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

Slowdive-Slowdive: Album Review

The story behind Slowdive’s comeback album is a bit too perfect.  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.

Slowdive didn’t receive some big check to write these songs—they didn’t even think about record labels until the album was finished.  Also, the way they were jerked in and out of fame in their short six-year career didn’t have them thinking too nostalgically.  Throw in Beach House’s Chris Cody on the mixing stage and you’ve got an album that’s easy to write about.

Still, all these factors are truly audible.  The band’s freshness is remarkable, perhaps a product of the Beach House interplay. This is not a group reaching backwards, it’s an honest crew of songwriters doing what they’ve always done.  It’s a logical move from Pygmalion, pushing all of that sonic exploration at a bit of a faster clip, with some slightly more digestible lyrics.  Like My Bloody Valentine’s 2013 offering, it’s a testament to the importance of Shoegaze and it achieves that distinction by simply delivering honest material from beginning to end.

“Star Roving” makes a great single that shows the warmer side of the project.  It thrives on a single guitar lick that punches like all hell with classic Slowdive vocal delivery and a typically rich sonic pool surrounding it all.  Neil and Rachel’s chemistry is as good as ever as lyrics effortlessly nail young love: “Smiling beautiful/She says I make it best/For everyone to hide/Twisting around my girl/Nothing left to lose.”  The song takes a moment to breathe with “oohs” between phrases and every time that guitar revamps, the goosebumps return.

The band emulates this warmth elsewhere, such as the instrumentally driven jam “Go Get it.”  A guitar opens with a spilling delay effect on the simple, descending melody.  The rather giant snare sound helps drive things as the chorus roars “I WANNA FEEL IT.”  This song also brings the group’s lyrical talents into play.  Each song doesn’t so much hand the listener a slew of lyrics or an idea or narrative, rather the group’s words fall in and out of importance with phrases only used at just the right moment to enhance the sonic effect.

“Everyone Knows” presents the most obvious lyrical distortion as the words fall entirely secondary to the strumming acoustic guitar and driving mass of sound.  “Don’t Know Why” also uses lyrics a bit differently by abstracting some specific words, but here you get the gist of the mood and the words later become a bit more metaphorically delivered.

Rachel articulates the part of a break-up when you just don’t want to hear from your former partner: “Put it all behind you/Put it in a song/I don’t want to know about it.”  The lines spill over each other and gradually it all melds together like a frantic collection of thoughts.  The abstraction of words is just as important as the abstraction of typical guitar roles in shoegaze and the group epitomizes it on this record that achieves emotional impact with sparse ideas and turns of phrase.

The second single, “Sugar for the Pill” shows the album’s cooler side.  Admittedly, as a stand-alone track, the song comes across as extremely clean and straightforward, but it makes more sense in the middle of the album as it’s bookended by two instances of heavy lyrical abstraction.  Neil paints pictures with his words: “There’s a buzzard of gulls/They’re drumming in the wind/Only lovers alive/Running in the dark.” It’s cool and detached and expresses a certain darkness of moving on from something that once was.

The album ends in a similarly cool place with “Falling Ashes.”  Piano shows up out of nowhere and remains brooding throughout.  Lyrics seem to reference their former selves with words about being lost with the prospect of being pulled back to happiness: “thinking about love.”  It caps off the work nicely by not trying too hard to find blissful stability and instead continuing to face their demons.

As far as the future goes, the band might not have a huge amount of impactful material left in them and perhaps Pygmalion and Souvlaki will remain their most significant works, but their self-titled album shows a highly relevant and important group living up to their songwriting legacy.

-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

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

 

 

The Uncoverables Podcast: Jaimie Branch Interview

The week’s episode features an interview with trumpeter Jaimie Branch in which she gives a full rundown of the composition and recording process of her debut album for International Anthem Records.  Out on Friday, Fly or Die emphasizes improvisation over grooves, noise jams, and out in open space–it’s an eclectic listen that should have appeal to music fans of many different backgrounds.

Click Here to Download

Playlist:

Erik Hove- “Morse Code” from Polygon

Trio3- “Stick” from Visiting Texture

Jaimie Branch- “Theme Nothing” from Fly or Die

Classic Album of the Week: Bjork-Homogenic

Bjork’s third full-length saw the combination of her iconic vocal mannerisms with an equally potent electro-acoustic instrumental pallet, a bit more focussed than her sophomore LP.  The album is relentlessly icy as electronic beats and soaring strings both underpin the ridiculous passion with which Bjork delivers each line.

The album dots the line between symphonic grandeur and more condensed danceable material.  “Pluto” pulls straight out of the industrial underground with a death-defying vocal effect; “5 Years” is a bit stripped back, but the beat delivers a bit of head-nodding ear candy; then, on the other hand, tunes like “All is Full of Love” or “Bachelorette” read as operatic.

Bjork seems to find peace at the end with the triumphant “Alarm Call:” “It doesn’t scare me at all,” but for much of the album the pulsing tension in the sonic landscape is matched by Bjork’s anxious lyrics.  On “Joga” she embraces “the state of emergency,” whereas “Bachelorette” places a relationship through a dire lens: “I’m a path of cinders burning under your feet.”

Of course Bjork also maintains her talents for the tongue-in-cheek as epitomized on Post’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” but this time perhaps a bit less brash: “I tried to organize freedom, how scandinavian of me;” “I’m no fucking buddhist but this is enlightenment.”

Like nearly all of her works, Homogenic was an entirely unique, left-field collection of tunes that also managed to conquer the world.  Her creativity is unfathomable and to this day she remains a force in music and an inspiration to songwriters of all genres.