1. “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” – Morricone Youth. This wild, expansive piece grabs from a wide array of movie soundtrack, traditional, and current indie-rock influences as part of a soundtrack for Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 German animated silent film of the same name. (The film is the oldest known surviving animated film.) It’s the sort of genre-defying, eclectic, intensely unique music that doubles as a “stump the music journalist” game.
2. “Cumulus” – Koltbach. This is straight-up what trip-hop sounds like in 2016. The stark, staccato beats, the dusky mood, and the lush piano all hearken back to early trip-hop. The burbling, zippy synths update the sound pleasantly. This is solid, impressive work.
3. “Rattlesnake No. 3” – The Aquaerials. Thundering piano low-end commands my attention pretty thoroughly, and this high-drama instrumental piece has it in spades. Some pad synths play in for atmosphere, but this one’s all about the piano.
4. “Vi 1” – DYLDO. A cascading, woozy bit of piano and violin, like a quartet on psychedelics. It’s a bit of a disorienting piece–it feels like something familiar hidden in the waves, but the modulations make it uniquely other. Fascinating.
5. “Anillo delicado encantado” – Jorge Segovia. A playful, quirky piece from Segovia that sounds at the beginning like the sort of work you might find in the adventuring segments of an RPG (Final Fantasy came to mind first, then Zelda), but it rapidly transitions into a lusher, fuller section and back out. There’s a lot going on in this short piece, which is what makes it such fun to listen to.
6. “Slooshy Klang” – Niles Cooper. Not actually slooshy or clangy, this piano-and-violin work is a sort of deconstructed Carly Comando piece, as a pulsing, pressing lead melody gets anxiety and breaks up into staccato parts. The violin just adds to the air of uncertainty. It’s the sort of thing that appears at the nadir of a protagonist’s arc in movies: really sad, in a majestic sort of way.
7. “Rain” – Frode-5. Not too long, not too short, this solo piano piece sets up a pensive mood, inhabits it, and lets it fade off into the distance. Restraint is key here, and overall the piece works wonderfully.
The number of things Deep Elm Records has been over the past 21 years is impressive: an upstart label of emo bands before they were cool, the premier emo label in the world, an elite indie-rock label, the source for some of the finest post-rock in the game, and now a hub of dramatic piano-led music (and some dramatic acoustic-guitar-led folk-rock, too). Their last incarnation stems from their continued support of the great Carly Comando and the new signing of Inward Oceans, a “post-rock” trio that spends most of its time working its magic on a single piano.
There are moments of full-band development to augment the sonorous sound (“Homecoming,” “Amelioration,” “Fields of White”), but the majority of the sounds on Paths from Home are intricate, slowly-unfolding single note patterns that tend toward the left end of the keyboard (like “Consequences”). This creates a full, round sound that maximizes the melodic lines of the tunes instead of cluttering it with high-pitched trills or other development. Even when there is more of a post-rock arrangement around a tune, the arrangement tends to be atmospheric and mood-building (“A Road Inside,” “Fields of White”) than creating soft-loud transitions (although “Homecoming” and to a lesser extent “Fields of White” do employ kit drums to this effect). The pieces here are calming and pensive–not melancholy, exactly, nor as enthusiastic as Comando’s work. Instead, Inward Oceans is exploring mid-tempo beauty, moving closer to modern/contemporary classical work in comparison than post-rock. The focus is on beauty, and they succeed with Paths from Home.
Louis Landry‘s JJ vs. the Digital Whaleis, in a word, ambitious. The album re-situates the story of Jonah from “its roots in Christian, Jewish and Islamic culture” and comments on the “constant barrage of electronics, media, and technology which surround us all” by interpreting all of that as the whale. (The press also mentions Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi and Pink Floyd’s Animals as RIYLs.) So right off the bat, there’s points for conceptual boldness from this corner. The album that results is a largely major-key indie-rock festival that incorporates an incredible amount of sounds and instruments.
By pointing this out as a rock opera, it leaves the standard bounds of reception: JJ vs. The Digital Whale is held together by a repeated motif, the overarching story, and a spirit of adventure instead of any dedication to a stable genre. “Ride the Whale” has some Prince-ian funk going on; “Nothing No One Nowhere Blues” is a grumbling, stomping delta blues; “Ismi Azum” is a near-ambient instrumental rumination that fuses acoustic and electronic; “YOU’VE GOT eWHALE” is a marching, instrumental theatrical reminiscent of (yep!) Yoshimi. It wouldn’t be complete without a sea shanty, so “Ribs and Terrors” gives us a duet between a traditional accordion and a wiry synth before Landry’s voice comes in.
The remarkable thing about JJ is that even though the album has wide-ranging interests, the album never goes awry. Landry is able to corral all the sounds into the sonic framework he’s developed. Now, it’s weird, but it’s a rock opera about a modern re-telling of an ancient tale as understood by our current electronic issues. This never had a small horizon. By the time “Sunbound” rolls around, a six-minute slow-building acoustic-based indie-rock tune with a backing choir, nothing seems out of place at all. If you’ve got an adventurous streak and appreciate musicians with big ideas, then Louis Landry’s JJ vs. the Digital Whale will be right up your alley.
Kris Orlowski references Jonah as well in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the opener on The Gershwin Sessions Vol. 1. After that Porgy and Bess tune, folkie-turned-indie-pop/indie-rock musician Orlowski focuses his attention on Gershwin’s love songs in this loving tribute to the early 1900s songwriter best known for Rhapsody in Blue.
The six-song collection treats these tunes with piety, largely retaining their form, structure and vibe (particularly in the strings). The update lies in Orlowski’s voice and delivery, as well as the inclusion of guitar in the largely piano-driven originals. Orlowski’s confident tenor gives a warm sheen to these tunes, and the guitar contributes a modern vibe that pushes against the romantic strings in a productive tension. Those smart touches combine with the rest of the arrangements to create tunes that are both clever and honest: the material never strays too far from the source, but these songs feel differentiated enough to justify their existence. The biggest difference comes in closer “Things Are Looking Up,” which features a much sparser arrangement than the rest. The subtle motion of a gentle electric guitar strum and the engineering of the bass push this in a more modern pop direction, which is just lovely. Elsewhere, “Love Walked In” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” are particularly neat. If you’re a fan of the old and the new, Orlowski has implicitly promised more than one collection of this work–get excited.
Carly Comando‘s Dreamlifehas two settings: slow and fast. The instrumental pianist best known for the deeply moving “Everyday” offers tunes that have rushes of single-note runs, rapid patterning, and arpeggiation (“Daydream,” “Dragonfly”) alongside those that go for the more stately emotions (“Procession,” “Birthday”).
The former are charged with excitement and passion, as they sound like running, leaping, and playing. The more solemn tunes are less immediate, as they are less similar to pop songs and more like classical compositions. The best side of her work comes out when both the gravitas and the enthusiasm come out at once, as in the middle of “Daydream” and the entirety of “Dusk.” Comando augments fluttering synth patterns with a heavy left hand on the bass piano keys to create a unique tension. The song builds and flows with the two vibes working together to create something larger than both. It’s in that melding that Carly Comando’s unique strengths as a composer are shown. This is beautiful, evocative, powerful music–you’ll be hearing this in places you don’t expect for years to come, so jump on it now and have the surge of recognition at movie trailers and advertisements of the future.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.