My May Spotify Playlist has a lot going on, so it’s going to take a few posts to unravel. Here’s the first installation.
Music for Museum Gift Shops – Lullatone. I love Lullatone’s twee instrumental work for its carefully stylized approach to delicate, childlike wonder. There are so many different charming sounds in a Lullatone track that it’s hard for me to guess how the tracks were made. That is, until this release. This very long album takes many, many Lullatone songs, including some of my favorites, and delivers solo piano versions. I can’t say whether these were written on solo piano or translated into the style for this record, but it’s surprising and interesting to hear the work stripped down to its basics. Those who love the flourishes and garnishes may find this work to be a bit spartan, but it definitely shows off that Lullatone’s strength isn’t just in arrangements–they have some strong melodies and chord structures to go along with it. Fans of solo piano will find this very interesting, while fans of Lullatone should also take note.
Weightless / Divisions – Anthene. Slow-moving, heavily atmospheric ambient music with a gentle bent. I like working to this quite a bit, as it fills the air with gentle moods but doesn’t invade my thinking. It facilitates, which is what great ambient does.
Fragments – Altars Altars. Appropriately titled, this ambient album is chock full of subtly woozy sections and little bits of ideas that are not strung out to traditionally ambient lengths (many of the tracks here are under two minutes). There’s not a lot in the way of melody here, as the subtly varied textures of the work are more important than traditional melodies. There’s a lot of tape hiss used as a backdrop, which evokes ideas of memory and history. The elegant album art furthers the concept. Overall the work is a careful, delicate, intimate, organic piece of work.
If You Are Who You Say – The Jonah Project. Bryan Diver from Drift Wood Miracle is back with a new album as The Jonah Project, and it is an incredible album. One minute I was mowing my lawn and the next I was crying in the middle of a Christian emo record. The Jonah Project’s If You Are Who You Say is the best Christian music I’ve heard since Ars Moriendi. The lyrics are Jesus-oriented but don’t cross out the difficulty of life; each song is a first-person narrative of a biblical character with a coda that explains artfully how the story points toward Jesus. The emo-rock is really good; the guitar work is excellent and Diver’s vocals are excellent in the context. There’s also some acoustic tracks thrown in there (“David,” “Abraham”). It made me shiver, made me cry, and made me want to pray.”Esther,” “Elijah,” “Adam,” and “Mary” gave me serious feels. He’s just so good lyrically–he took a huge leap on this record. It’s a fantastic record in a genre that I got tired of because everything sounded rote to me. Well, this one is not rote.
Sources – Eric Wollo. I’m astonished that these tracks were all created in the mid-’80s and early ’90s; these exploratory ambient pieces sound vital and contemporary. There’s a lot of pointillist, precise synthesizer here, which is unique (“Soft Journey,” “Under Water”), but the main appeal are the laconic, dreamy, lush layers of sound on tracks like “The Near Future” and “Ody at Sea”. Some of these latter type of tracks are so smooth as to feel almost beat-less; simply tapestries instead of tunes. Because this is a collection of tunes instead of a proper album, there are a few pieces that show off the same concepts or ideas in mildly tweaked form; however, that’s the only mark on this record. Otherwise, it’s a remarkably beautiful record.
Rarely have I had so much fun listening to a longhear than when listening to Lullatone‘s Thinking about Thursdays. The twee instrumental outfit, already an IC fave, recently compiled their “a song every Thursday in 2016” project into one big album of 52 songs. Their twee instrumentals are brilliant as ever, but their expanded sonic palette is what makes this album so wonderful.
Lullatone excels at making child-like music, turning toy pianos, music boxes, ukuleles, flutes and other small-sounding instruments into delicate and charming tunes (mostly in major keys). Their basic sound is something like The Album Leaf’s tender expansiveness mashed with Wes Anderson’s distinct, precise nostalgia. Openers “trying something again (again)” and “a photograph from the day you were born” stick to this script, creating memorable entries in the Lullatone oeuvre. This type of chipper, bright, clever song appears throughout the album; collectively, they are proof that Lullatone has mastered their craft and yet not exhausted it.
Things get even more exciting as they spread their wings. “how frost grows” signals a widening of their sonic scope, as a slurring, glacial, distorted guitar creates a desolate post-rock landscape. “cooped up at home with a fever and a tape loop” is just that: a hazy, tape hiss-laden fever dream that reminds me of a vocal-less version of The Microphones. “two turn tables and a casiotone” is a fun riff on the titular concept, while follow-on “how i broke my parents’ record player (when i was five)” is even more beat-heavy, landing somewhere between instrumental hip-hop and The Postal Service. “aboard Korean Air flight 742 to Seoul” continues what is ultimately a four-week beat fancy, adding stuttering snares and a melodic hook to a cherubic synth.
Things get even more exciting from there: “puddles full of petals (of Sakura)” combines harp, East Asian melodic ideas, and video game soundtrack drama (one of two back-to-back Asian sonic entries); “father-son adventures” has a jaunty, spry electric guitar line that will please any fan of major key post-rock a la Delicate Steve or Fang Island; “concrete waves” is filtered through a dense, stylish mesh of DJ Shadow. Other referents (real or imagined) include Matt and Kim, klezmer music, elevator music/vaporwave, and chillwave. I won’t spoil all the surprises (there are 52 songs!!), but suffice it to say that this is a great collection with almost no dead weight. Beyond the lovely individual songs, there’s a subtle joy in listening to a whole year of someone’s creation in what seems like chronological order, tracking through the seasons with the moods and titles of each song.
Thinking About Thursdays is that rare release that combines serious composition, thoughtful moods, intriguing instrumentation, quality sonic diversity, and out-and-out fun. It’s an incredible release, and it’s one of my early contenders for album of the year. Highly recommended.
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.
If you’re a little nervous at this point, don’t be: even though “Love Song for Anita” starts out with gigantic choral harmonies, there’s a section around 5:30 in to the piece where Felix takes it down all the way to a plunking piano and glockenspiel. It sounds like a Lullatone piece, which is remarkably cool on its own and even cooler in contrast to the traditional orchestral structure around it. Felix may not be fronting an indie rock band here, but he can’t resist turning a whole orchestra into an indie rock outfit temporarily.
He does the same thing on “Harmonious Harlot,” where a syncopated piano and vocal line intertwine to create an ominous, wiry vibe that sounds strikingly like something you might expect to come out of a Bloc Party album. It gets even more exciting once the vocals split into multiple lines, punctuated by huge horn blasts and interwoven with harp. All this to say, don’t be afraid of this album because it’s a choral symphony. There’s a lot to be thrilled about if you’re a person whose classical music influences don’t extend farther than (or as far as) Sufjan or Joanna Newsom’s explorations.
The charms continue throughout: the beautiful cello/oboe combo in “Mistress of Mistrust” must be noted, along with the remarkable cello solo that starts out “The Sword and the Throne.” The piano-heavy “Phantasmagoria” is a peaceful respite among the highly dramatic work. The harp, which appears throughout, gets its moment in the memorable interlude “Dreamsicle.” There are some more thoroughly orchestral moments (the stomping “Dungeon of Versailles” sounds fully like what you might imagine from a giant orchestra), but in general, this is an orchestra that sounds like it was written by someone who’s up with the current trends.
Neon Heavenis not your usual listening, almost certainly. But in its 40 minutes, Neon Heaven holds many distinct charms, beautiful moments, and memorable sections. If you’re an adventurous listener, you should definitely check out Neon Heaven whenever you can. If you’re in Austin, there will be a listening party for the record at the Museum of Human Achievement on Saturday at 8 p.m., and I encourage you to go.
Afterlife Parade started out as an artsy, experimental indie-rock group. Death & Rebirth is a wild, scattered, and often-powerful debut released in two parts. The band turned right around and dropped A Million Miles Away, which contains some of the most spot-on, adrenaline-pumping, emotion-charged pop-rock I’ve heard in years, losing some of their sweeping arrangements but amping up their melodic bonafides. Where did the tumultuous, textured, enigmatic, dramatic work go? Well, it all made its way into AWE: Volumes 1-3. [Editor’s note: All three releases have been combined into one release on Bandcamp.]
AWE is a set of three impressive five-song instrumental post-rock albums. Each of the three holds to a different theme (the passing of a day, the cycle of seasons, the span of a life), and each of the 15 songs explores a different mood of post-rock song. I know that sounds ambitious, but it’s true. What’s more impressive is that they sound seasoned in every single style. They’ve listened to a lot of post-rock, and their tunes distill a lot of post-rock ideas into (often) short spaces.
Volume One (about the passing of a day) opens with “Dusk Whipers,” a glacially-paced but gentle tune that builds on soft keys and ambient space until it reaches its apex. It doesn’t get heavy, which leads neatly into the perky, Devotchka-esque melodies and quiet-but-insistent rhythms of “Stretching Sunlight.” Here and elsewhere, they layer individual sounds expertly to create moods.
“Mount Sol” relies heavily on pizzicato strings to give it a Balmorhea vibe, while “Day’s End” builds off tape hiss, melancholy finger-picked guitar, ephemeral keys, and ghostly voices. (It’s like a post-rock Bon Iver.) “Midnight Waltzes” closes the set with a regal, stately solo grand piano performance. It’s a gorgeous, remarkable set all on its own, and there’s still two more!
Volume Two is a much grander affair than Volume One; where the first one was done in under 20 minutes, the follow-up is near 40 minutes long. Their interpretation of the changing of seasons is much heavier in tone than their sound of a day; Volume Two opens with the bass-heavy, ominous “Solstice” anchored by an ostinato piano line that is transformed in tone via the layers added to it (like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”). “July’s” spends several minutes developing a complex Latin-jazz percussive beat created by electronic and human drummers before transforming the connotatively-celebratory mood into an eerie soundscape that feels like a forest closing in on you.
“Fall Euphoria” is still pretty pensive at the beginning, but it transforms the uncomfortable vibes and percussive dominance of the first two tracks into a tender, beautiful piece that’s reminiscent of the Album Leaf. It’s a remarkable, deft, expert turn to move directly from one to the other through the same piece. Its wistful overtones lead into the nine-minute “Slow Cold,” which is exactly what it says on the tin. (Post-rock fans are nodding their heads.) It closes with a dissonant solo piano piece that experiments with the way that humans hear and interpret dissonance, holding out notes that don’t necessarily go together for long periods of time before resolving them. It’s basically modern classical music, and it’s remarkable. It’s not one of my favorite pieces emotionally, but musically it’s one of the most impressive.
Volume Three is quite different than the second; it barely covers 15 minutes. However, it’s the most emotionally evocative of the three for me. Covering the span of a life, it starts out with “Tippy Toes,” a 96-second tune with ukulele, toy piano, shaker and other small instruments that remind me of Lullatone’s twinkly, beautiful, but not pandering work. It’s a wonderfully charming start to the piece. “Hopscotch” is a perky tune built on guitars that is again reminiscent of Devotchka. It captures the freedom and uncomplicated joy of play in a surprisingly poignant way. A little growing up leads us to “Sixteen,” which combines confident ’80s-style electro beats and synths with some gently exploratory guitar work.
“Youngblood” is a more tentative work, scared even–showing the difficulties of growing up and getting out into the world. The sound is ambient, with bits of sound coming in and out at seemingly spontaneous times, but never sounding fully like a cohesive unit. The purposeful off-centering of the work tells a strong narrative, especially in the context of the pieces that came before it. A blaring organ starts off “Sage,” but it soon gets layers and layers of keys on top of it, turning it into a woozy, vaguely funereal dirge tinted with specks of joy. It’s a bold, risky conclusion to the release, and I like it.
The three releases in the AWE series are each incredibly beautiful. The fact that one band made music of this many varieties while also being able to throw down incredible pop-rock tunes points to an intimidating, towering talent. The songwriting is amazing; AWE is amazing; Afterlife Parade is amazing.
Lullatone makes beautiful, charming, instrumental twee music. Their latest release Falling for Autumn – EP is 22ish minutes of ukuleles, toy pianos, whistling, clapping, gentle horns, and hushed acoustic guitars. It perfectly appropriates the feel of fall not only in the sounds, but in the titles of songs: “here comes the sweater weather,” “raindrops plucking the last leaves from a tree,” “the biggest pile of leaves you have ever seen,” “just walking around.” Lullatone, a married duo who live in Japan, know how to turn earnest cheer into affecting, emotive work. To quote a title of one of their previous albums, these are “Soundtracks for Everyday Adventures.” I am absolutely in love with this record, and I hope that you will be too. Falling for Autumn – EP makes me unabashedly, giddily happy.
Kayte Grace bridges pop-country and folk-pop nicely, singing with a pleasant twang and keeping the arrangements jaunty and light. The four tunes on Chapter 1: Say Yes are love songs with well-developed pop chops: only one of the tunes breaks the 2:30 mark. “Decorate the World” is a clear single, with a strong melody and cheery mood; “Just Need You” adds some jazzy markers to the songwriting. “City Plans” adds some gospel vibes in the vocals and cleverly romantic lyrics, which vaults the tune to highlight status. “Farther Than This” showcases Grace’s vocal prowess in a more dramatic song, which rounds out the diverse collection nicely. Chapter 1: Say Yes is a strong opening statement from an artist with diverse skills; the EP stays centered on Grace’s strong songwriting while displaying the variety of her creative ideas. I look forward to the next chapters in this release cycle.
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.