. Trumpeter Ben Bierman "takes" this a step further by playing on the very idea that jazz can expand the repertoire by playing on the typical 12-bar constructs. On Some Takes on the Blues, Bierman has a consider amount of fun inserting blues into a wide variety of musical genres--Latin jazz, ragtime, country and, of course, rock and roll. The trumpeter also plays with the traditional 12-bar structures by expanding into 32-bar blues ("Pretty Blues") and even 48-bar blues ("Let's Chill One"), but accomplishes all this in such an easy, laid back way, opting for simplicity whenever he can.
Bierman's a bit of an academic--he's an Associate Professor at the City University of New York, and he has written several essays and articles. He's even published a book called Listening to Jazz. That informs his approach to this music to a certain extent--Some Takes on the Blues is calm, controlled and thoughtful. But Bierman also balances that out with a fierce enthusiasm that only a true jazz musician can lay out, something that probably resulted from sharing the stage with everyone from Johnny Copeland to B. B. King to Stevie Ray Vaughn to Archie Shepp.
Let's take this meticulous structure on step further--Bierman is also a multi-instrumentalist. In addition to his remarkably clear trumpeting, he also plays guitar, piano and bass. While he has help from guitarist Andy Reiss and drummers Willie Martinez and Emanuel Bierman, you're hearing a lot of Bierman in this songs. When you hear him grab his old acoustic guitar and play his heart out on "Leo's Rag," or when he delivers a smooth solo piano performance on "Blues for WC," you can almost imagine him in his classroom, jumping from instrument to instrument, showing his students how it's done.
"The blues has been the one constant in my musical life--in many ways everything I have to say filters through it," Bierman explains on the liner notes. While music is often performed by those who "play how they feel," to paraphrase Donald Fagen, a cerebral approach to jazz is often equally rewarding, such as when performers such as Miles Davis experimented with modal jazz in the late "50s. Thoughtfulness and rigor can earth many new discoveries, and Ben Bierman seems like the kind of musician who will pursue this approach for the rest of his life.
Monday, March 18, 2019
At one of my first magazine gigs, we had a running gag about my music reviews--especially since I was the only one who would regularly tackle hard rock and even metal. This was a gag I'd place at the end of the review, and sometimes it made it in and sometimes it didn't: "Well, they're not Tool...but no one is." A dozen years later I find myself surprised that I'm liking metal more and more, as long as it tries to stretch beyond the usual croaking and thunder-drumming. You know, like Tool does. With this Crashdown Butterfly EP, Near Life Experience, I'm tempted to say, "They're not Tool, but they're trying." That's not meant to be a diss, but here's a simple truth about this Seattle-based quartet. They like Tool, and it shows.
As I said before, singer-guitarist Ira Merrill doesn't croak like a frog, not even once. Like my dear buddy Maynard, Merrill can scream but he's not a screamer. He understands the importance of adding that honey to his delivery, as well as a subdued earnestness that brings just a little more intelligence to the pounding, forceful rhythms. Drummer Steve Gale isn't trying to be Danny Carey, long-limbed and almost deviant with time signatures, but he plays tight and fast and uses his big kit to be more expressive and to echo Merrill's commitment to music rather than seismic activity. Bassist Bob Lyman and second singer-guitarist David Miller round out the quartet into a nice tight machine, but this is where a second influence comes in hot.
When Merrill and Miller share the mic, you can hear it, spooky and sad at once--Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell. Man, these two come up with harmonies that have that same sense of despair, coupled with enough swagger to show the world that not all hard rock bands are created equally. Alice in Chains is a band I started to appreciate late in life, and that had something to do with the poignancy behind the band's history, that rock-bottom view where secrets are kept. I don't know if Merrill and Miller have seen the world through the same deeply smudged sunglasses, but they know what that pain sounds like, and they know that rock and roll isn't always a party.
Another easy comparison, considering the geography, is Soundgarden. In fact, Crashdown Butterfly dedicated a recent video to the memory of Chris Cornell, and that's when you start thinking about grunge and how all the singers have gone away and how some of us secretly wish for a reset so we can enjoy that time all over again. It was liberating, the meshing of two different spheres of rock, and perhaps that's why Crashdown Butterfly sounds so good and so tight. I've always had the feeling that the heyday of grunge was too brief, too fleeting, and while it changed the way we listen to both traditional forms of rock and metal it feels troubling that it all happened twenty years ago. Near Life Experience suggests a world where everyone held on and kept playing. I'll look forward to whatever follows this EP.
I have to tell you a story about the first time I listened to this CD. Just after it arrived in the mail, I stuck it in the CD player and pressed play and then walked into the next room so I could give it a cursory listen while I worked. Minutes before, I had started the dishwasher in the kitchen on the other side of the house. Suddenly I heard a huge crashing sound, like glass, and I thought maybe the dishwasher was busy destroying our drinking glasses. I stopped the dishwasher, opened the door and looked around and found nothing out of the ordinary. Then it occurred to me--was that crashing sound on the CD? I went back to the beginning and listened and there it was, a sudden crash, followed by a series of low mechanical sounds. Skylark Quartet? Live in Tokyo? Did someone stick the wrong CD in its case back at the publicist's office?
Suffice it to say that you haven't heard music like this before, much less jazz. I have to go back to the fact that this came from the Marginal Frequency record label. My first taste of Marginal Frequency was Alloys from Lori Goldston and Judith Hamann, which I reviewed just about a month ago. I called that recording "a full dissection of the cello and how it interacts with its human counterparts." Shortly after I received that release in the mail, I nearly deleted an email from recording engineer Al Jones simply because I wasn't sure if he was talking about music or not. Marginal Frequency takes such a novel, off-road approach to experimental music that I thought I was being offered a course in some long-forgotten science. Marginal Frequency is so intriguing and strange that I've talked to Al about writing an article for the summer issue of The Occasional. (Yes, we're still trying to get the Spring issue out as I write this.)
The Skylark Quartet consists of Orlando Lewis on clarinet, Franz-Ludwig Austenmeister on keyboards, Hayden Pennyfeather on bass and Roland Spindler, but you wouldn't know that from merely listening to these eleven tracks, all titled "Skylark," which of course is the classic song written by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. You won't know that by listening, either. These tracks, recorded live but without audience response, are deconstructions in the most dramatic sense, a supreme reduction in the sounds of each instrument until they resemble a series of random noises recorded in a haunted, vandalized factory. The clarinet is defined mostly by the sound of air passing through the reed, the keyboards sound like random beeps and blips from a computer and the bass is so austere that you'll forget it's there until you hear a single plucked note. The drums, of course, are equally spare, a minimal amount of percussion and no beat, other than the occasional smashing of more glass on that factory floor.
Does this sound too weird for you? It doesn't for me. I can dive into my LP and CD collection and pull out all sorts of weird recordings, ones I heard once and swore never to hear again, ones I put on when I want the party to break up and ones I actually truly love because they touch something rusty and dark in the corners of my soul. Live In Tokyo is fascinating, however, for a couple of reasons. First, the music slowly appears and evolves as you progress through the tracks, and you start to recognize the strains of "Skylark." Secondly, it's "permanently archived here, and available for a time in a limited pressing of 150 CDs from glass master," according to the Marginal Frequency website, which adds to the mystery. "Documentation of this rare performance is limited to the recorded audio, and what could be gleaned from observers Kanji Nakao, Sam Sfirri, Taku Unami, and Reiji Hattori."
In other words, I don't possess all of the puzzle pieces yet, but as I chat with Al Jones and prepare for an article about Marginal Frequency, I hope to solve that mystery.
[As an aside, I'm looking at yet another giant pile of music to review--always a good thing--but if I publish one review in Part-Time Audiophile per day, I'll never catch up. So I'm going to put some reviews back up on the blog until I catch up!]
So, what does it take to make it in the music industry these days? What does it take to become a big pop/rock star? That's kind of a boring subject in 2019, I know, since the stuff that makes the Top 40 these days is mostly crap. I hate saying that, because every other old guy out there is saying the same thing, but I listen to albums like Charming Disaster's Spells + Rituals and I think, "If this had been released when I was young, back in the '70s and '80s, they'd be a big thing. They'd be noticed. They'd get plenty of airplay."
Charming Disaster is fronted by Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris, a duo who sing well, write great songs and imbue every track with imagination and skill. We used to call that talent. Between the two of them, they also play ukeleles, guitars, pianos, music boxes, ratchet sets, glass jars, canned air and plenty of percussion. The band also includes Don Godwin, who plays bass, drums, horns, backing vocals and more percussion, with Heather Cole playing violin, Jessie Kilguss playing harmonium and Patricia Santos playing the cello. That's the kind of line-up that can play almost anything you want--and they do, in a way. Charming Disaster balances smart pop songs against a confident stage presence, sort of a swagger, that suggest the two people out front are destined for great things.
Let me amend that--in a perfect world, everyone would be talking about that cool new group Charming Disaster. Do you know them? They're great!
I know, I'm waxing nostalgic here, lamenting the passing of the days where most of us kids were listening to 40 or 50 groups and singers at most. Pop music has exploded exponentially over the last thirty years, and there will never be another Beatles. I'm blathering on and on because I know there are people out there who also miss a music scene where talent, intelligence and originality rise to the top. These people will hear Charming Disaster's mixture of bluesy pop, a little ironic country, an encyclopedic knowledge of the rock and roll canon, and a couple of great voices that harmonize perfectly. In a way, Charming Disaster resembles Queen--is anyone else getting tired of that band's second wind?--and how these people are overflowing with musical ideas that simply defy categorization.
In a way, Spells + Rituals makes me just a little sad--mostly because it is so good and so unique and maybe they'll get noticed and maybe they won't. I think of every great indie band that seemed poised to be a huge thing due to an excellent album, and how they faded into obscurity and even I don't remember them anymore. So maybe this is a challenge to all of you who are reading this. Listen to this album, this band, and let me know if you think they're as good as I do. Maybe I've lost touch with popular music, but I don't care because I still feel like I know what's good and what isn't. This is good, and Charming Disaster should be a big thing...in a perfect world that may not exist anymore.
Sunday, March 17, 2019
My latest review for Part-Time Audiophile is this masterful recording from Norway's 2L Recordings, Lux, is in many ways one of the finest releases I've heard from this amazing record label. You can read it here.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
My first book review ever--I think--is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. This is Brian Jabas Smith's collection of his Tucson Salvage column for Tucson Weekly, and it's stunningly poignant and extremely well-written. You can read about it here.
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
My latest review, on the exquisite Berliner Meisterschallplatten direct-to-disc LP of violinist Ruth Palmer playing Bach is now live at Part-Time Audiophile. You can read it here.
Monday, March 11, 2019
My latest review is now online at Part-Time Audiophile. This one is of the Meat Puppets' brand new album Dusty Notes, their first album with the original trio since 1996. You can read it here.
Saturday, March 9, 2019
My latest review, Wadada Leo Smith's Rosa Parks: Pure Love, is now available at Part-Time Audiophile. You can read it here.
Friday, March 8, 2019
My review of Pikefruit's Sprig is now up at the Vinyl Anachronist section at Part-Time Audiophile. This is the first review we're doing this way, so hopefully this transition will be smooth.
Just click here to read the review of this endearing electronica duo!
Sunday, March 3, 2019
I'm experimenting with a change to this blog, which will probably happen over the next week.
As my duties increase as a contributing writer to Part-Time Audiophile and as Managing Editor of The Occasional, PTA's quarterly magazine, I'm making an effort to consolidate everything I write. That means I will be publishing all my music reviews in a special section on the PTA website. All this means is that my reviews will have a much bigger reach, while hopefully generating more web traffic for my paid gig. (This blog is, as I've mentioned, for glory and not for money.)
I will continue to use this blog as a way to direct readers to the articles on PTA and elsewhere, and perhaps to make a few goofy personal asides. But I came to this decision for several reasons. First, everyone's been asking me why I still do the blog when I obviously have a more lucrative venue for publication. Second, the musicians I cover deserve more exposure than I can provide on my modest little blog.
For you, the reader, it should only involve an extra click to read the reviews. Perhaps, over time, readers will know to go directly to the PTA site instead of going here first--if the Google numbers reflect this trend, this blog may go bye-bye. We'll see. But until then, I hope my dedicated blog readers follow me to my new home. Thanks!