Part two of the January Playlist rundown has arrived! Read below for soundtracks, electonica, minimalism, folk, angry jazz, and more.
A Gradual Decline – CUTS / The Killing Fields – Mike Oldham. Both of these albums chronicle aspects of generational crises. Oldham’s soundtrack to the 1984 film of the same name about the Khmer Rouge during the tail end of the Vietnam War is by turns soaring (“Requiem for a City” has a full choir and orchestral development) and brittle (the disorienting electronica of “Evacuation” could fit in CUTS’ record). A Gradual Decline is a huge slab of icy, foreboding, ominous, eerie electronic music that is heavily concerned with global warming and the decline of the environment at the hands of man. Both of these albums amp the emotional aspects of the attendant crises up to 11 and turn out deeply affecting work. Neither are particularly fun to listen to, but both are carefully developed, excellently arranged, and immersive experiences.
Fans of Teen Daze’s work on climate change / global environmentalism will find a darker analogue in A Gradual Decline, while fans of the original Halloween soundtrack or dissonant orchestral work will find The Killing Fields (which is being re-released in a deluxe version soon) exciting.
Reflection – Kazyak. I have enjoyed the previous releases of Kazyak’s gentle, warm indie-folk, but Reflection is where I’ve fallen in love with Kazyak. The dreaminess seems to be simultaneously more direct and yet more subtle: there are pronounced resonances with the early ’00s indie-pop band Grandaddy in the lush flourishes, but the folk chassis is much more like the enigmatic but good-hearted Clem Snide. Lead track “First Do No Harm” is the ideal form of the work, as the lovely guitar work is surrounded by noodly, curious bits of keyboard. The vocals swoosh over the arrangement, dreamily guiding the track. “No Tattoo” is also a charming, warm-blanket-of-sound track, but really the whole thing is just a lovely, commendable experience. There are overtones of Simon and Garfunkel, The Low Anthem, and more thrown in. Highly recommended.
Blend – Runar Blesvik. Blend is the sort of delicate minimalist composition that drew me in to this realm of the instrumental. There’s lots of atmosphere here, as the dark, deep, subtle tensions of the pieces are carefully excavated over time. Piano, gentle synthesizer, and various stringed instruments (orchestral and contemporary) fill out the pieces. Some of these feel like the type of textured, tense pieces you’d encounter in a pensive video game (“Days,” “Minor Major”), while “Flow” and “When” are much more ambient; “Flow” is a littles structural/mid-century modern in its peppy, patterned composition, while “When” is very moody, slow-paced, and piano-driven. Overall, it’s a strong album of ambient/minimalist orchestral work. Highly recommended.
Dvořák: American String Quartet and Quintet, Op. 96-97 – Škampa Quartet. A Czech string quartet playing the Czech composer’s excellent work about/inspired by America. If you’re an American that hasn’t heard Dvořák’s masterful American suite, you really should; it’s as dynamic, memorable, and interesting in its own way as distinctively-American pieces like Copland’s Rodeo and “Variations on a Shaker Melody”, “Shenandoah,” and others. This is the sort of thing that I am supremely unqualified to write about, so I’m not going to even try except to say that this is a fantastic rendition.
No’oum Nasyeen – Youssra El Hawary. This is a thoroughly non-Western album: it’s an album of contemporary Egyptian music that prominently features an accordion reminiscent of French street songs and gypsy tunes sung in Arabic. Yet there’s an element that’s familiar somehow; I can’t say what it is, but there’s a connection in here somehow with American folk sensibilities. (Maybe it’s a New Orleans connection at times?) “Jessica” is a particularly jaunty, enjoyable track. For the adventurous, this one will scratch all sorts of adventurous itches.
Kakistocracy – Burning Ghosts. This is a punk-rock/metal/jazz album. Or, to be more clear, it’s a furious Rage Against the Machine-style guitar blitz combined with frantic post-bop trumpet work, a stand-up bass, and a remarkably talented drummer who can toggle between rock and jazz instantaneously. I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s not easy listening, by any stretch of the imagination, but whoa is it interesting. I just want to sit and listen to it, really scrutinize it, take it all in totally, which is a sure sign of successful musicians and music. So maybe I’ll work my way into jazz through … jazz-metal. Sounds like the path of most resistance, but whatever works, I suppose.
I’ll be back in a few days to wrap up the last bits of the January List!