2021: My Favorite Albums, Six Months In

As life in these United States opens up, my life finally seems to be settling down — at least for the summer. Which means it’s time to make up for the backlog of excellent albums (new and old) that I’ve heard since January, but haven’t written about here! Links to listen (to complete albums or samples) are included whenever possible.

New Albums: The Art of Losing (The Anchoress’ rich meditation on endurance) and the multi-version adrenalin rush of Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe notwithstanding, most of the new albums I’ve loved so far have migrated towards jazz and classical — frequently with pianists at their center. Vijay Iyer’s Uneasy, made with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, is a state of the art piano trio effort; blues and abstraction suspended in perfect balance and caught in an intimate, tactile recording. Canadian Bach and Mozart specialist Angela Hewitt shows off her range with Love Songs, a gorgeous confection of orchestral and art song transcriptions assembled in lockdown and performed with undeniable panache. The same goes for Danny Driver’s phenomenal rendition of Gyorgy Ligeti’s hypermodern 18 Etudes — virtuoso pieces whose serene surfaces turn out to be rooted in super-knotty counterpoint and off-kilter rhythmic cells. My favorite new album of 2021 to date? Promises by electronica artist Floating Points, spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra, which manages to bring all of the above (well, except for the piano!) together in one glorious, 40-minute ambient epic.

Reissues: Big Big Train’s double-disc update of The Underfall Yard has definitely had its share of listening time, between Rob Aubrey’s rich remix/remaster and the welcome bonus disc (featuring fresh recordings of the title track and “Victorian Brickwork” by the full band and brass quintet). With My Bloody Valentine’s catalog back in print, their masterpiece Loveless sounds as incredible as ever; crushing distortion and lush romanticism collide to channel the sublime. And Pete Townshend has masterminded a comprehensive Super Deluxe edition of The Who Sell Out, the band’s pre-Tommy high point. But my favorite reissues thus far have been It Bites’ The Tall Ships (especially the title track — what a power ballad!) and Map of the Past (a favorite of mine since its original release). With the then-unknown John Mitchell taking over from Francis Dunnery, IB sailed into the 21st century with their 1980s pomp intact, killer hooks, head-spinning riffs and all.

Live Albums: Beyond the visceral thrills of Fanfare for the Uncommon Man: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert, I’ve had a blast hearing krautrock legends Can conjure up spellbinding group improvisation on Live in Stuttgart 75, an initial dip into their voluminous concert archives. I’ve been giddy to hear Kansas, bolstered by keyboardist Tom Brislin, get their mojo working on Point of Know Return Live & Beyond. (They’ll be my first post-lockdown rock show next month.) And my journey back into soul music (see below) set me up nicely for the razor-sharp, precision funk of Tower of Power: 50 Years of Funk and Soul Live at the Fox Theater, a deliriously exciting reunion show recorded in 2018.

From the Catalog: All the good new stuff above aside, this is where some of my most fruitful listening has been happening this year — frequently inspired by other media. Watching the movie One Night in Miami led me back to Sam Cooke’s Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964; the resulting dive into soul music ultimately brought me to Marvin Gaye’s classic concept album What’s Going On — 50 years old in 2021! Perusing various “best of 2020” lists turned me on to the avant-garde jazz of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere’s on the tender spot of every calloused moment and Maria McKee’s art-pop song cycle La Vita Nuova (inspired by Dante, no less). Jazz/fusion legend Chick Corea’s death prompted a deep dive into his catalog; new favorites included Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before and the fabulous Five Peace Band Live, Corea’s long-delayed collaboration with guitarist John McLaughlin. And after long years of the album doing nothing for me, Radiohead’s The Bends finally clicked when I read Steven Hyden’s fine band biography This Isn’t Happening. (Curt Bianchi’s wonderful new book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, is prompting a similar deep dive into that quintessential jazz/rock band’s catalog; I highly recommend their cutting edge debut album from 1971 and their 1976 masterpiece of groove, Black Market.)

Coming Soon: In addition to Big Big Train’s Common Ground (take it from me, it’s a humdinger), I highly recommend MoonJune Records’ latest release, Indonesian fusion guitarist Dewa Budjana’s incandescent Naurora. I’m also eagerly anticipating new music from the Neal Morse Band (oops, NMB now), Steve Hackett and Isildur’s Bane & Peter Hammill; reissues of BeBop Deluxe’s Live in the Air Age and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass; and comprehensive box sets from The Beach Boys and Van Der Graaf Generator. Plus live shows from Kansas, Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos, King Crimson with The Zappa Band, and opening night of Genesis’ USA tour.

So, yeah, it’s taken a while — but at least from my point of view, 2021 has already been a solid year for music — and the prospects for it getting even better are looking up!

— Rick Krueger

Progarchy Radio (March 2017)

 

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Over two of music and minimal commentary.  Featuring music by Arjen Lucassen in his many incarnations and manifestations.  Also, music by Big Big Train, The Tangent, Blodwyn Pig, Jethro Tull, Hans Zimmer, My Bloody Valentine, the Sundays, Tears for Fears, Vertica, Sixpence None the Richer, Roswell Six, Matthew Sweet, ELO, Spacehog, and Newspaperflyhunting.

In Praise of Shoegaze

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Rachel Goswell of Slowdive

And there in the square he lay alone 
without face without crown 
and the angel who looked upon 
never came down 

you never know what day could pick you baby 
out of the air, out of nowhere 

~ Sun Kil Moon, “Duk Koo Kim” (2003)

Was it excess, or a change in consumer preference?  Either or both, progressive rock music of the 1970’s ran afoul of the burgeoning punk rock scene.  Carefully constructed compositions ranging from eight to 25 minutes (or longer) gave way to three-minute outbursts of street angst resonating with a culture sick and tired of inflation and corruption and openly questioning the permanent things — things (classical, jazz, church music) that progressive rock had integrated (unwittingly, subconsciously) into its ethos.

Then, after a decade of new wave, new romanticism, and sundry forms of techno (music for the masses) there arose the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine.   Suddenly, pop song structure, melodic hooks, and outfront lead vocals were enveloped in a blizzard of distortion and dissonance.  Critics, ever wary of the latest “art” project, disparagingly labeled it “shoegazing,” noting the performers’ penchant for staring down (likely at their effects pedals) on stage.  Steve Sunderland (Melody Maker) went a step further, describing what he called “The Scene that Celebrates Itself” — in part, because the gazers attended each other’s gigs and drank together.  It was too much like rugby and less like football.  If the former is about gentlemen playing a hooligan’s game, then the press were quick to spot what they suspected were middle class values at play.  This could not end well.

At length did cross an Albatross / Thorough the fog it came…

But to back up a bit.  Whatever spirit inhabited the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks seems to have been carried aloft during that show’s run, falling out of the sky in the Thames Valley.  It descended upon a group of Reading teenagers who called themselves Slowdive.   Where to begin?  If one samples Slowdive’s output (three albums, six EP’s) there is no way to pin down the band’s idiom.   There are the ostensibly pop ballads (“Alison,” “Sleep”), Eno-induced trances (“Souvlaki Space Station,” “Changes”), pre-Kid A ambient exercises (“Option One,” “Sinewaves”), dark grunge (“So Tired”), ethereal raptures (“Catch the Breeze,” “Shine”), and others (“Albatross”) that defy categorization.

Like sorcerers they summoned other-worldly sounds from their guitars.  If there’s a common thread it is the drone — catching the breeze of an unorthodox riff, maybe two chords, and riding it in an ever-widening gyre.

Even a few of their loyal fans would say Slowdive spun out of control with 1995’s experimental Pygmalion.  By the time of its release British ears were drawn to Oasis and Blur, a Britpop North-South rivalry loaded to the hilt with working class ethos the press could celebrate.

“Revolution,” yes.  “Revolution 9,” no.  Within a year Slowdive had morphed into the country/folk Mojave 3.

I’ve Got a Gal… in Ypsilanti

While Slowdive was relinquishing the gazing muse, another obscure stateside band was taking it up.  Trey Many (pr. “may’-nee”), the drummer for Warn Defever’s His Name is Alive, was developing a side project at Eastern Michigan University.   Together with art student Amon Krist (daughter of folk singer Jan Krist) he formed Velour 100 and signed with Seattle’s alternative label, Tooth & Nail.

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Amon Krist (left) and Trey Many

Velour 100’s first full-length recording was Fall Sounds (1996) with Many on all instruments and Krist on lead vocals (and occasional acoustic guitar).  Right away the listener finds the music here focused and thematically linked — a concept album based on the pair’s experiences of loss and renewal informed by their Christian faith.  The same dense, hypnotic atmospherics present with Slowdive are found here; but Many keeps the listening interesting with changes and unusual time signatures.  “Dub Space” is a sparkling eight and half minute tone poem that could have emerged from the waterfall at the end of “Close to the Edge.”  The strongest track on the album — and, in my view, among the best three and a half minutes of the ’90s — is “Flourish”:

http://grooveshark.com/s/Flourish/504rKT?src=5

Velour 100 never received a bad critical review.  As Krist departed to complete her studies and launch a teaching career, the duo’s first demo recording was re-recorded and released as Songs From the Rainwater EP to high praise.  Many produced one more LP, Of Color Bright (1997) that featured three female lead vocalists, including ex-Sixpence None the Richer guitarist Tess Wiley.  Wiley co-wrote “Dolphin Grey,” which showcases her distinctive alto against a splash of jangling guitars:

http://grooveshark.com/s/Dolphin+Grey/4FPo6B?src=5

Many recorded a final four-song EP, For An Open Sky (1999), with soon-to-breakout vocalist Rosie Thomas.  He now lends his formidable production skills to projects for other bands.

Ghosts of the Great Gaze

By the end of the ’90s “shoegazing” (or “dream pop”) was figured a dead letter.  Its artsy sensibilities (pretenses, to some) were destined to remain out of favor with an X Factor world.  But even into the 2000’s there remain artists who pay homage to the genre.   An excellent example is the expansive “Duk Koo Kim” by Mark Kozelek’s side project, Sun Kil Moon.  Aptly described by one listener as “magical sad tragic wonderful,” it is a meditation on mortality inspired by the Korean boxer who died from injuries suffered in a bout with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in 1982 (in fact, much of Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway is inspired by the stories of fighters).

In shoegazing fashion, the guitars ring and leave auras of reverb in their wake, Kozelek’s falsettos submerged in the melodies.  Unlike Slowdive’s binary pieces, “Duk Koo Kim” has three distinct sections, and (in prog rock proportion) sprawls over 14 minutes — each representing the number of rounds Kim lasted in the ring before succumbing.

Come to me once more my love 
show me love I’ve never known 
sing to me once more my love 
words from your younger years 
sing to me once more my love 
songs that I love to hear