Here are the reissues and live albums from 2019 that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end. Links to previous reviews or purchase sites are embedded in the album titles. But first, a graphic tease …
Submitted for your consideration: perfect pairs that have been engaging my two ears and two eyes for the past two months, recalled as a Michigan summer enters its last hurrah …
Three of A Perfect Pair: Live Albums
I’m thrilled that Esoteric Recordings’ reissue series from British folk-proggers Renaissance now includes 1976’s Live at Carnegie Hall; recorded over three sold-out nights at the legendary New York venue, this set has been a favorite since high school days. It captures Renaissance’s essence: Annie Haslam’s clear soprano vocals soar over Michael Dunford’s spacious acoustic guitar, John Tout’s supple piano and keyboard work, Jon Camp’s agile bass and backing vocals and Terry Sullivan’s orchestral drumming. Members of the New York Philharmonic join the band for most of the set, bringing out the delectable French and Russian flavors of extended classics like “Can You Understand”, “Running Hard” and the “Song of Scheherazade” suite. A bonus disc of BBC session versions show that Renaissance could conjure up the same magic without the orchestra as well. If you don’t know this worthwhile band’s music, Live at Carnegie Hall is a perfect introduction.
As is a pair of new live albums from the Norwegian trio Elephant9! Recorded during an extended Oslo residency, Psychedelic Backfire I and Psychedelic Backfire II (the latter with Dungen guitarist Reine Fiske sitting in) are two sets of unremittingly scorching jazz-rock improvisation. Organist/keyboardist Ståle Storløkken spins out one mesmerizing solo after another, whether by himself or trading licks with Fiske, while bassist Nikolai Hængsle and drummer Torstein Lofthus stoke relentless, hard-driving grooves. Whether subjecting Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to a Bitches Brew-era Miles-style breakdown or building unstoppable momentum on “Habanera Rocket”, the music captured here is endlessly inventive and thoroughly compelling.
Sam Healy–while complying with Big Euro Brother laws, regulations, and microintrusions–offered a wonderful teaser/trailer for the forthcoming North Atlantic Oscillation album, coming sometime this year.
Granted, it’s only a full-eighteen seconds worth, but it’s eighteen more seconds then we had before. . .
Gazpacho, SOYUZ (Kscope 2018). Tracks: Soyuz One; Hypomania; Exit Suite; Emperor Bespoke; Sky Burial; Fleeting Things; Soyuz Out; and Rappaccini.
To be sure, every release from the Norwegian art rockers extraordinaire, Gazpacho, is not just another moment in a progger’s life, but an actual event—filled with meaning and significance, marked by the awareness and heighten-ness of all five senses.
For those of us in the United States, we wait that extra week for the package from Burning Shed to arrive. Then, we carefully remove the rectangular sticker from Kscope (this one, Kscope607) and, then, the cellophane. I have the strange habit of collecting every one of these cellophane stickers, placing each within the front or back cover of whatever book I’m reading at the time. Today, when the mail came, I was re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Book of Lost Tales, Part I. Hence, the Kscope607 sticker sits nicely behind the front cover.
Opening the booklet releases a smell every bit as satisfying as that of a brand new car. It’s a bit sweet and a bit pulpy. And, then, we dive into the pictures and, most importantly, the lyrics.
The only disappointing thing about a Gazpacho release is knowing that the next one is most likely at least two years out. Real art takes time, especially in the northern parts of the world. I’ve now gone through this ritual exactly 13 times (counting studio, live, and re-releases) since I first purchased NIGHT in 2007. It’s always healthy, and it’s always inspiring. As much a release as it is an inspiration.
As I’ve gotten older, I find myself enjoying instrumental/ambient/space music more and more. These chaotic and ever-accelerating times lend themselves to a musical genre that encourages reflection and relaxation.
In earlier posts, I brought to our faithful readers’ attention the wonderful music of Kevin Keller and CFCF. In this one, I want to showcase another outstanding artist working in the “Downtempo” realm of music: General Fuzz. The musical brainchild of composer James Kirsch, General Fuzz has released 7 albums, and you can download them all for free (yes, FREE. He explains the motives behind his generosity here) at his website. I started at the beginning with 2002’s eponymous General Fuzz album, and I’m slowly working my way through to his latest, 2014’s Oughta See. The problem is, every album is such a beautiful gem of contemplative melodies that I can’t leave one for the next. However, if your curiosity is piqued and don’t know where to start, let me suggest checking out Kirsch’s 2008 masterpiece, Soulful Filling. Here’s my favorite track from that collection:
Kirsch’s music is carefully constructed to seduce the listener with perfectly arranged musical miniatures that avoid being saccharine. In other words, I was immediately attracted to his music, I have listened to it repeatedly, and I have yet to tire of it. I keep finding new and delightful details in each hearing. Here’s how he explains it in his own words:
Unless your music is simple and poppy, or incredibly accessible, most people won’t be able to make sense of it on first listen, and consequently not return for a second listen. I can not approach my own music with fresh ears – I’m intimate with every second of it. It’s great to have someone who’s not a huge music fan listen to my music before I release it to gauge how most people will receive it. It has previously helped shape the ordering of tracks on an album. Accessible music will always be more popular than complex music.
I’ve learned that it often takes many listens for people to start really enjoying my music. My favorite story is of a co-worker who’s cd player broke with my cd in it, so they had to listen to it all day on repeat. The next day he told me never to stop writing music.
James Kirsch is attempting something courageous in these days of a collapsing music industry: he is producing extraordinary music and giving it away – trusting that those who “get it” and enjoy it will respond with donations. I hope his experiment is successful – we need more composers of his caliber thriving in today’s music scene.
James Murphy made no bones about the hipster cred accorded Can on “I’m Losing My Edge,” LCD Soundsystem’s 2002 dancefloor-meets-Weird Al hit. “I was there, I was there in 1968, I was there at the first Can show in Cologne,” he sing-speaks ala King Missile, going on to target Suicide and others in the pantheon of removed, white boy cool. It’s idolatry and idol-destroying at once, and it’s a lot of fun to listen to. Murphy never shies from the obvious or expected, scratching musical itches and quoting hosts of precedents within his long-ish form constructions. He makes big beats, giant basslines, and his meta smarts about the music he creates enlivens his work rather than reducing it to a nostalgia trip. Precocious, yeah, precious, no.
Murphy wrapped up his LCD Soundsystem project in 2011, but revived it last year with some shows and this year (this month in fact) with American Dream, a double LP epic that continues an obsession with Adrian Belew-era Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, New Order, Depeche Mode, Modern English, Kraftwerk, and on and on and on…. Songs as dessert, and dessert with every meal. And yet the lyrical content carries some heft, and whether or not you think Murphy is saying anything new or real or whatever, you can take his songs in a lot of different ways, luxuriating in all the analog richness and the cracking drums, or thinking, as I do when listening to the lyrics of “How Do You Sleep?”, of something that relates on a personal level (in this case, there’s a Stevie Smith “Not Waving But Drowning” vibe going on). These aren’t simply tossed off words so people who aren’t comfortable with instrumentals have something to chant, or words made to fit or counterpoint melody, which was Can’s m.o. The lyrics crystallize, emotionalizing the epic weight of the central, insistent riff and Murphy’s all-in vocal.
soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.
Sing, Siren– and tell the tale of Cloud Cult, a band worth seeking. Though labeled as an alternative rock band, or sometimes called an “orchestral indie rock collective”, the Minnesota-native band is over 20 years old. My introduction, though, is very recent. I heard lead singer and songwriter Craig Minowa interviewed on the On Being with Krista Tippett podcast (episode “Music Is Medicine”); after listening to their latest album The Seeker and learning that Cloud Cult is having two concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra next April 7&8, 2018 (how cool!) – I am convinced they are a hybrid progressive rock band.
The Seeker is a visceral experience, starting slowly with “Living in Awe” and opening up in “To The Great Unknown”. Can we find humor in the cynic? Can we find faith in the Great Unknown? The sounds are upbeat and the lyrics challenging: “God gave you brains, so don’t go drowning in your own thinking. God gave you hands so you can pick up your broken pieces. God gave you feet so you can find your own way home.”
“Days to Remember”, “Chromatica” and “Come Home” are transition songs, mostly instrumental. They take you by the hand and lead you deeper into the journey – “the water’s warm, and the sun is shining; I just want to spend some time with you.” You almost feel the warmth, if you close your eyes, and appreciate the convergence of multiple voices with a varied combination of guitar, drums, violin, trumpet, cello, trombone, bass guitar, keyboard, and French horn in each song.
But this album shivers. The sixth and seventh songs of the album– “No Hell” and “Everything You Thought You Had”– are the middle of the road in this journey. “Time Machine Invention” is my favorite song of this album, serving a poppy beat and heartfelt story of a not-so-bright inventor who’s made up his mind to travel time: “I waste so much time a worryin’ I forgot to live my life; I’m not going anywhere ‘til I’m back to where it was we were before. I don’t need anything except always needing just a little more. ” Humanity’s searching in life is often “just a little more.”
The end of the album’s song titles set a descending tone: “The Pilgrimage”, “Three Storms Until You Learn To Float”, “You Were Never Alone”, “Prelude to an End” and “Though the Ages”.
The repeated theme of “faith in the Great Unknown” is what propels the Seeker of this album. But it is unclear: is the narrator or the listener the Seeker? That is a beautiful line never crossed; a mystery to embrace.
If life is a story we’re meant to live through,
then both me and you are the pages.
I’ll tell you a tale, and most of it’s true,
you see, I came here for you through the ages.
We are all on this walk, this memorizing loop across deserts and rainbows and streets and volcanos. Cloud Cult’s music is intimate enough to engage intellectually and broad enough to include its audience. The crescendo at the end of the album, after following a steady stream, felt like an enlightenment. Not a proper ending, tied in a bow– no, an awakening of understanding and senses.
On a side note, I love the line “There’s a reason God is doG backwards, we must chase the tail.”
It makes sense that tail would be spelled like a dog’s tail, but it’s also a play on “tale”, and the image of each of us chasing our own story is a glorious one.