I was struck the other day by how often I had seen the word “intense” used to praise music while browsing recent reviews. Perhaps it was just the particular reviews I happened to sample. Perhaps it was an appropriate celebration of the passion invested in those recordings. Or perhaps it was a reflection of the ongoing quest for the next, even-more-vivid experience in a media-weary culture. Whichever it was, there certainly seems to be no shortage of music designed to fill the horizon and the frequency range without remnant, built to hook the ear within seconds and keep it wriggling helplessly until exhaustion sets in.
Tiring of the fray, I find myself at the moment more inclined to celebrate releases that make me smile with quiet surprises. I rejoice when gently touched by music that is not going for the arresting, big-screen effect, but is instead chasing small moments of beauty wrested from the noise. Already Gone, the sophomore release by Google-proof band En, is such an album. Released on Students of Decay, it is the latest of a series of small wonders distributed by Experimedia.
When I wrote a recent review on Kate Campbell’s last album, Two Nights in Texas, I predicted that we would be treated to a new one from her any time. Well, the time is here – the new CD, 1000 Pound Machine, was released April 3, 2012, on Kate’s independent Large River Music label, and it’s a beauty filled with all the Southern folk charm that fans have come to expect in a Kate Campbell album. Her unique stamp is imprinted all over the tracklist, including songs about the American South of Kate’s youth, people of the South (famous and not-so-famous), gospel tinged spirituals, a love song, a Mississippi delta blues piece, and a couple of instrumentals. This time around, though, the arrangements are sparser and the music more subdued. It is a beautifully cohesive album held together by an overall “lay-your-burdens-down” kind of theme offering rest for the weary and peace for the troubled soul. This is comfort food at its most palatable, served up in classy southern soul fashion.
“To me, it’s bogus that art can only be in museums. The real art is what goes on when people don’t expect it. My idea of a good time is getting in front of an audience and giving them more than they expected. That makes it a worthwhile, fulfilling thing to me.” – David Olney
Townes Van Zandt’s short list of favorite music writers included Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and … his buddy, David Olney. Obviously Olney keeps pretty good company, and deservedly so (except Eric Taylor once said, “Townes must have had a drink or two when he said Olney was up there with Mozart – Olney’s about as good as it gets when it comes to writin’, but he don’t sing like Mozart.”). With a career spanning more than four decades, he’s had time to polish his art to a fine shine. Whether performing blues, jazz, country, or folk ballads, Olney excels in them all – not to mention he can seriously rock. In short, David Olney is one brilliant artist – even if he doesn’t sing like Mozart. I am constantly amazed at what he comes up with next.
His latest venture is a unique series of thematic mini-album EPs on his own Deadbeet Records label, two of which have been released so far. Each EP consists of reinterpretations of some of Olney’s classic catalog tunes combined with brand new songs to create its own unique theme. The series capitalizes on Olney’s special talent for spinning a tale, which has made him one of the most original and impressive storytellers in the music business.
“Something happened. Back there all those centuries ago. Something not easily believed or easily dismissed. Two thousand years of glory and horror, of love and hate, of beauty and violence have only made those long ago events more murky and more enigmatic. But nothing comes of nothing. Something happened. The Stone is an attempt to address those events. From varying points of view (a con man, a donkey, a murderer and a soldier), a story is told. A picture struggles to emerge. Nothing is proved. Nothing is denied.’” (From the CD cover)
Like a whole swathe of ambient music, Pjusk‘s work relies on a scaffold of cues for the imagination to add a representational dimension to the raw sounds. Once one has learned that Pjusk are Rune Sagevik and Jostein Dahl Gjelsvik from the west coast of Norway, that their music is composed in a small cabin high in the mountains, and that their characteristic one-word track titles translate as “twilight”, “fog”, “hollow”, and the like, it is nigh impossible not to hear the murky atmospheres and dank rhythms of their music as evoking contemplation of a lonely landscape wreathed in mist and locked in a stasis measured in geological time. These associations are woven more literally than ever on their newest release, Tele. The album is released on the Glacial Movements label, a label that is single-mindedly dedicated to “glacial and isolationist ambient” and offers a growing series of releases that set out to evoke “places that man has forgotten…icy landscapes…fields of flowers covered eternally with ice… The cold and silent night that falls upon the glacial valleys…” The album’s title, Tele, is a Norwegian word for frozen underground water, and the track titles this time have also moved down into the cold earth, invoking gneiss, flint, slate, granite, crystal. It is thus not too big a surprise that the album’s opening is the most darkly monolithic of the Pjusk catalog to date; the surprise is that it ends with one of their brightest moments.
Have you ever been moved by the yearning blends of classical motifs with electronic atmospheres composed by the likes of Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Nils Frahm, and Peter Broderick? Does the thought of what their aesthetic might sound like if relocated to warmer climes and infused with the passion and counterpoint of the tango sound intriguing? If so, then you need to listen to Sebastian Plano’s debut album.
The Arrhythmical Parts of Heart was released last year with little fanfare, but is an album that should not be allowed to slip quietly by. Across seven short tracks Plano, a young San Francisco-based composer and multi-instrumentalist who plays everything on the album himself, weaves together an array of sounds including cello, keyboards, bandoneón, wordless vocals, and electronic effects and percussion into a compelling and emotive suite of compositions charged with tantalizing twists and turns.
When approaching Gareth Dickson’s new record it seems almost obligatory to dwell for a moment on the fact that it is released on 12k records, a label that does not usually deal with music that has lyrics, let alone releases by singer-songwriters. Dickson has toured extensively as a guitarist with folk singer Vashti Bunyan. His own music combines acoustic guitar finger-picking with an attention to atmosphere, resulting in what one might call ambient folk songs. (You can stream one of his previous albums, the lovely Collected Recordings, here.) Quite a Way Away is certainly something new enough in 12k terms to catch the eye, but it is less of a radical break than it might seem. Listen to the acoustically oriented ambience of Illuha’s recent gem Shizuku, and its inclusion of the spoken word in the form of Japanese poetry, trace the gentle contours of Ballads of the Research Department by The Boats, which also included some singing, and focus on the gently plucked guitar of Kane Ikin’s Contrail (review here), and it will be clear that while Quite a Way Away is something of a shift of genre for 12k, it has a great deal in common with its immediate predecessors in terms of aesthetic. All share a careful hush, a gentle attentiveness to delicate, small, mostly acoustic sounds. Listening back over these releases brought to mind a haiku that appeared on the sleeve of Tetsu Inoue and Carl Stone’s 2001 collaboration pict.soul on the Cycling ’74 label:
The soft breeze that stirs
this vast undulating field
deafens the spider.
Those lines capture for me 12k’s approach to music, music made for the spider rather than for the stadium, inviting the listener to find expansive worlds of sound in the rustle of a soft breeze through grass.
The other day I spent a while listening to a couple of free ambient netlabel releases that turned out to be just OK. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many excellent free netlabel releases. These were just not two of them. They brought some interesting sounds together, but lost any sense of the space between them, ending up projecting a kind of mushy hum with various little noises floating stickily in the porridge as it gurgled thickly by. Returning after that listening foray to Kane Ikin’s new EP on 12k records was an exercise in contrasts. Anything that comes out on 12k is going to be painstakingly assembled and mastered, and this recording is no exception. It too works with stretched tones and assorted small sounds, but especially on headphones it opens them up into a delicate and spacious conversation.
There seems to have been a recent flurry of new creative partnerships between established solo artists working in the generous borderlands between neo-classical, electronic, and ambient music. In fairly quick succession we’ve been treated to lovely debuts from A Winged Victory for the Sullen (Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran) and Oliveray (Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick), with the first Orcas release (Benoît Pioulard and Rafael Anton Irisarri) on the horizon. Now add to that list Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist (who has most commonly recorded as Jasper TX). Their debut album as From the Mouth of the Sun is to be released at the end of January on Experimedia, and is recommended listening.
Underneath the Stars, the engaging new release from Tom Honey’s Good Weather for an Airstrike project, is immediately pleasing to the ear even as it perhaps takes some risks with its image. The release notes remind us that Honey began recording in connection with his aim of relieving his own tinnitus, and the tone of the new album is consistently soothing and almost entirely free of dissonance. The Goldberg Variations notwithstanding, if music was composed for therapeutic purposes it’s easy to wonder if it will also succeed as art. Add to that an ambient concept album based around the phases of sleep and including field recordings of gentle rain and thunder, and casual associations with faceless New Age collections of nature sounds and insomnia aids rather than serious listening might be forgiven. The fact that the album is released on the estimable Hibernate label, however, is considerable cause for optimism, and indeed there is more here than might first meet the eye (or ear). You can stream it below as you read.
Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by Parisian collective FareWell Poetry is one of the more absorbing musical journeys of 2011. It is also an album that wears its ambition on its sleeve. A Super 8/16mm black and white film on DVD (trailer here), filled with images of compulsive self-absorption and erotic obsession (warning: nudity), accompanies the 20 minute opening piece, and there’s also an iPhone app to go alongside both. The lyrics take the form of extravagant spoken-word poetry boasting a lofty lineage:
‘As True As Troilus’ takes its title and mythology from Chaucer’s important 14th century poem ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, a retelling of a ‘faux’ Greek myth with Medieval origins, in which the main protagonist Troilus falls in love with Trojan Cressida who finally deceives and leaves him for the Greek soldier Diomedes. The narrator of ‘As True As Troilus’ (just as Chaucer’s narrator) uses this myth to explore his own romantic mythology, using the characters and their situation to recount his own plight, illustrating the destruction of his own failed relationship with tableaux from the Trojan tale.
Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which portrays the same doomed love affair, also plays a role, and Ovid is cited in the film. Described on the band’s site as a “bold and electrifying project,” we are left in no doubt that this is a work of substance.