My list of April findings is smaller than my last few months. However, there are some big hits (and some long pieces) amid the small number of works. Here’s where you can hear the whole playlist! I’ll be back sometime in May to go over the rest of the April list.
The Appearance of Colour – John Metcalfe. Can you be minimalist and maximalist at the same time? Metcalfe’s compositions here are packed full of instruments, genres, textures, acoustic sounds, electronic sounds, and effects while simultaneously being full of space, not afraid to go (very) long, and very patient in the composition techniques. The incredible opener “Sun” is 20 minutes long and worth every second. This sort of composition takes the mindset of classical composition and then draws on all the modern music available to Metcalfe to result in some of the most fantastically interesting contemporary instrumental work I’ve heard in a long time. Highly recommended. Hat tip to Chris Krycho for the recommendation.
From Tomorrow, With Love & UPC – EP – Beta to the Max. I’ve had a thing for chiptune for a long time (having played lots of NES and SNES games), but I really fell in love with it when I ran into Anamanaguchi. This chiptune outfit isn’t quite as adrenalized as Anamanaguchi but uses that more relaxed pace to its advantage.
Virðulegu Forsetar – Jóhann Jóhannsson. Essentially one incredibly long piece of music broken up into many small pieces, this minimalist composition develops one majestic theme in bunches of different ways. The overall idea is delivered most often by a rich horn ensemble; as you may recall, I professed my love for brass ensembles last month and unsurprisingly have not been swayed in my affection since then. But where Hyde Park Brass was blasting off into the pop realm at times, Jóhannsson is experimenting with the bounds of form and structure, pursuing a richly melodic form of minimalism that rejects atonalism and repetition for its own sake. (It must be noted that I like minimalist repetition for its own sake such as “Canto Ostinato” but am unconvinced by atonalism.) Extra hat tip to Chris Krycho for the referral, once again.
Spindash 3 – GameChops, et al. GameChops was listed as a collaborator on Mikel’s Zelda and Chill that I loved so much last month, so I looked into some more of what GameChops is doing. This is the third collection of electro/techno/chiptune created out of Sonic the Hedgehog music. If you’ve ever listened to a Sonic the Hedgehog song, you know that it was stereotypically manic and sonically blown-out chiptune glory. This takes that base and spins out new works. So much fun.
The best music transports listeners to a place in our memories; virtual time machines in three-quarter time. The Hurting Kind from John Paul White on Single Lock Records is that type of subtle brilliance.
The Civil Wars (of which John Paul White was half) have impacted Indie Americana and folk music worldwide. White’s follow-up to his 2016 solo record Beulah is not a break from that talent, but another incarnation of that talent. White’s record is grounded in the man as an artist, yet the work is as unclassifiable and uncategorizable as music released from his Grammy-award winning duo. The choice of recording at Sun Drop Studios, a converted barn home studio in Alabama, gives this record palpable authenticity. White really lets the magic fly with co-producer Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) shaping the tunes on this ten-song gem.
White draws on a deep well of collaborators for this album. He is joined on the record by Pat Bergeson (Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris) on electric guitar, Jon Estes (Robyn Hitchcock, Kesha) and David Hood (Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) on bass Jon Radford (Leigh Nash, Odessa) and Reed Watson on drums, and Lillie Mae (Jack White) on fiddle. Guest vocals from Lee Ann Womack and background vocals from Erin Rae and The Secret Sisters add a lush texture stunning songwriting deserves. Songwriting collaborations with Whisperin’ Bill Anderson and Bobby Braddock make that connection to Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins and Roy Orbison real.
This huge number of collaborators results in a large amount of musical styles on the record. With such a cross-section of genres, only one thread is consistent throughout: this troubadour crafts the sounds of America from the streets of Nashville to now. Opening with “The Good Old Days,” we can all wonder where those went; divisiveness, chaos and uncertainty may be signs of our times driving us back toward thoughts of the good old days (whenever those were). Dark lyricism juxtaposed against upbeat guitar and fiddle-driven composition foreshadow the brilliance ahead.
The genres get moving on the second song: “Yesterday’s Love” is an old Nashville country song that Patsy Cline would be proud to sing. Shifting gears into indie rock vocals, White throws down with “The Long Way Home.” This cut is crafted brilliantly: heavy-handed bass balances out with piano punctuation. Sometimes the artist channels greatness, as “I Wish I Could Write You Could Write You A Song” oozes an essence of Roy Orbison. It feels like an intentional compositional connection to one of pop’s greatest songwriters. Orchestral production choices, great guitar work, and haunting vocals create a John Paul White experience, not just simply a song.
Lyrically, The Hurting Kind is a flashback to a time when Nashville produced music that felt real. This is music circa 1960, but transformed, with the essence of old Nashville gracing each song. The ten tracks range from the title track’s female perspective on love to the achingly subtle “This Isn’t Gonna End Well (feat. Lee Ann Womack)”. White and Womack work well together, creating some of the best imagery and harmonies on the record, wrapped in a lush soundscape of instrumentation. “You Found Me” weaves a tapestry of fiddle through the lyricism, oozing aching heartbreak. This is country like your grandparents loved.
Inspired by Glen Campbell, “James” says goodbye with love and guitar to one who is stolen away moment to moment due to a disease like Alzheimer’s. Closing out the record with “My Dreams Have All Come True” as the night cap, White makes a statement to listeners. The simple melody seems the perfect ending to a record whose songs were tied to greats like Roy Orbison and Chet Atkins with a songwriting thread. John Paul White’s The Hurting Kind is that record you may have been missing but didn’t even know it yet.–Lisa Whealy
The truth plays saxophone in Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Frontman and singer Karl Denson fuses groove funk, blues, gospel, soul and jazz into soul music on fire. KDTU’s Gnomes & Badgers via Seven Spheres Records delivers a dark, magical, animalistic view of the world from this master craftsman of song.
In the five years since his last release, what has changed? As Roland of Gilead in The Gunslinger would say, the world has moved on. Those five years have inspired a shift in sound textures for Denson, twisting his work into a surreal musical garden. This is an angry Karl Denson who has collected eleven satisfying tracks of funktastic jazz and blues-driven groove. An essence of gospel connects with the hellish political and social times depicted in the lyrics throughout the record colored with funky horns. Strutting in, opening with “What If You Knew” like a maniacal pied piper, the party’s on. From “Gossip” to “I’m Your Biggest Fan,” this gnome’s head is twisting in dark self reflection.
Accepting this full flight into KDTU reality are guitarist DJ Williams and lap steel guitarist Seth Freeman. Chris Littlefield plays trumpet while organist David Veith throws in with former Greyboy bassist Chris Stillwell and explosive drummer Zak Najor. Featured guest appearances on Gnomes & Badgers from Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers), Austin producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada, NOLA R&B royalty Ivan Neville, guitar-slinging singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson, and New Orleans guitar hero Anders Osborne make this record a beast to be reckoned with.
Hendrix’s soul lives in the spaces between each note of “Change My Way,” bleeding through every bit. This song should get dropped into a time capsule to define the world’s current insanity for future historical study. Haunting, from start to finish. Tripping back in with trademark positivity, “Can We Trade” brings a toe tapping vibe back into the recording, as gang vocals are working it out with horns on this cut. Saxophones wrap all around this dance through the forest. Definitely dividing the album into two camps, “Smart Boy” is the classic horn-driven song structure that fans of the jazz man love. Filled with stellar piano and organ work, this is the standout funk track of the album.
“Something Sweet” is a doorway into a place where soul lives eternally. But it’s not just soul, it’s speakeasy jazz club bump’n’grind with gospel vocals. Have I mentioned the word genius lately? Close your eyes, listen. Its a transformative sexperience. Whiplashing from that musical history trip into the present, “Time to Pray” is an ominous, head-shaking, toe-tapping, guitar-driven flash.
Gnomes & Badgers is a masterclass in musicianship, and it seems unfair to single out any one particular sound other than the collective. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe wants fans to “Just Remember” wandering away from Gnomes & Badgers. Achingly hopeful, KTDU’s universe is heading back to the silence which comes at the end of the record with subtle beauty. Denson points out through his art that no matter how exceptionally messed up the world is right now, new ideas can bring new possibilities for positive, hopeful change. —Lisa Whealy
March’s Independent Clauses Spotify playlist continues to scour for unusual music: video-game mashups, trumpet ensembles, twee instrumentals, organ drones, hang drum music, experimental vocal ambience, and more.
Zelda and Chill – Mikel. Iconic video-game music mashed up with low-key beats for a maximum chill experience. Lots of video-game mashups are jokes, but this is pristine and excellent. Highly recommended.
Layers– AAESPO. One of my favorite discoveries of March, AAESPO’s brass compositions have the “rushing water” feeling of many of Michael Gordon’s experimental compositions, but they aren’t stretched out to hour-long efforts, nor are they abrasive. Instead, these are dense, melodic, enthusiastic approaches to layering standard and modified horn (primarily trumpet) sounds. These are beautiful and unique; I would wager that many contemporary listeners (including myself!) will have had no prior experience to music of this type but will find many connections to other types of music they do like. Highly recommended.
Scenery – Snail’s House. Twee instrumental music that lives in the space between Lullatone’s heavily descriptive twee scenes and more abstract post-rock like The Album Leaf.
Luminous Emptiness– Hang Massive. Dreamy, delicate, comforting music made on the hang drum, a sort of tiny version of a steel drum.
Sunset & Formosa– DJ Dister. Funky, groovy instrumental beats with jazz and trip-hop influences.
Siren Islandsand Bird Under Water– Arooj Aftab. If you like Julianna Barwick’s great clouds of vocals but think they’re just not experimental enough for you, Arooj Aftab has your back. This is truly inventive and complex music for those who love outsider sounds, full of noodling synths, manipulated vocals, distant sounds, atmospheric washes, and all sorts of unusual combinations of those.
What Are You– Underground System. Do you ever wonder what LCD Soundsystem would sound like if the lead singer were female? Try “Just a Place” for the answer; the band nicks the vocal patterns, lyrical fragments, rubbery bass rhythms, extended jam philosophy, and the call-and-response vocal structure to create the best tribute to LCD Soundsystem I’ve ever heard. The rest of the record is a compelling mix of bass-guitar-heavy dance music, electro burbles, atmospherics, and fun.
The Untuning of the Sky – Sarah Davachi. Layered organ drone is not something I ever thought I would be really into, but lo, here we are. Davachi’s drones are at times warm and inviting (“Spanish Banks”) and elsewhere menacing and tough (“Rainbands”). I’m not sure where one would start if one wanted to get into organ drone as a genre, but this seems like as good a place as any.
Party Starter – Antone. This is about as minimalist as dusky, club-friendly EDM gets; it’s stripped down to bare bones in terms of number of sounds going on in the tracks. But what Antone does with minimal beats and synths is amazing. I kept coming back to the album over and over, not fully sure of what was drawing me. Was it the melodies? Was it the vibe? Was it the groove? Was it the subtle chiptune bits? I have no idea. But it kept me coming back over and over. Highly recommended.
Spring – Teen Daze. This two-song single from Teen Daze in advance of an upcoming album is about as good a teaser as you could invent. Jamison comes back from his adventures and experiments to this project with a rejuvenated look at the core things that make Teen Daze great: the almost-fully-solved tension between electronic and acoustic, the deliciously dreamy vibes, the dense textures that give way to soaring-but-delicate melodies, the thoughtful layering and mixing to bring it all together. The two tracks here push all of those elements further, deepening the oeuvre that Teen Daze has developed over his career. These are just beautiful, excellent tracks.
Powerhouse– Hyde Park Brass. I used to be in marching band as a teenager, which de facto means I’ve been a low-key fan of drum corps ever since. Hyde Park Brass are basically a drum corps (they also include saxophone, a slightly unusual choice) but they’ve got pop sensibilities and real smooth integration of their instrument sections going on. These are tight, fun, interesting brass tracks. They even group-sing in one of them! If you’re into brass or adventurous takes on traditional forms, go for this.
Nick Box – discography. Box’s music is right on the boundary of piano composition and post-rock, as Box loves a huge build to a giant conclusion. But there’s also delicate moments that rely heavily on the piano itself for gravitas and emotion; it’s not all big rushes of multiple instruments. If you’re in the Lights & Motion school of cinematic post-rock, you will love Box’s work.
Death Will Tremble to Take Us– Death Will Tremble to Take Us. A post-rock album of the Explosions in the Sky / Godspeed! You Black Emperor vibe; it hits all the right notes and is a good addition to the collection of those who like this style.
Pictorial – Killbody Tuning. A combination of heavy post-rock that can power through riffs at great intensity and slowcore work that stretches pensive, restrained concepts out over great lengths. Those who are interested in The Angelus will love this.
Silver & Gold – Frances Luke Accord. Basically perfect folk-pop of the calm, Simon and Garfunkel persuasion. If you love lithe melodies, meticulous construction
The Lost Music of Canterbury: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks – Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe. On a whole different angle of vocal music, here’s a ton of music in a medieval traditional style that is astonishingly, surprisingly beautiful. I have an interest in choral music from my childhood days as a boy choir member, but I’m still surprised by how enigmatic and beautiful these pieces are.
Ape Shifter – Ape Shifter. I wanted to know what an instrumental classic rock/riff rock album would sound like. Now I know: it’s like classic rock but without vocals. I don’t know what I was expecting other than that, honestly. I enjoyed listening to this.
The rest of the work on the list I didn’t actually get to listen to much, and I moved it on over to the March List.
In the third installation of what my January playlist looked like, I’m going to be brief. These were things I listened to less frequently for a variety of reasons (some of which simply because I found them late in the month). I have sincere hopes that I’ll be faster when getting up my recap of the February list. But who can say? On to the music:
Vastness – Christopher Sky. Minimalist composition with a bent toward including clunking, clanking, noisy backdrops that emphasize randomness and technological efforts amid the sometimes-highly-melodic, sometimes-ambient structures.
Jacco Gardner’s Somnium. This is a dusky, psychedelic, full-band adventure. There’s lots of spacy synth, groovy bass, existential dread, and overarching awe. A very cool experience.
Abyssinia & Abyssina Rise – Te’Amir. Combines traditional African sounds and rhythms with instrumental hip-hop vibes to create a deeply unique and interesting fusion.
Ex / Spells – kj. Great waves of sound with just enough motion to make this not drone but ambient. The work is extremely compelling–a thoughtful mixture of atmospherics, slowly-unfolding melody, tape hiss, and space. There’s a brittle, cold, nocturnal nature to this work that is engaging. Both records are highly recommended.
Charlie Dreaming – discography. On the other end of the mood spectrum from the kj work is Charlie Dreaming, offering a warm, rich, noble, major-key set of ambient drones. These are the sort of thing that the word ethereal was made for; these feel like transmissions from the glories of beautiful outer space findings, heaven, or similar otherworldly situations. Very beautiful.
Double Concerto for Violin and Bandoneon, No. 1– JP Jofre, Michael Guttman, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. A rollicking, adventurous piece for chamber orchestra. Lots of cinematic sweep, lots of character to the piece, and a lot of fun. Bandoneon is similar to an accordion in sound, making this have a unique flair that will appeal to those who like South American, European, and/or Middle Eastern uses of accordion or accordion-like instruments.
Ateş Yanmayinca – Aynur Dogan. Speaking of the Middle East, here’s some music of and inspired by the traditional Kurdish folk tradition. Middle Eastern music is a space that I know almost nothing about and am still trying to learn about, so I have nothing really to add except it’s very interesting and I’m enjoying learning about it.
Into the Void – Ogmasun. Instrumental post-metal that thrashes in all the right ways. Love it.
This world seems increasingly complicated, right? Why don’t you stop and sit for a while? Why don’t you listen to Are You Open?by Seth Walker, who’s inviting you in for some meaningful, authentic, heartfelt conversation? Full of vibe and truly genreless, this gem produced by The Wood Brothers’ drummer Jano Rix dropped February 13 on Royal Potato Family.
Listeners may wonder what impact the success of Walker’s critically acclaimed 2016 released Gotta Get Back had on the artist. The prophetic opener “Giving it All Away” sees heavy bass groove drive in to a percussive keyboard-laden groove, letting the listener realize that exploring new sounds and styles on Gotta Get Back created an ability to be truly open to the possibilities of creation on this new record.
This tenth studio album from Walker features a deepening appreciation and connection not just to sounds, but to the human spirit. Embracing what it means to be truly open in all ways, the songwriter embraces his soul with brilliance. Listening to “No More Will I” feels like a Pied Piper’s call to unite as the lead single on this collection of blues-infused music. “Inside” and “All I Need to Know” prove through completely contrasting stylistic choices that there is one concept we all share: regardless of it all, we are human beings.
There are few songs that call out truth so honestly like “Are You Open?” Sweet, tentative, and hopeful, this resonates with acoustic guitar and vulnerability. Are we sitting around a campfire on a starry North Carolina night, pedal steel guitar echoing into the night along with Walker’s vocals? “Something to Hold” is the story of life in my opinion. Only by letting go is there any way of finding out what is really meaningful in your life. Yeah, it may feel trite, but damn it is real. This troubadour has earned his place the Great American Songbook.
African and Latin textures infused in the music bring to mind the work of Paul Simon on his groundbreaking Graceland. “Hard Road” has diamonds on the souls of the shoes that are walking that hard road, consciously or unconsciously channeling rhythmic genius. The essence of the joy Simon captured with steel drums and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s work has been reincarnated here for new generations to breathe in with each note. Easy, strolling beats coupled with an upbeat musicality juxtapose against lyrics which suggest that the best achievements in life are challenging. We all participate in life. Not everyone gets a trophy, but we can help others along in this human race. The blues-guitar driven “No Bird” soars with imagery. Yes, Walker has defined himself here.
Production choices and sequencing of this record add to the rich textures of the material; vibrant and alive, each song stands alone but supports each other like a loving family of musical thoughts. Is it the influence of Rix, with his life of New Orleans influences blended with Havana and Nashville? I like to think that we get to hear the results of all that beautiful juicy blender of gifts mixed into a spirited melody. This record is the best fresh ear candy I have heard so far this year.
Shifting from quick hits like “Underdog” and its throwdown jazzy aesthetic to close out the record with the soulful, acoustic “Magnolia,” one fact is certain. Even if there was no intention of writing a concept album, the universe is usually in charge of what comes out when artist opens his soul. Listening to Are You Open? by Seth Walker is like breathing an essence of honeysuckle rose on the breeze that’s carrying the rich resonance of Walker’s vocal delivery with birds and accordion as accompaniment.–Lisa Whealy
Is it possible to quantify a creation of beauty? Like capturing a butterfly only to watch it die hitting the sides of its glass jar prison, it is best to never hold captive that which is meant to soar. Such is the case with South African pianist Liam Pitcher, who invites listeners to be set free via Session at The Baxter Theatre: the second release from the Cape Town-based talent.
“Improvisation on a Theme,” composed by Nobuo Uematsu, starts the short collection of tracks with a personal connection to Pitcher. As a young boy, Pitcher delved deep into the Final Fantasy video games. The journeys of Final Fantasy are intertwined with the journey of Liam Pitcher. Pitcher began piano studies ten years ago, and his path has led him to study with some the best worldwide. As a result, listeners can hear the color soar from each note. For Pitcher, that’s not a metaphor: Pitcher experiences the gift of synesthesia, creating a brilliant sonic rainbow each time his fingers rest on the ivory. Technical skill can be taught and drills can create perfect performance, but self awareness and authenticity are absolutely necessary to channel beauty in any art form. That spiritual connection has been achieved brilliantly in this piece.
His original compositions shine with technical prowess. Furthermore, a connection to Bartolomeo Cristofori and his pianoforte can be felt with clarity. Subtle, strong, and deliberate, this is an exercise in restraint from its tentative, homophonic entrance to its rich, powerful adieu. Pitcher shows the depth of his skill, crafting compositions so that we can all experience colors along with Pitcher. As this intimate musical experience closes with “Aeolian Dance,” listeners may forget, breathing in the resonance of each note, that this is a young talent just hitting his stride. Session at The Baxter Theatre by Liam Pitcher is sure to wash classical beauty over our souls. –Lisa Whealy
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 Rodeoand “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!
So I’ve been building a playlist in Spotify for the whole month of January so far. I toss things in that I’m hearing which are great. It’s a new method for me, and it’s been going pretty well so far. Here’s a bit of a run-down on what’s in the list so far and why it’s there. These albums are in no particular order.
The River – ETHEL and Robert Mirabal. ETHEL is a famous string quartet, and Robert Mirabal is a Pueblo flutist and vocalist. Their collaboration is a beautiful, moving, satisfying exchange of ideas from very different cultural backgrounds. It seems that they each play to their strengths instead of watering each other down; Ethel’s thick string work provides a powerful backdrop to the Pueblo vocal and flute melodies. Impressive opener “An Kha Na” sees the quartet laying down a drone that a growing chorus of singers harmonize over; it’s nigh-on mystical and reverent all by itself. Highlight “Run for Rain” sees a staccato vs legato arrangement mirror a poem by Mirabal about running and scrambling. The spoken word is some of the most gripping that I’ve heard in a long time: even, earnest, and calm, but with a latent intensity that fits perfectly with the arrangement. “Tsintskaro Memory” sees Mirabal’s flutes take center stage, to lovely results. A deeply unique album that just works perfectly.
Monument Valley II Soundtrack – Todd Baker. I love the kitchen sink: I want beats and synths and strings and guitars and genres and moods and vibes and lushness and sparseness altogether. I want to see a huge array of ideas all jammed into one thing and see it all work together like a tapestry. That’s what this album is: a soundtrack to an indie video game that sounds like low-key sci-fi techno one moment, minimalist ambient the next, and gamelan music the third. (No, for real! “Gamelan Rain Melody” is composed of gamelan performance!) Baker is massively talented to pull all this off. This was recommended to me as excellent working music, and so it is: it’s got motion and interest to keep things moving but not so much that it steals your attention. (I’m sure this makes it excellent video game music too.) Just fantastic.
Cold Math / Sans Drums – Panfur. Cold Math lives somewhere between tropical house, artsy post-dub, and trance music. There’s even a bit of reggaeton rhythm (riddim?) and trap ideas thrown in. It’s a great trip through various types of electronic music, all held together by a spartan, space-heavy oeuvre. Also great for working to. Sans Drums is literally sans drums, relying heavily on strings, piano, and various types of synth for rhythm and drive. This is a more sentimental album than Cold Math, as a result–lots more melody and mood. It’s also a little less polished than Cold Math; it has some moments where the implementation of the experimentation doesn’t quite live up to the quality of the ideas. But overall, an interesting take nonetheless.
Ranky Tanky – Ranky Tanky. Not instrumental at all, this is an album of Gullah music. I’d not been very familiar with Gullah music, which is why I checked it out. Turns out Ranky Tanky plays a brand of music that fuses chilled-out New Orleans Second Line, gospel vocals/lyrics, and American acoustic folk tunes. It’s relaxed and comforting music, making for a great Sunday morning album. The performances are all of very high quality, from the vocals to the brass to the rhythm section and beyond. Lovely.
Chick Corea – assorted songs. I have heard of Chick Corea often but never listened, so I put the most-listened songs on Spotify on this list. I’m still not a jazz connoisseur, but I can say that I enjoyed listening to these tracks far more than most jazz I’ve been exposed to, smooth or otherwise. I still have nothing meaningful to say about jazz, in my opinion, but I’m getting closer to getting it, I think. Maybe.
Englabörn and Variations – Jóhann Jóhannson. Another musician I’d heard of but never listened to, I picked this one up and have loved it. Jóhannson’s minimalist, fusionist take on classical music is just the sort of thing I’m interested in: “Odi et Amo” pairs a mournful, legato string quartet with a vocalist singing an Ancient Roman love/hate poem through a vocoder. A doomy piano completes the arrangement. It’s like Daft Punk at a funeral. It’s amazing. The minimalist arrangements of strings and piano continue throughout; it’s generally intimate, quiet work that moves peacefully through– even the tension of “Ég Sleppi Þér Aldrei” is cut with legato lines and gives way to a bouncy, elegant, tango-esque atmosphere. Yet the work never lapses into ambient/atmospheric music; this is not ambient music (in the Music for Airports sense), but compositions intended to be featured and heard as performances. Jóhannson could do a lot with a little. It’s a shame he died in 2018, before I even really got to know his music.
Wojciech Karolak – assorted songs. I found a copy of Karolak’s Easy! at Spinster Records in Tulsa, and I stupidly didn’t buy it. I don’t know how I resisted the magnificent cover art, but maybe I thought I couldn’t get it home in my luggage or something. I don’t know. But there’s not much Karolak available on Spotify, sadly, and the funky, bluesy, groovy, jazzy organ-based instrumental psych-lite is much missed. The few tracks that are there show off a unique mind and a deft hand at way-out-there instrumental music. If you find any Karolak in your journeys: buy it.
Gorilla EP – BeatLove. Big, lush electro that meshes great percussive beats, zooming phased synths, boomy bass synths, marimba, and more into an expansive experience. Goes especially well with ODESZA (especially “Train,” what with the pop-leaning female vocals and driving vibe) and others of the ilk. This is the sort of thing that I have limited words to yet explain but am very into these days. Highly recommended.
Ambiance – Ølten. I’ve gone through various phases where I’ve been into and not into post-rock. I went through a phase where I very much enjoyed the music of ISIS (before the name ISIS was associated with a terrorist group instead of the post-metal band) and have enjoyed Explosions in the Sky quite a bit. But then there’s also been times where I just can’t get into another metally, grumbling outfit. There’s a specific X factor in the songwriting that makes me interested or not in a post-rock/post-metal band, and Ølten has it on Ambiance. It’s ironic that this is called Ambiance, because it is very noisy and not ambient in the traditional sense: there are towering guitars, pounding drums, and furious moods. But it’s all done very effectively: I believe Ølten more than I do other bands of this ilk. Maybe it’s the melodies, maybe it’s the song construction, I don’t know. But this is top-shelf angry instrumental music, and if you’re into that, here you are. I like pg.lost and I like this, so I think others who like pg.lost might like this one?