Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Two Intriguing Albums by So Percussion

So Percussion has a couple of enjoyable, extremely diverse new albums out on Cantaloupe (the Bang on a Can peeps). Their first is a performance of Steve Mackey’s 2010 composition It Is Time, an entertaining, often absolutely hypnotic, somewhat minimalist but imaginatively orchestrated 36-minute suite which begins simply with a triplet rhythm commonly used in Malian desert blues. On one hand, this is a playful exercise in counting; on the other, the hypnotic quality of the music makes it tempting to simply leave the timing to the musicians and get lost in it. The concept is to feature each member of the group in turn: Eric Beach is first on metronome, pump organ, bells and china cymbal. From there it branches out cleverly with a series of steel drum interludes played by Josh Quillen, followed by Adam Sliwinski on marimba, both players using bowed and sustain techniques to achieve ambient textures typically not found in music for percussion sometimes atmospherically, sometimes adding a jarring, atonal and eventually microtonal edge laced with overtones. The final segment, played by Jason Treuting on drums, introduces an anthemic element: a rudimentary march, a descending riff on the steel pans which is the most distinctive melody here, gradually winding down to airy, sustained notes. Meant to alter the perception of time, it’s a subtly shifting journey from one rhythm to the next, sometimes utilizing polyrhythms.

The second, with reliably intense, incisive pianist Lisa Moore, is a recording of Martin Bresnick’s Caprichos Enfanticos: Los Desastres de la Guerra. An eight-movement suite meant to illustrate Goya’s satirical antiwar etchings, it follows a similarly caricaturish, sometimes cruelly mocking trajectory. A hypnotic marimba riff runs over and over to introduce it, followed by a twisted formal introduction, a “look who’s here” motif into a distantly flamenco-tinged piano-and-drums march, reaching for but never achieving resolution either melodically or rhythmically. Onward from there: a sarcastic tug-of-war between drums and piano (guess who wins); a bully and his sycophant; what might be a coldhearted bombing mission; an eerie, starlit, strolling piano/vibraphone duet and eventually a children’s dance under fire – or amidst a firefight. As evocative antiwar music, it doesn’t waste notes, literally or figuratively.

The It Is Time album comes with a DVD, which is of interest to anyone sufficiently intrigued in the mechanics of the music, and the considerable demands it makes on the musicians.

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November 14, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Threeds’ Oboes Make You Laugh and Give You Chills Too

The idea of a band with three oboes and not much of anything else is pretty awesome in itself. Add an irrepressible sense of humor, a penchant for rearranging familiar tunes in unfamiliar ways, and three players with chops as soulful as they are technically impressive, and you get the Threeds oboe trio. Their new album Unraveled is pure joy – except when it’s bittersweet, or sad, or even haunting, as it is much of the time. Much as Kathy Halvorson, Mark Snyder and Katie Scheele have a great time rearranging Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bjork and others, this is as about as far from a joke record as you can get. Can you say cutting-edge with a smirk?

On the opening track, Joga, they find Bjork’s plaintive inner baroque soul. Their cover of Billie Jean has Pavel Vinnitsky’s bass clarinet playing the bassline perfectly deadpan and mechanical, with the trio in perfect alignment. In the beginning, the arrangement really nails the cold, heartless precision of the original; as it goes on, it’s impossible to escape the context, and becomes just plain hilarious, especially when two of the oboes do those staccato backing vocal lines. Best yet, you can download it for free. While the version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition also has the bass clarinet playing the bassline, it swings, and so do the oboes – it’s blissfully funky. In a pretty stark contrast, Paranoid Android gives Radiohead’s crazy cyborg some real humanity – when it segues into a restless march, it’s one of the most unaffectedly intense moments on the album.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat begins as a duo, with Scott Anderson on acoustic guitar and Halvorson playing Mingus’ sad, bitter lead lines. It’s a potent reminder that Mingus wrote the song as an elegy for Lester Young, the bass clarinet’s sustained lines underscoring Halvorson’s understatedly wounded, blues-infused phrasing. Light My Fire has drums, percussion, and tambourine along with bass clarinet – it works as well as it does because Manzarek nicked a Chopin riff for it! The spiraling bop oboe at the point where the organ solo kicks in is pretty hilarious, and absolutely spot-on. The most intriguingly complex arrangement here is the series of lushly intricate, shifting segments in the suspenseful, nocturnal Spanish Stairs.

Dospatsko Horo is the Balkans done as baroque – it doesn’t quite turn the party into a wake but it’s definitely a radical reinvention. Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark also gets a radical reinvention, in this case as riff-driven 21st century circular music.The other tracks include the classic tango El Choclo done as a brooding yet sprightly baroque round; Piazzolla’s Oblivion, a bolero-flavored pop ballad; Little Feat’s Roll Um Easy, which surprisingly hits a mellow early 70s Allman Brothers vibe, soaring oboes enhancing the blue-sky ambience. The only track here that’s not worth uploading is not the band’s fault. This works on so many levels – as party music, as a monster ipod mix and as sophisticated 21st century stuff. Look for this one on our best-of-2011 list at the end of the year.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment