Jaimie Branch-Fly or Die: Album Review

Jaimie Branch’s debut is a longtime coming.  Having grown up in the heart of Chicago’s music scene and relocated to New York City, she’s had a role in improvising, hip-hop, and indie rock scenes for years and she’s also worked as a sound person, enjoying punk and underground aesthetics of all creeds—in interviews, she’ll mention everyone from Sun Ra to Matana Roberts to Show Me the Body.

“Fly or Die” didn’t come together in a conventional manner and it owes a little bit to each of the traditions that Branch has experienced over the years.  The record seamlessly incorporates post-production guitar ramblings, live set interpolations, and dubbed over trumpet trios without losing the sense of a single paint stroke.

Themes 1, 2, and “Theme Nothing” operate as major focal points.  After a 15 second snack of trumpet distortion, Chad Taylor, Tomeka Reid, and Jason Ajemian combine forces to set the tone with a driving minor groove. Reid and Ajemian’s chemistry is immediate, as they trade off little pieces of bass line over Taylor’s melodic approach to the kit. Branch enters with an ascending line with a lot of room for reinterpretation, leading to a lot of interchange between her and Taylor.

One recurring theme on the record seems to be abstracting distinctions between solo and ensemble, written melody and improvised and this track immediately touches upon that. Branch leads the charge into the back end of the track, which eventually dissolves into a dramatic landscape aided by longing, bowed string melodies and some acoustic guitar ramblings from “guest artist” Matt Schneider.  “Meanwhile” then focusses in on Schneider, with Taylor eventually building back the energy for his final fill into “Theme 2.”  Although set-up a bit differently, the process somewhat repeats here with another fun, driving groove that gradually falls off into obscurity.

“Theme 2’s” end finds another important skill of Branch.  As I’ve said, the album is highly varied, but still feels like one paint stroke and part of that comes from the gradual introduction of the next melody at the end of the previous tune—a tactic that comes up all over the project.  Here, Reid and Ajemian paint a hectic backdrop and, as the dust settles, Branch introduces the balladic melody for the next track.

This first utterance of the “Leaves of Glass” melody gives off the impression of a ballad and the track initially has a sense of cleanliness to combat the violent end of “Theme 2,” but nothing is as it seems on a Jaimie Branch record and as the phrase repeats itself, the added trumpet parts lead the overall mood into another dystopian noise ploy.  It’s frankly amazing that Branch is able to move through these moods with such ease and her melodic knack helps ground each splash of emotion.

“The Storm” continues the noisiness and showcases one of the best examples of Branch’s use of recording technology.  After the “nose dives,” as Jaimie calls them, where each member of the band descends through the whole range of their instrument, a trumpet player spits out a bunch of biting, be-bop oriented lines.  This trumpet player is actually guest artist Ben Lamar Gay and Branch is making all of the static radio noise with extended techniques right up against the microphone.  This song is also taken from a live performance.

Had Branch not told me these details, I might not have even noticed–It really says a lot about a composer if their musical stamp is so ingrained in the work that even when they hand off the spotlight to another player on the same instrument, their personality reigns true.  After this tune, “Waltzer” dedicates itself a bit more to the notion of a ballad and “Theme Nothing” delivers another pulverizing groove to finish of the project.

As a whole, this record could appeal to a lot of music heads out there. There’s instances of blissful groove, but they get balanced out by distorted messes.  The production of the project is also impeccable and almost lends itself to the studio ideas of lo-fi folk movements from the late 90s by cutting and pasting all sorts of different ideas into one flowing collage of sound. Branch sounds poised as just about any other band leader out there right now and this album is a testament to her undying creativity and successfully carves out an exciting, unique position in the contemporary instrumental music realm.

-Donovan Burtan

9/10

Album Review: Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri, Whit Dickey-Vessel in Orbit

First 9/10 of the year folks, three legends keeping it straightforward with 48 spotless minutes of music.

“Vessel in Orbit,” the latest album from the great AUM Fidelity Records, features three greats doing what they do best in a neat, 48-minute package.  In terms of background, Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri, and Whit Dickey are all names that most fans of improvisation are familiar with.  Last year, Shipp was featured on a re-release of sorts of old concert duets between him and the late-great David S. Ware.  Perhaps this combined with his biting “Cactus” album from the fall with Bobby Kapp puts him on a bit of a winning streak—of course it’s hard to say he’s ever NOT been on a winning streak.  For Dickey, this is a little bit of a return to the studio, although he also laid down some work with the freaky cornet player Kirk Knuffke last year, and violist Maneri has been active as ever, playing on Ches Smith’s “The Bell” in 2016.

From beginning to end, the album pulses with life.  These musicians hold blues and swing in everything they do, but they sound ridiculously fresh, unique, and in the moment at all times.  Dickey is a painter at the drums.  He never lays down the rhythm too obviously, yet the allusions to swing can always be heard.  “Space Walk” reads as barren and contrasts the slightly more consistent rhythmic drive of the first track.  Dickey is all over his toms on the track, but he also taps at the ride cymbal with the swell of each miniature musical phrase.

Also, the project is quite digestible.  Most of the songs run around five or six minutes, making them packed with activity and still, Shipp keeps his bashing bass sounds and freckled high notes contained.  Of course, these musicians aren’t compromising artistry or pandering to a mainstream audience, but this album might be a bit more applicable to any music fan with a pulse than their more stretched out, no-holds material.

Each track also maintains an individual identity.  With its bass pedal foundation and brief stints into bashing improvisation and reserved lyrical playing, opener “Spaceship 9” frames the project nicely without putting all the player’s cards on the table.  Longest track “Galaxy 9” features a great change in direction, first playing around with a squirrely little motive, before the spaced-out bridge leads into pulsing, brooding ending.  “To a Lost Comrade” might showcase the band at their highest commitment to delicacy, a term I’m using very lightly considering the rather big swell at the center of the tune.  Still, Shipp places a little bit of a sweetened emotional tone in the work and the ideas from all three remain a bit more lyrical than the mix on the other parts of the project.

Maneri and Shipp’s chemistry is truly uncanny.  Both of Shipp’s hands continuously deliver melodic ideas and Maneri also somewhat subscribes to that ideology.  As both hands spill over the bar lines on “Turbulence,” Maneri adds his own pecks and lines to the mix, the middle of the track crafting a mad house of melodic ideas before the ending also features charismatic back-and-forth tossing from the two.

Perhaps the trio isn’t carving out an entirely new aesthetic space—the acoustic, piano trio is fairly commonplace in 2017—however, some band outfits are never to die and certain musicians are gifted enough to remain fresh with each passing year.  “Vessel in Orbit” bleeds greatness from three tried and true veterans.

-Donovan Burtan

9/10

 

 

Charli XCX-Number 1 Angel: Album Review

Again sporting production collaborations from the illustrious PC music crowd, Charli XCX presents a mixtape that pulls together sounds from freaky pop traditions and those dominating the Billboard charts.  The album seeks out massive bangers to some avail, but also feels a bit like a “darts in the dark” pop record—each punching song sounds like XCX slapping together something insanely catchy, that COULD make the radio, and tossing it in the air to see if anyone’s interested.  Also, the “Emotional” numbers are largely unsuccessful, sounding like another attempt to soundtrack “The Fault in Our Stars.” Cupcakke’s charisma is undeniable, MØ shows up for an especially fun number, but overall “Number 1 Angel” misses the mark.

The record’s highs are certainly high.  We open on twinkling ambience before pillars of metallic bass and riding high hook float in at a fun, un-abrasive clip: “I’m a dreamer, step step out the beamer.”  “3AM” follows suit with a collaboration that was meant to be.  MØ’s rasp and energy combine perfectly with Charli’s hyper-intensive bubblegum aesthetic for the blistering dance-floor banger of the night.  The quasi-dancehall vibe at the hook is absolutely infectious with both verses harping on the ever-relatable fuck-boy that you can’t let go of topic.  Even the attack-on-the-ears “oohs” between the hooks are suitable for screaming out in the car.  “Lipgloss” is also perfection.  Cupcakke’s down and dirty lyrics present the poetic equivalent of the PC music sonic nightmare/rave: “so I can open my legs bon appetite.”  The crackling synths usher in XCX’s equally naughty hook: “I keep it sticky like lip gloss,” making for a bold final album cut.

Besides these three tracks, there’s a small supply of fun, hard-hitting radio material and some overly gushing power ballads, both far too close to completely sterile music industry creations to be of any interest.  Particularly at the chorus, “Emotional” jumps into that soaring movie-soundtrack sound with simple bass and snare combinations that evoke a summer music festival collection of hand claps.  The lyrics are also as dull as it gets: “All over, deep under my skin/You got me so emotional/We had something that never happened/If only we had less control.”  “ILY2” fades in next, almost sounding like “Emotional’s” coda.  The verse is a bit more upbeat, but again we get a soaring chorus that’s just trying a bit too hard with luke warm lyrics: I don’t talk a lot so you should listen up.”

The album is also lacking in the typical PC music hardware, even on the best tracks.  Obviously, in listening to “Emotional,” one can imagine that if the metallic bass sound were replaced with an electric bass or something or other, it’d basically be a Kings of Leon number, but even the chipmunked vocals at the end of “Drugs” sound like a hail mary at the end of an otherwise straightforward studio pop creation.

Charli XCX remains a very inconsistent force in the pop industry.  She’s trying to uplift some experimental pop ideas into the mainstream, but a lot of times it sounds a bit too akin to the material she was making before running into SOPHIE.  In her later endeavors, I hope to see her either take all the risks or perhaps just own the normal pop label and make a bit more of a lyrica statement.

-Donovan Burtan

6/10

Parlor Walls-Opposites: Album Review

Armed with konked-out free jazz saxophone and no-wave punk sensibilities, Parlor Walls paint an emotionless, futuristic void to speak about modern mundanities, societal constructs, and relationship tensions.  Self-described trash-jazz musicians, the walls pit Alyse Lamb’s raucous vocal deliveries and scrapping guitar musings against Kate Mohanty’s screeching horn over open-faced drum grooves from Chris Mulligan in a number of different aesthetic realms.  Crime Engine Failure opens with a straightforward distorted landscape, but tunes like Me Me My and Cover Me jump into a more industrial realm, leaving the tumultuous jam session Teach Me Where to Roam out in left field as an outlier.  At this point in time, the lines between free jazz horns and punk-induced yelps have been drawn before, but Mohanty’s lyrics leave room for interpretation and the dynamic songwriting approach makes for a riveting experience.

The lyrics on the project certainly require a bit of interpretation, but Lamb’s way with words makes her lines particularly unique and enticing.  Crime Engine Failure opens with passing remarks: “cut it into little watches/I got the script you hear my voices/running images across the screen/scan for the one’s dear to me.”  The idea of running images across a screen is decently discernable as something to do with technology—Instagram?—and the script implies something rehearsed, whereas the last line touches upon emotional meaning.  I sort of draw this together as the faux-emotions of the internet where you almost have a script of things to do in order to convince your friends that you still care.  The chorus bursts out with “but you pulled the chord right out of me and now I don’t know how to call out,” which again touches upon technology as Lamb doesn’t know what to do when she’s unplugged.

Other areas on the album allude to various figures in Lamb’s life.  Play Opposites seems to be about gender, particularly when one’s parents feel as though their children didn’t turn out as expected: “Is this what you wanted mother/empty shells to fill your hole.”  The “play opposites” tag refers to some sort of binary, perhaps a childhood game in which brother and sister play opposite.

With pounding 7/8 in full swing throughout, Hesitation creates a particularly violent atmosphere for a dystopian take on having feelings for someone: “crawl through your infatuation/can you say my name.”  With a chorus about tearing down the walls between each other that gets delivered in complete anarchy: “welcome through I’ll leave my light on/rearrange my shade/we can imagine partition/see it fall away.”  The mood of the tracks is always reflected in Lamb’s words and although the line “burn it to the ground” seems to be rather all-encompassing for the record, there’s a great deal of variety throughout.

Sonically, the group is grounded in a certain aesthetic, but the subtle changes at the beginning of each track make for a new context for their improvisatory gestures.  On Teach Me Where to Roam, the cacophonous drums make for a particularly bleak environment.  Mohanty’s smoldering saxophone lines add to the haunting moodiness, trading ideas with the lofty guitar melodies.  Cover Me is even more daring in its improvisation as Mohanty’s manipulated saxophone unleashes idiosyncratic lines throughout, to match the brooding, looped electronic bass sound.

The instrumental, Carstairs, is brought to a much more mellow sound space with glistening, textured electronics.  Of course, Mohanty carries the track into a slightly more anxious place with her melodic climaxes, but it’s interesting to hear a bit more of a barren landscape for their gushing energy than the usual heavy riffs.

Opposites showcases a punk band that’s primed and ready to wreak havoc on DIY spaces all over the continent.  Parlor Walls certainly pay homage to the no wave era, but their integration of improvisation into the punk idiom is pristine and Alyse Lamb’s poetic lyrics inspire deep listening and contemplation.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

The Uncoverables Podcast: Evan Shay and Kyle Hutchins (Run and Hide) Interview

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Evan Shay and Kyle Hutchins are Montreal musicians whom you may already know, but Run and Hide is a stark change of artistic pace for both of them.  Comprised of a pair of sax players, Run and Hide is a highly melody/improvisation driven work involving a lot of conversational playing.  On this episode we talk about improvisation, purple cows, and finding inspiration in and outside of the classroom.

Playlist:

Jessica Ackerley Trio-“Clockwork” from Coalesce

Run and Hide-“Which Way is the Highway? ” and “The Well Lit Road” from Run and Hide

Craig Taborn-“Phantom Ratio” from Daylight Ghosts

Jessica Ackerley-Coalesce: Album Review

Jessica Ackerley is a Canadian-born jazz guitarist who has since relocated to New York City.  On Coalesce, she seems to have completely accomplished her goals.  To quote her liner notes: “Coalesce is an exploration of the guitar trio. The compositions have been a three-year process of honing the perfect balance between compositional form and complete free improvisation.”  It’s clear that the songs on this record are structured and planned, but the group’s flexibility is impeccable.  Melodies melt into open sections of improvisation with ease; solos flip-flop between individual focus and collective conversation effortlessly; and the group finds room to embrace space and silence between their primal noisy jam sessions making for a record that offers constant surprises and a perfect balance between not only improvisation and composition, but anticipation and stimulation.

To some degree, the final track ‘merica provides the best summary of the group’s various dynamic levels and playing spaces.  As the longest track of the collection, ‘merica builds up from near silence to a heavy final vamp, touching upon all the levels of the spectrum in between.  Ackerley opens alone with wandering guitar melody.  The line is rather simple and alters between a small handful of notes, but the delivery—especially considering the pounding heaviness of the preceding track—is quite unpredictable, drawing the listener closer for every strum.  As the presence of drummer Nick Fraser and bassist Mat Muntz grows in the middle, the group offers some great textures especially when Muntz rips squealing high notes out with his bow.  Towards the end of the track, Fraser rounds out the sound with frantic cymbal work as Ackerley lays down dramatic distorted pillars of guitar sound.

On other tracks, the group takes a variety of different approaches to song form, but focusses a bit more on specific levels of volume.  The opener, Clockwork, offers a comfortable middle ground to introduce the band.  The structure of this one is rather straight-forward as well with the group diving from main theme into a ‘solo’ section, then back to the main theme.  Again, I use the term solo rather cautiously because the forms are still rather fluid and each player seems to be constantly changing their playing style to fit wherever the melody is headed.

Minneola opens with guitar solo before jumping into a head with a bunch of different sections.  The end of the track doesn’t revert back to the beginning, rather Ackerley transitions from her solo to a vamp to give Fraser room to play around for the last couple minutes of the track.  Because the head never comes back in full, the track has a highly improvised sensibility.

Snakes in the Grass is perhaps the most bombastic tune.  Ackerley opens with some heavy-handed chords, and although there’s a bit of a digression after the initial head, madness overtakes a great deal of the track.  The primal intensity of this track is well earned and keeps things pushing towards the end.  Perhaps my only complaint on this record would be that the middle of the track-listing can be a bit slow, but this track and the final come together for a rousing finale.

The album shows a mastery of guitar tone from Ackerley.  Her subtle array of effects always seems to place her perfectly within the context of each piece.  On the introductory Clockwork, Ackerley keeps it rather clean, but when given space to her own on the aptly titled Solo Guitar, she plays around with an echo effect to fill up the room a bit more.  Heavy numbers obviously inspire distortion, but as we see at the beginning of ‘merica, Ackerley also finds time to caress slow melodies with waving foot pedal action.

Coalesce is a sensible name for this project.  It’s an experience that blends everything together super well, resulting in a dynamic 48-minute block with shining standout moments as well as a cohesive flow from idea to idea.  New York is a crowded place, but Ackerley is sure to be one of the young stars around town in the coming years.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Classic Album of the Week: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet-Sound (1966)

On his first album as a band leader, Roscoe Mitchell gave the world a first glance at the music that the Art Ensemble of Chicago–of which Mitchell and a few of these musicians were a part of–would be enamored with throughout their illustrious career.  Coming seven years after Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Sound extended Coleman’s message with a more collective playing style and further dives into experimental textures. The aptly named opener Ornette follows the same melody-improvisation-melody formula that Coleman used so often, but The Little Suite follows with great deal of components, each of which tested limits of aesthetic and timbre with harmonicas and other texturally driven instrumental sounds.  At 20-minutes long, title-track Sound was certainly one of the most rebellious offerings of the 1960s.

Chicago was a town that always held an influence on jazz history as many New Orleans-born heroes had to flee to a less racist part of the country late in their careers.  The Art Ensemble of Chicago proved the importance of the city’s art music scened by pushing the idea of improvisation further than it had ever been with each performance.  Sound was the start of their rise and without it the fundamental ideas of free improvisation would not be where they are today.