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Here is my top 20 music releases for 2015, with no claim that they are somehow objectively the best or that I listened to everything anyone else did. I have found things that delighted me on other people’s lists, and the point of the exercise is not to replicate or compete with those lists but to highlight some things you may not have found, things that might delight you. The sequence changed every time I made a shortlist, so take the numbers with a pinch of salt – all of them could be at least plus or minus 5 on a given day.

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Omar Souleyman - Bahdeni NamiOmar Souleyman – Bahdeni Nami

The best known Syrian dabke wedding singer, now based in Turkey due to the Syrian civil war, is back with his second studio recording following 147,692 (number approximate) tape releases in his native country.  Souleyman, who uses electronics and his soulful voice to craft fun, incredibly danceable tunes, again worked with Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden on Bahdeni Nami and the album does not disappoint.  Souleyman’s lyrics are, of course, in Arabic, so very few native English speakers will be able to understand them, but the sound of his voice blends so well the music’s high pitched keyboard sounds that their meaning is really irrelevant.  All that matters is the music irresistibly makes hips shake and heads bob.

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I didn’t listen to everything this year. Neither did you. I have no objective way of knowing that these are (or are not) the 20 best albums released this year. Neither do you. But these are the ones I most loved and most want to spend more time with next year, and who knows, maybe you’ll find something special here too, something you missed but can connect with and find riches in, something off your usual menu that you might come to be thankful for. If that happens even once, the list will be worthwhile. And as always, if any of the musicians drop by, thank you for the work, care, commitment, and creativity represented below.

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Any list implies criteria, but let’s eliminate some obvious candidates. This is not a list of the most original, or significant, or skilled, or successful releases of 2013. There is so much that I simply did not listen to that those kinds of judgments are out of reach (for me as for everyone else). Instead, I asked myself: if I were to be separated from my music for a month or two and could only keep 20 albums from my collection with me, all released in 2013, which would I choose? This approach keeps me from adding or skipping things because I somehow feel I ought to. Worthy or not in the ears of the world, this is what I liked most from this year’s releases. Listen in; who knows, you might like it too.

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12

Mar

2013

Interview: Alamaailman Vasarat

By David Smith. Posted in Folk, Interviews, Jazz, Musicians, Rock, World | 1 Comment »
Alamaailman Vasarat

Alamaailman Vasarat

 

I reviewed here the most recent album by Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat. Following that review, Stakula, the band’s leader, kindly agreed to an interview, offering some insights into the processes behind the music.

Valta is an addition to what by now is a substantial body of work, and Alamaailman Vasarat has established a distinctive sound. Has anything changed on this album compared to previous releases?

The most obvious changes were in the lineup. Before the Valta sessions, our new drummer Santeri Saksala had already performed with the band for a year, much to our enjoyment. The live performances really tightened up and had a whole new level of energy. In the Valta sessions, his knowledge and passion for the drums as instruments made a huge difference to album sound, not forgetting some of the most memorable improvised moments, like in the opening track “Riistomaasiirtäjä”. His contribution has made a huge impact in the overall sound of the band and we’re very happy to have him on board.

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Last night I was at the Calvin College Fine Arts Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for what turned out to be one of the more memorable shows I’ve ever attended. I was there for Tinariwen (on whom more below). I had never heard of the opener, Kishi Bashi, not even via the use of his music (as I now learn) in a familiar Windows 8 commercial, and even if I had made the connection I would not have expected his music to be my thing. Support bands you’ve never heard of are often a bit of a lottery, and as two guys with a violin and a banjo took the stage I was ready for anything, but little expected what followed. Working with an amplified violin, various looping devices, and the assistance for half the set of Mike Savino of Tall Tall Trees on banjo and bass, Kishi Bashi (real name K. Ishibashi) strung together a series of loop-based pieces that defied genre categorization. He is blessed with formidable skills on the violin, a pure and powerful voice, and apparently boundless energy and musical imagination. Picture Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós singing bluegrass-classical-folk-pop-experimental pieces structured like miniature progressive rock epics interspersed with beatboxing and driven by double-speed loops created live and you’ll be half way there.

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2

Jul

2012

Review: Valta by Alamaailman Vasarat

By David Smith. Posted in Folk, Jazz, Reviews, Rock, World | No Comments »

Valta

Slumber takes you, and as time passes, you slip into a vivid dream. You are at a heavy metal concert, and thrill to the first deep and doom-laden, viscerally crunching chords. Then you realize that what you thought were guitarists have morphed into cellists, and as the tempo shifts into double time a saxophone adds a frenetic melody. As you look around you find that you are actually sitting outside a cafe in Eastern Europe, and what started as a metal band is now playing klezmer. Some villagers are dancing – somehow it doesn’t strike you as odd that they are dancing the tango, or that evocative middle eastern melodies drop in and out of the tune. You glimpse palm trees, and then hear a jazz ensemble playing somewhere behind you as a marching brass band passes in front, with heavy metal riffs returning to punctuate their melody. But as you turn to watch, you are sitting in the corner of a deserted café in which the pianist is playing his way plaintively towards closing time. In your dream all of this makes sense; the transitions are not jarring but part of an oddly continuous dream logic in which you are in constant movement toward a destination that is ever on the tip of your tongue, yet each passing location is oddly right and vivid.

Such is the experience of listening to an album by Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat (which translates as “Hammers of the Underworld”). Alamaailman Vasarat create hugely entertaining instrumental music that draws from a bewildering variety of world music genres and fuses them within a progressive-rock-like inclination towards ever-shifting rhythms and bombastic flourishes.

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This is the second and concluding part of an interview with Jayne Amara Ross and Frédéric D. Oberland of the Parisian band FareWell Poetry. Read the first part here.

Jayne, are there any moments in the album where the shape the music has taken added something to your sense of the poetry you had written?

Yes definitely, we try to create pieces where each individual element (the poetry, the music, the films) stand alone but work as a whole also. When we have done a good, thorough job every element should enrich the other. It is only when all the mediums align behind the same very precise objective that you get that feeling of something whole, and enveloping. I wouldn’t, however, rely on the music to give meaning to the poetry or the films. Music is able to sublimate and carry meaning but not to impose it. At its best, it can be the wondrous, intoxicating glue that holds everything together. In all my films, including those that I have made outside FareWell Poetry, music is a really important part and I have always shared a privileged dialogue with the musicians that I have worked with. You can also go really wrong when you add music to film, you can easily trip yourself up by making the wrong choices. Having a close relationship with the composer, and learning to communicate in their ‘language’ can help prevent this.

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In the closing months of 2011, a new band from Paris called FareWell Poetry leapt from obscurity to a prominent place on various best-of-2011 lists, thanks to their arresting debut album Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite. (Read a review and stream the music here). Weaving together spoken word, a literary narrative backdrop, film, and compelling, slow-burning instrumental soundscapes, the album combined a high-art conceptual seriousness with an accessible musical appeal. It evidenced a capacity to delight and move and fascinate while appealing to the intellect as well as the gut, allowing the listener to be carried away by the guitar crescendos or ponder the poetic allusions or both at once.  Jayne Amara Ross composed and performed the poetry and directed the accompanying film. Frédéric D. Oberland (whose recent collaboration with Richard Knox, The Rustle of the Stars, is also excellent), contributes guitar, fender rhodes, piano, harmonium, soundscapes. Stéphane Pigneul on bass, Eat Gas on guitar, Stanislas Grimbert on drums, and Colin JohnCo providing analog electronics complete the line-up. Jayne and Frédéric kindly agreed to talk to us about how the debut album came about, about the band’s creative process, and about plans for the next release.

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14

Mar

2012

Review: Tele by Pjusk

By David Smith. Posted in Ambient, Electronic, Experimental, Reviews, World | No Comments »

Pjusk - Tele

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.

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