Here we are in the woods, generator humming, wine flowing, broadband blasting, tasks overwhelming. But before we get started with our last-gasp attempt to get caught up with everything that happened this year, every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #769:
Peter Gabriel – Up
We’re going to stay in the year 2002 for a second day in a row before we move on. If you were a fan at the time, you probably knew that this album took a long time to finish; if you weren’t, and you knew it existed, it probably came as a surprise. It’s Gabriel’s best solo album, as dark or darker than anything he ever did at his peak with Genesis back in the early 70s when they were a stagy, absurdist classical-rock band. By the time he began work on it in the mid-90s, he was heavily involved with WOMAD, his world music festival, and this reflects his qawwali obsession without drowning in it. The first track, Darkness, alternates explosive anguish with pensive lyrical piano passages; Growing Up is dark hypnotic funk; Sky Blue is just the opposite, and very memorably so, followed by the vivid requiem No Way Out and then the equally vivid, hypnotically atmospheric I Grieve. The Barry Williams Show throws a jab at the idiocy of reality tv; the most unforgettable track here is Signal to Noise, a scream for sanity in an insane world. Other standout tracks include the ominous ballad My Head Sounds Like That, the darkly trippy More Than This and The Drop, one of his most plaintive, poignant songs, just solo piano and vocals. Here’s a random torrent.
Sunday at Galapagos composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Lisa Bielawa and an inspired cast of indie classical types played a stunningly eclectic mix of new material from her two latest albums, Chance Encounter (with the Knights and soprano Susan Narucki) and In Medias Res (with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose). The concert got off to a rough start: drummer Bob Schultz was game to recite a series of occasionally bizarre, frequently amusing overheard-on-the-street quotes over what turned out to be pretty steady solo drums, but he wasn’t given a soundcheck (big mistake) and consequently the lyrics were often inaudible. And in the rap era, making the beats fit is part of the fun; this piece seemed more of an slapdash attempt at jazz poetry with random words set to an unrelated rhythm.
Things got exciting fast after that. Harpist Ina Zdorovetchi played another piece from the BMOP album, shifting from unselfconsciously Romantic cinematics to a mysterioso theme, followed by pianist Sarah Bob playing another solo work that went in the opposite direction, a tug-of-war between consonant comfort and bracing, wide-open, sky-at-night atonalities. After a pause for technical difficulties, the excitement went up another notch. Split between the stage and the back balcony, members of the reliably surprising indie orchestra the Knights turned in a marvelously orchestrated (in both senses of the word), strikingly stereo version of Bielawa’s Prologue and Topos Nostalgia section from Chance Encounter. Alternating fugal astringencies between the two sections of the ensemble with still, quiet beauty and the occasional playful conversation between instruments, it was a showstopper: flutists Alex Sopp and Lance Suzuki along with violinist Carla Kihlstedt backlit by the sound booth while Narucki and several of the Knights held court onstage, among them violinists Colin Jacobsen and Christina Courtin, violist Nicholas Cords, oboeist Adam Hollander and Bielawa herself adding terse, pensive accents on piano.
The program concluded with Kihlstedt singing the Song from Bielawa’s Double Violin Concerto, a potently effective transposition of modernist melodicism to a traditionally classical framework, accompanied by string quartet, viola, piano and harp. That Kihlstedt was able to sing her tricky counterrhythms while playing was impressive enough: what was breathtaking was how powerfully she belted those off-center tonalities. Clear, pure and laserlike, she didn’t have much of anything in common with Narucki’s virtuosically operatic delivery, but she was every bit as intense and compelling, maybe more.
In addition to the music, two short films were screened: Lisa Guidetti’s 2007 lushly summery, awardwinning look at Chance Encounter being played in Chinatown’s Seward Park, and Renato Chiocca’s view of Chance Encounter as it was created – to expose random outdoor audiences, pretty much anywhere (in this case, Rome), to the work of new composers. It’s as simple as bringing a truckload of chairs and letting the audience assemble without knowing that they’re in store for what could be an amazing free concert.
New England here we come! Armed with a stack of albums (and a virtual one just as high), a powerful broadband connection and more wine than you can imagine, the core of the crew here will tackle finalizing our Best Songs, Best Albums and Best Concerts lists for 2010 and see how caught up we can get on the other stuff before the folks stuck here at the office get jealous and call us back to Gotham. In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #770:
Jean Grae – Attack of the Attacking Things
One of the past decade’s greatest lyricists, Abdullah Ibrahim’s daughter is a throwback to hip-hop’s golden age. She’s as politically aware as she is self-aware, unapologetically proud of her lyrical skill yet down-to-earth – and utterly contemptuous of bling, status and fame. Literally everything she’s ever done is worth hearing. The popular choice is her bootlegs album, so to be perverse we picked this one from 2002 because it proves how ferociously good she’d already become by then. She romanticizes nothing: her party anthem is strictly for her struggling, round-the-way peeps; the portrayal of ghetto love comes with all the bumps and bruises and somehow manages to avoid being completely cynical. In her world, revolution is global and impossible as long as we cling to our neighorhood provincialism: “Missionaries create foreign schools and change the native way of thinking, so in ten years we can have a foreign Columbine in some small village in the Amazon,” she snarls quietly on Block Party. There’s also a genuinely touching tribute from a daughter to her dad; a couple of vicious, spot-on anti-record industry tirades, What Would I Do and Knock (“Crazy how I’m catching you with no major distribution”), a couple of aggressive gangsta-style tracks, a heartbroken requiem for a fallen colleague and one of the funniest skits ever to appear on a rap record. Here’s a random torrent.