19 May 2008

AMG review round-up, volume IV

got enough of a backlog now that i can put these up in semi-thematic installments; this volume comprises much of my output from april, but also some pieces from march and may, covering wispy, dreamy, mellow ambientish music, plus a little bit wispy dreamy punk rock. mostly new(ish) releases [incl. several featured on my friendsoffriends mux, and my best-of-08-to-date lists] but also a couple of overlooked classics:

Keith Fullerton Whitman: bio, Playthroughs review

"The entire album consists of nothing but processed guitar tone, though since the guitar is all but imperceptible as a point of origin for this music, the emphasis is squarely on "process" and "tone." The process, which involves running a guitar-generated signal (not the actual guitar sound) through a carefully arranged sequence of programmed Max/MSP modules, effects pedals, and other signal processors, is described in loving detail by Whitman, at heart a true academic, on his website. For the vast majority of potential listeners, of course, the explanation is just that -- academic -- but, unlikely though it may seem, this is an album that richly deserves many listeners, because the tones it contains are nothing short of breathtaking in their beauty and simplicity.

It's difficult to qualitatively distinguish Playthroughs from much of the ambient, drone-based music that's out there, although it does have a conspicuously unpretentious and inviting quality -- a sense of openness that must be ascribed to the unabashed consonance it retains (there are strikingly few instances of true dissonance to be found here) in spite of its constantly shifting harmonic content, which creates the sense of a continual unfolding or blossoming. It's equally hard to comprehend the evocative and emotional effect of this music, and harder still to describe it: it seems to function on a fundamentally different, precognitive level. But simply put: this is some of the most soothing, stimulating, and spellbinding sound that has ever been put to plastic. Without doubt, a masterpiece of modern minimalism. Emphatically recommended."

The Mountain Goats: Get Lonely review

"Thematically at least, Get Lonely is the sparest, bleakest record in the Mountain Goats' discography. Much was made of the unprecedentedly autobiographical content of The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed, and it is true that they conveyed a sustained emotional potency that was largely new to Darnielle's repertory, but both contained so many lyrical loose ends, disjointed perspectives, and ambiguous imagery that it was difficult if not impossible to glean any consistent context in them, let alone a coherent through-line. Get Lonely, on the other hand, is practically monotonous in its lyrical focus. Every one of its songs features a first-person narrator in a state of desolation, near-desperation, solitude (always), and grappling, more or less explicitly, with the psychic effects of recent loss: extreme listlessness, emotional paralysis, intermittent attempts at deterministic redirection; nightmarish delirium. In most of them, almost nothing happens; the plot of "Wild Sage" consists of its protagonist leaving the house, walking outside, falling down by the side of the highway, and lying there. Sometimes he can't even leave the house. It's a break-up album -- an almost uncharacteristically straightforward conceit for Darnielle -- the chronicle of a person dealing (or attempting to deal, at least on his best days) with loneliness, grief, and the pangs of memory. Whether or not it's a literal chronicle of a period in Darnielle's life (he had, at the time of its release, been married for many years) is irrelevant; forgiving a slight turn for the phantasmagoric towards the end of the album, it's hard to deny the fundamental, emotional truth contained in these songs, especially as conveyed by his uninflected, almost painfully restrained delivery. "

Retribution Gospel Choir: bio and Retribution Gospel Choir review

"Less a side project than a sort of alternate reality version of Low, Retribution Gospel Choir allow Alan Sparhawk, guitarist and songwriter of that legendarily quiet, minimal slowcore outfit (along with bassist Matt Livingston, a recent addition to Low's lineup) the chance to play music that, while still pretty minimalist, conceptually anyway, and often fairly slow, is definitely not quiet. Make no mistake, this is capital-R Rock music through and through, of the gruff and gloriously hazy variety typically associated with the stoner '70s and alternative nation '90s -- dense and thorny, with pummeling drums and grungy guitars galore. But at heart it's not particularly far removed from Sparhawk's primary concern: Low are a quintessentially '90s band after all, initially conceived as a nonconformist response to the grunge explosion but certainly not a wholly contrarian one, and the Low of the 2000s have amply demonstrated their propensity for rocking out in a flannel-flavored vein, at first on 2001's Trust but most notably on 2005's The Great Destroyer, which would have blended right in had it appeared ten years earlier. (Meanwhile, Sparhawk's status as a closet guitar god was well established on 2006's free-form one-man band turn Solo Guitar.) So fans of Low will find plenty to embrace here, especially those who have relished those recent developments; by the same token, Retribution Gospel Choir could well still try the patience of nonbelievers, as turning up certainly hasn't purged Sparhawk of his searing intensity or his elemental, no-frills songwriting style."

Dräp en Hund: bio and Be Yourself review

The two Swedish girls who make up Dräp En Hund were thirteen when they released Be Yourself, although playing dress-up in frilly ruffled blouses and cloche hats on the cover they could have passed for half that age. You might contend that they're playing dress-up here musically as well, precociously imitating their punk-rock heros - PJ Harvey, The White Stripes, Sonic Youth - with utterly rudimentary musicianship and songwriting - but that's selling the duo short. What have the great classic punks been if not a bunch of kids playing at being in a rock band? (Most of them just weren't quite this young.) Make no mistake, Alva (bass) and Gabbi (drums) own the attitude - they chug and clatter their way through the choruses of the aptly-named "God Damned Destroyed" with uncompromising abandon, there's a blank-eyed disaffection in the vocals on "Hate You" that's downright chilling, though otherwise the whole record splutters with sloppy enthusiasm. They do show their youth somewhat in the lyrics, with a certain wide-eyed positivity in the title track and "We Are We" ("we are going to be friends forever/the whole life/a very long life") that is nevertheless infectiousness, and references to sex and drinking that (thankfully) don't quite carry the ring of true experience (though the pummeling, stone-faced "Don't Drink" could be a vintage straight-edge anthem: "you destroy your life/ you destroy your dreams/ and all you want is more.") But while they may at times (inevitably) come off as cute - they are thirteen-year-old girls, after all - they're hardly cutesy. Even so, Be Yourself might not have much value beyond its undeniable novelty, if it weren't for the considerable amount of melody in their slow, simple, rough-hewn songs, all of which were composed by the duo save for a typically bled-raw thrash through "Seven Nation Army" that makes the White Stripes' raucous original sound prissy by comparison. As it is, it makes for surprisingly listenable sludge, performed and recorded with an almost adorable crudeness that fits its unabashed, youthful energy.

Hanne Hukkelberg: bio and Rykestraße 68 review

"Recorded after six months spent living in Berlin (and named for a street address there), the second album by Norwegian songstress Hanne Hukkelberg may be moodier and more mature than her endearingly light-hearted debut, but it's nearly as sweet and, in its way, just as playfully inventive. The occasional electronic elements of Little Things are absent, and the "noise" quotient is relatively subdued, but there's still plenty of atmospheric clutter and clatter: clinking bottles and kitchenware; a bouncing ball; "tea-strainer guitar"; an excellently played typewriter on "The Northwind"; Obelix the cat purring on his own ode (which can't help but recall likeminded noise imps -- and Hanne's former Leaf labelmates -- Psapp); and the Rykestraße itself providing urban ambience on the languorous opener, "Berlin." This bevy of found-sound sources commingles seamlessly and invitingly with the array of "real" instruments -- piano, accordion, prominent double bass (both bowed and plucked), glockenspiel, bass clarinet, and so forth -- to create an impressionistic, Old World Continental vibe with echoes of cabaret jazz, sea shanties, and the fusty, haunted soundscapes of Tom Waits. The effect, though evocative, is kept understated, never overshadowing Hukkelberg's resonant voice, a magnificently versatile instrument that evokes the high lonesome clarity and playful warble of Jolie Holland or Regina Spektor as well as the intoxicating swoops of Billie Holiday, and contributes as much as anything to the richly imbued charm of this album. (Her voice itself creates some of its most memorably personable moments, including the layered speaking and self-harmonizing on the creaky, slightly spooky "Fourteen" and extemporized-sounding passages of wordless a cappella noodling on "Berlin.") Rykestraße 68 is occasionally reminiscent of those artists musically and compositionally as well, blending as it does strands of folk, pop, and jazz, but a closer point of reference would be Fiona Apple's work with Jon Brion, particularly the defiantly idiosyncratic art pop of Extraordinary Machine -- it's equally visionary and emotionally flush, though if anything more accessible."

Silje Nes: bio and Ames Room review

"Even though many of the pieces on Silje Nes' debut album feature prominent melodies, delivered in her wispy, winsome sing-song voice, it seems somehow imprecise to think to them as 'songs' in the conventional sense. Uncomplicated, but not overly simplistic; fragmentary though not unfinished; individually distinct but clearly kindred, they're more like exploratory meditations on texture, ambience and deregulated musicality, some of which occasionally happen to take song form. By Nes' own description, the process of recording is central to - in fact, inseparable from - her compositional method, and [all but one of] the selections here are solo bedroom creations spanning from over a period of four years, presented, with rough edges intact, as an remarkably fluid whole. Incorporating a wide array of instruments and sounds, from delicately plucked and strummed guitars, cello, glockenspiel, melodica, and trumpet to warm keyboards, toy-like sound effects and all manner of drips, clicks, burbles and chimes, with Nes' breathy, muted vocals often serving as just another layer (or several) of sonic texture, Ames Room often recalls the gentle, whimsical folk-electronic hybrids of Psapp, Múm, Juana Molina, and even Four Tet in his calmer moments. The dreamy art-pop of fellow Scandinavians Stina Nordenstam, Anja Garbarek and, in particular, Hanne Hukkelberg is another relevant point of comparison, as is classicist lo-fi indie rock, a la the quirkier aspects of early Liz Phair, Mirah, or Lisa Germano. But while this barrage of comparisons hopefully conveys some sense of what Ames Room sounds like, it risks overcomplicating the album's endearing idiosyncrasies and overshadowing its artless sweetness and intimacy, the rare, ineffable qualities which make this a truly singular release - one that's all the more precious considering that Nes originally created much of this music without necessarily intending to share it with a wider audience."

Theodore: A Summer She Has Never Been, A Winter She Fears review

On his cryptically-titled Lo Records debut, Greek-born sound-impressionist Theodore weaves together sampled morsels of organic instrumentation and natural sounds with subtle electronic inflections to create hazily sweet, gently somnolent music reminiscent of Iceland's Múm, Japan's Lullatone, Britain's Plone, Norway's Silje Nes, and perhaps especially France's Colleen, with whom he shares a fascination with music boxes and antique-sounding instrumentation. To a great extent, Theodore forgoes the more straightforward folk and pop tropes of most of these artists, though there are subtle hints of Eastern European folk harmony, and decent amounts of acoustic guitar and other plucked string instruments here and there - including what sounds like a bouzouki on "Madam Ortance" - as well as a lusty sea-chanty accordion waltz underpinning the seedy-sounding "Montmarte." On the other hand, he's just as likely to evoke Western classical music as familiar ambient electronic forms; the album is rife with lush, lugubrious orchestral strings, and (recalling all of the artists mentioned above) all manner of bells and chimes. Overall though, the effect of the album is too diffuse and rarefied to sum up with any set of specific stylistic reference points, despite a constant, almost cheeky tendency for allusive arrangements and melodic borrowings. "Every Garden Has A Corner For Children" loops a polyphonic music-box snippet of "Auld Lang Syne" atop a bed of gently static white noise; "Mia Bella Fiorentina" distills the famous aria from Bizet's Carmen into a supremely languourous, murky wash of sound; "After Silence" sneaks in an arhythmic fragment of "Edelweiss" alongside its solemn, oddly chromatic, strummed folk dirge, and perhaps most unexpectedly, opener "I Dreamt I Was Throwing Stones At The Sea" treats Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Music of the Night" (from Phantom of the Opera) with a stately, almost classical reverence, as a sweetly chiming lullaby over lapping digital waves. Curiously, while these assorted, practically canonical melodies aren't extensively disguised, the settings they're presented in are sufficiently tweaked and removed from their original contexts as to make them nearly unrecognizable on a conscious level, at least at first listen, making them appear instead as haunting but unobtrusive shards of memory within a mysterious, transporting dream. Very much like a dream, A Summer She Has Never Been... can be whimsical and sweetly nostalgic, but it's too strange and otherworldly ever to become cloying - and at times it grows downright unsettling, even without rising above a serenely submerged whisper.

Rothko: bio and A Place Between review

"A thoroughly ambient work, not unrelated to but notably more placid than Rothko's early output as a three-pronged bass guitar post-rock group, and sparser too than Mark Beazley's "solo" work under the moniker, if only by virtue of the fact that he collaborates here with just one other musician, the singer and multi-instrumentalist Caroline Ross, instead of all of the members of her group Delicate AWOL. Ross contributes vocals, either hushedly sung or spoken in a near-whisper, on many tracks, as well as diaphanous flute clusters, occasional (or extremely unintrusive) guitar work, and pen scratching sounds on "Divided Lines." Apart from several instances of sweetly simple, Satie-esque piano, the rest of the luxuriously uncluttered sound field consists of Beazley's bass, whether engaged in deep, extended, gradually shifting tones or lithe, melodic upper-fret filigree or distant, unhurried overlapping parts; often it's a multi-layered combination. Even at its densest and most richly textured, the album never rises above a whisper. Though underpinned by adept musicianship, careful compositional structure, and inventive arrangement and recording choices, A Place Between is utterly unfussy, warm and inviting, content to drift blissfully subsumed in a humble glorious haze."

Susumu Yokota: 1998, Symbol, Distant Sounds of Summer, Wonder Waltz, Love or Die, and Skintone Collection reviews

"Possibly the most unique item within Susumu Yokota's highly idiosyncratic oeuvre, Symbol finds the multifaceted Japanese electronica master defying and muddying genre distinctions to create sui generis compositions of considerable beauty and strangeness. That's not exactly new territory for Yokota, but this time there's a gimmick: the album is consists primarily of fragments taken from classical pieces, many of them highly familiar, if not always readily identifiable, by the likes of Debussy, Rachmaninov, and Beethoven -- with a particular reliance on Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" and Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" -- as well as bits of more recent works by John Cage and Meredith Monk, whose unearthly voice becomes a focal point for several of these tracks. But while Yokota cuts, pastes, and plunders the world of art music with a palpable exuberance akin to the mash-up artists, his contemporaries, who were doing similar things with pop, the results are more nuanced than merely novel. Nor is it entirely out of step with his previous work -- it's not as serenely ambient as the beloved Sakura (though it is generally quite soothing), and it certainly has little to do with his various dance-oriented releases, but it retains the meticulous, multilayered compositional approach of albums like Grinning Cat and The Boy & the Tree. And although the presence of electronics is kept relatively understated, the elements with which Yokota weaves together his mad grab-bag of orchestral motifs, frolicsome fragments of flute and piano, and stately string passages (there are sometimes as many as seven classical samples in a single four-minute piece) will be immediately familiar to his listeners: subtly burbling beats, wordless ethereal vocals, vaguely Asian-sounding percussion loops (as well as a marimba ostinato that could pass for a Steve Reich sample). Indeed, without the obviously recognizable nature of his sample sources (which, depending on your perspective, could be a source of distraction or a point of engagement), it would be difficult to distinguish many of these pieces from "standard" Yokota compositions -- a feat which is in itself quite an accomplishment. That it's also a fascinating and rewarding listen, and an undeniably gorgeous bit of craftsmanship, arguably elevates Symbol to near the level of its inspirations, or at least positions it as a curious bridge between too-often estranged musical worlds."

"Without relying on an obvious gimmick, like 2005's Western art music pastiche Symbol, or an overtly conceptual approach, like its immediate predecessor, Wonder Waltz, Love or Die simply offers another reshuffling of Yokota's familiar assortment of musical fascinations, and the result may be the clearest encapsulation yet of his unique, multifarious vision. Love continues Waltz's conceit of using exclusively triple-meter time signatures, but while that album was a fussy, stylistically sprawled collection that sounded like it was trying desperately to explore as many rhythmic iterations and textural juxtapositions as possible, these tracks are far more fluid and cohesive, and somehow less rhythmically overbearing even though they have possibly the most prominent beats of any of his ostensibly "ambient" albums. Eschewing vocals (and collaborators of any sort, for the first time in a while), and generally limiting percussive content to a single looped phrase per track (be it a jungle-esque breakbeat, a stately, minimal jazz groove, or a straightforward three-legged disco glide), he hones in instead on lush, consonant sonorities and lyrical melodic structures not unlike the classical music he vivisected to create Symbol. While attending closely to musical and textural nuance, Yokota allows his compositions ample room to breathe, making for a record that feels more relaxed, and is easier to relax to, than anything he's done in years, even if it has little in common with the minimalism of his earlier ambient work. For that matter, it has little to do with most of what is typically thought of as "electronica," even though it features as many synthetic instruments as "real" ones (pianos, most notably) -- you might find parallels in the more melodious end of Aphex Twin's output, or Boards of Canada's pastoral reveries, but it's closer in effect to a sort of futuristic chamber music, one unabashedly fixated on sweetness, purity, and beauty. The ponderous track names may be rather ridiculously bombastic (if appropriately flowery and evocative), but the music itself is appealingly unassuming and gentle, making Love or Die less of an emphatic declaration than a strong understatement."

[also of note - Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique review]

1 comment:

dinossara said...

hey. Your reviews are great!

love from lisbon

sara