On the Monthly: April 2016

lol at this post, here’s 6 albums that I rated highly in somewhat of a linear fashion.

Valeda-Unearth

“On Unearth, she keeps her lyrics and sounds abstract and sparse, but also manages to offer an intimate, moving experience.”

Full Review

Jay Som-Everybody Works

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Matthew Shipp, Whit Dickey, Mat Maneri-Vessel in Orbit

“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.”

Full Review

Kendrick Lamar-DAMN.

“Damn isn’t a concept album, it isn’t a huge, sweeping narrative, and, truthfully, it isn’t packed with as much depth and nuance as To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid Maad City.  However, it features the best rapper of the current moment doing exactly what he needed to after an 80-minute cinematic ploy.  Damn features Kendrick contemplating his position and humility, it features his right-of-passage radio hit with Rihanna, and it features him plain old rapping his ass off.  It doesn’t feature the hyper-organization of To Pimp a Butterfly, nor does it feature the linear story telling of Good Kid, but what Kendrick has done is he’s just exploded all his usual forms and simply delivered song after song with incredible production, mind-blowing beat changes, and catchy hooks.”

Full Review

Slowdive-Slowdive

“All too often, comeback albums are a product of some combination of a popular middle-aged band needing retirement funds, labels at a loss for sales with young folks, and the human condition’s constant desperation for the past.  The formerly critically-shunned shoegazers missed all of that.”

Full Review

Mount Eerie-A Crow Looked at Me

A Crow Looked at Me is a glance at the stream of consciousness ramblings of Phil Elverum as he mourns the loss of his wife Genvieve Castree to cancer in July of 2016.  Besides the final song where Elverum makes eye contact with a crow, later hears his daughter talking about a crow in her dreams, and finally finds peace in the fact that the crow is the reincarnation of his wife, the album doesn’t dabble in a whole lot of symbolism or poetic devices, and the music consists of matching simplicity.  It’s a piece without answers or goals—it’s simply a man trying to find catharsis in speaking his day-to-day truth.”

Full Review

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

The Uncoverables Podcast: Lauren Lee Interview

This week’s podcast is pulled from another episode of CKUT’s New Shit.  I speak to Lauren Lee about her Space Jazz Trio and their upcoming Montreal show at Cafe Resonance on May 20th.  Topics include songwriting strategies, influences, and some thoughts on the New York and Montreal jazz communities.

Click Here to Download

Playlist:

Kara-Lis Coverdale- “Grafts” from Grafts

Lauren Lee Space Jazz Trio- “Voyager” from The Consciousness Test

Jessica Moss- “Entire Populations Pt. 2” from Pools of Light

Erik Hove- “Fractured” from Polygon

 

Valeda-Unearth: Album Review

I’m insanely late on this but I heard an interview with this artist on my beloved CKUT and I’ve been listening to the project quite a bit for a couple weeks.

Valeda is a solo electronic artist who is a part of susy.technology, a Montreal-based collective who—not unlike the great Kohlenstoff crew—are interested in multi-disciplinary artistic endeavors.  Their website specifies the “creation of audio-visual art engaging with the futurity of interactive media, cyberculture and augmented reality.”

Although Valeda is yet to release a music video, her music lends itself to immersive audio-visual experiments and her position in the collective is sure to lead to some great live experiences in the coming years.  On Unearth, she keeps her lyrics and sounds abstract and sparse, but also manages to offer an intimate, moving experience.

The album opens with cacophonous drones that remain constant as melodic sounds both gentle and violent grace the ear drums and frame Valeda’s quiet voice—the only source of brightness in the rather dark musical experience.  On the eight-minute opening track, for instance, pointed samples that sound like plucked strings are the first real “moment” before quick hits of ridged, high-pitched electronics and subdued quarter notes.

The world is bleak but active leading into the real entrance of Valeda’s voice around the half-way point.  Much less erratic, but sort of in the same melodic shape, her vocals model the high-pitched electronics of the beginning of the tune with quick ideas that eventually turn to full-fledged lyrical phrases: “never forget you.”  Her songwriting doesn’t lend itself to sing-able hooks and verses, however, the album is ridiculously enveloping and the excruciatingly gradual path to full lyrical ideas keeps you focused on every detail.

Perhaps the most impactful example of this lyrical strategy comes in the final tune, “Convent/Peril.”  Only four minutes long, the song mostly distorts its words with a mix of pitched-down, conflicting vocals, sound effects, and textural devices, before Valeda finally stands in the clear with the cutting line “my skin remembers what you can’t” around three minutes in.

The whole project has this tumultuous nature that alludes to trauma with the underlying sonic violence, but here is the most obvious allusion to past traumatic experiences and it really brings the work full circle.  Also, the use of the pitched-down vocals in the beginning of the song almost sounds like another person’s voice, invading in Valeda’s space so to speak.  Whether or not this exact interpretation was intended, the work offers a lot of room for multiple interpretations by keeping its themes cloudy, but also articulating specific bits and pieces.

Valeda’s middle two tracks are also great and the impeccable manipulation of space on each song carries over to the overall flow of the project.  “Under Ice” sort of reverses the approach to vocals in the first track by uttering the main lyrical idea first and continuously reinterpreting it throughout the track. It’s also the most rhythmically concise song, expanding on the rhythmic momentum of the first track with a stagnant beat from beginning to end.

“Losteling” is certainly the loudest song on the work, mostly by virtue of a single melodic strand of crackling sound that continuously inches up and down.  From the first track’s subdued beat to the more forward beat of the second, the third’s blasting melodic idea is quite logical and the brooding backdrop of the track helps along the seamless transition to pure force.

Unearth is emotionally moving and showcases a great deal of contrasting talents from Valeda without any real misfires.  I hope to hear more extensive, ambitious projects in the future, but 23 great minutes is a promising start.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Miwon-Jigsawtooth: Album Review

After a nine-year hiatus, the return of Berlin’s Miwon sees a sensible addition to his catalogue with more bright ambient landscapes and techno sensibilities.  True to the nature of N5MD records, the album continuously emphasizes melody with each 4-5 minute tune having a great deal of replay value while also expertly navigating open sonic terrain.

The album somewhat loses the rhythmic directness of 2008’s A to B and perhaps strikes a less emotionally moving tone.  Save the late-album dives into darkness, these songs are breezy and light. Still, the project keeps the listener engaged with spot-on songwriting with each passing track.

The beginning of the album serves as a decent representation of much of the project.  Opener “Fuzzy Words” builds swells above the active rhythmic foundation before the simple, but infectious melody comes in gently over the top.  This track doesn’t dig too deep as it sort of stagnates forward, but it works great as an introduction to Miwon’s particular aesthetic.

“Wolkengedoens” and “Shutter” are a bit more of the meat of the work.  Here, Miwon works in more drastic developments by continuously pilling on layers and emphasizing new melodic ideas. “Wolkengedoens,” for instance brings in a high synth melody towards the last 30 seconds of the tune to give a new splash of color that contrasts the slightly melancholy melodic centerpiece of the song.  “Shutter” is sluggish in tempo, opening the space for a blissful, wandering melody that gradually gets surrounded by more and more rhythmic activity, making for a natural, unpredictable development.

“Mondharke”—track 7—serves as the first full-fledged look at violence and darkness.  The crackling industrial sounds put the song on edge with pulsing low-end synths adding to the drama.  “Cool Your Jets” doesn’t necessarily read as violent, but it maintains the dark, smoldering nature of the previous track with an especially bouncy melody over brooding chords and low-end rhythmic sounds.

Although these two tracks contrast the sonic pallet of the beginning of the project, the exploration of this territory comes a bit late into the work.  Without these additions, the album would’ve been a bit one-dimensional, but it doesn’t feel all that well integrated into the project.  If Miwon had issued one of his more violent songs sooner into the track listing and then let that sound influence the tracks that followed the tug and pull between smoldering darkness and bright ambient sounds would’ve been more constant.

There’s no shortage of great songwriting and it’s great to hear a long-anticipated work that bites like “Jigsawtooth,” but it might have been a bit more impactful had Miwon dabbled into the violent, smoldering side of his sound aesthetic more often in the work.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

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