Wednesday, May 4, 2011

98 The Hard Way: Borderline 4s Week 2

WEEK 2 (April 29th-May 4th)

Total Albums Revisited: 26

Albums Dropping to 3 Stars: 5
  • Jim O'Rourke, Zeena Parkins, Toshinori Kondo, David Shea, DJ Low & Dirk Wachtelaer Fear No Fall (Lowlands) One thing I'm noticing here is that I tend to focus a lot on the best moments of albums on first pass without fully realizing how much space there is between them. [6.3]
  • Peter Scion Tree Music (Domestica) I think the big issue I wind up having here is that it's just too brief - under half an hour - to really make its mark. Given that Devachan's defining moment is only 7 minutes shorter than this entire release... [6.8]
  • Parmentier Luxsound (Sigma Editions) For all the good aspects - the insidiously dark vibe mainly - there's not enough to grasp or to get lost in at the heart of this one. [6.6]
  • Jean Derome et Les Dangereux Zhoms Torticolis (Ambiance Magnétiques) Another case where the moments of greatness - or pure uninhibited insanity as the case is here - are far more sporadic than I recalled. [6.4]
  • Marc Ducret and Bobby Previte In the Grass (Enja) Far more standard than I remembered. The people involved here can do so much better than this. [6.2]
Albums Remaining at 3.5 Stars: 17
  • Kočani Orkestar L'orient est rouge (Cramworld) Gets the right balance of frantic and smooth. The best stuff here is truly exciting in a way that few jazz groups are able to get. [7.7]
  • Sephardic Tinge Morenica (Tzadik) Much more exciting than Coleman's other RJC entry from this year - the previously RAIed Selfhaters album - which given the heavy Masada overlap doesn't shock me, but outside of a few moments it doesn't seem to fully realize the potential it has. [7.6]
  • Alvin Curran Theme Park (Tzadik) First track on its own might have gotten a plus distinction if not a 4 star mark, just the right kind of percussive racket for me. The second track doesn't hit even the lowest points of its predecessor thus it drags. [7.0]
  • Milford Graves Grand Unification (Tzadik) Impressively varied and at times downright weird for an album of nothing but pure, untreated percussion. At times it almost sounds of a piece with Ruins in terms of energy and variability, but more often it just doesn't make the jump. [7.5]
  • Joe Hisaishi Hana-Bi (Milan) Might have more of a reaction to this if I'd seen the movie it comes from, but even on its own it stands as a great piece of music. Effortlessly dramatic without falling into needless bombast or the realms of the maudlin. [7.6]
  • Golden Golden (Trans Solar) Fleetingly great if that makes sense...the kind of album that sounds like 4 stars when you listen to it but leaves you hard pressed to remember why after its over. [7.1]
  • Stefano Scodanibbio The Voyage That Never Ends (New Albion) Sustained menace and interest with just an upright bass at his disposal. Minimal and repetitive but never boring. [7.8]
  • Peter Scion Devachan (Domestica) Blessed with personality and an overriding sense of doom. The best of his releases in this time period. [7.6]
  • Joëlle Léandre No Comment (Red Toucan) Freewheeling solo bass explorations where half the enjoyment comes from the unpredictability of Léandre's playing. [7.6]
  • David Shea Classical Works (Tzadik) "The 'Voice' Suite" is breathtaking, probably the best thing I've heard Shea do in any context. Unfortunately, "Chamber Symphony" is nowhere near the same level. [7.8]
  • Creation Is Crucifixion In_Silico (King of the Monsters) The general vibe of this one - weirdly technological and foreboding - gives it a distinct flavor that I appreciate even when the songs don't quite stick. [7.4]
  • Nels Cline and Devin Sarno Edible Flowers (WIN) As with the previous Cline-Sarno joint, the atmosphere is there in great portions but beyond that there's precious little to hold on to. This one has a few more weirdly pretty moments to spice it up at least. [7.6]
  • Dumb Type [OR] (Foil) Call it glitch done right. Shards vs slabs, huge sound that allows the nuances to shine, clinical precision. [7.5]
  • Hasidic New Wave Psycho-Semitic (Knitting Factory Works) A bit weirdly mixed - guitar in particular is WAY too loud - but the overall Bar Kokhba homage never trips into rip off territory which is admirable. [7.2]
  • Nostromo Argue (Snuff) The answer to the question 'What would Agoraphobic Nosebleed sound like if they wrote actual songs?' A bit of a hidden gem in ways, but also kinda monotonous. [7.6]
  • Ivor Cutler A Flat Man (Creation) So compellingly odd that nothing else really matters. I want to go around quoting this just to see how many odd looks I receive for it. [7.8] 
  • Pangolin Beneath These Darkened Trees (Domestica) While Peter Scion's solo material explored facets of dark folk, his band from the same time frame gives it all to full bore acid-drenched psych rock of a high enough order. The title track is a real gem. [7.7]
  • Keith Jarret, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette Tokyo '96 (ECM) Three old pros take on a variety of standards and make them sparkle without necessarily making them their own. If it weren't so damned well played I might be annoyed by that last part. [7.6]
Albums Elevated to 4 Stars: 2
  • El Hadj N'Diaye Thiaroye (Siggi Musique)
  • The Shadow Ring Hold Onto I.D. (Siltbreeze)
More on these in the next section.

Albums in the Upper 3.5 Star Area:

Joe Morris, Ken Vandermark and Hans Poppel Like Rays (Knitting Factory Works)
The word that I keep returning to whenever I listen to this album is 'playful.' Even in its most forceful moments there's a decided lightness of touch to the playing that gives it the sort of replayable quality that I find very rare in the scope of free improvisation. There's an air of tossed off effortlessness to the proceedings that you might think would undercut the dazzling displays of instrumental pyrotechnics that Ken Vandermark (on reeds) Joe Morris (on guitars) and Hans Poppel (on piano) are prone to indulge in, but in the end it's the fact that this feels so breezy and uninhibited that gives it the extra push that so many in this style seem to lack.

But let's be fair here: this is an album on which everyone plays like a motherfucker. Vandermark's the biggest name here and thus the most known quantity, but his distinctive tone and style shines through as usual without obscuring either of his two collaborators. Morris acts most like a foil to Vandermark, underpinning his flights of fancy while adding subtle counter-melodic shades to his more straight playing, but when he getsthe spotlight he makes the most of it. He never descends into cliched jazz-fusion shredding or overt McLaughlin worship like so many jazz guitarists seem to do, opting for a clean, precise tone that makes each note stick, even when it comes in the middle of a formidable run of them. Poppel, though, winds up being the disc's MVP. He acts as the defacto rhythm section for the Morris/Vandermark duo, but at the same time adds so many nuanced fills and occasionally crashes through with a perfectly placed solo - the title track in particular illustrates this so much better than I can explain it - without ever neglecting his backbone duties as it were. It's a shame that he doesn't seem to have many other credits to his name because given what's on display here he might be up there with the bigger names in free jazz piano of our times.

The real joy, though, comes in the moments where all three players are at once seemingly going off on their own tangents but doing so in a way that perfectly compliments everything else that's occurring at the same time. It's the sound of three players who seem uniquely attuned to each others' frequency for the whole album's length without ever letting that synchronicity develop into complacency. On top of that, they do this all like it came to them as naturally as breathing. There's no moments that sound forced or overworked, everything flows with a degree of self-assuredness that makes the album feel so light and playful. The players' skill might make for the best moments - and if we're gonna name 'em they would be "Like Rays" and "Life Stuff" - but it's their ease of interaction that makes for a great album. [8.1/10]

Gary Lucas Busy Being Born (Tzadik)
Maybe it's just indicative of my own preferences above anything else, but the best moments in Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series seem to be built around at times radical re-interpretations of traditional numbers. Ignoring John Zorn's entries in the series, my undisputed favorite release so far has been Kletka Red's Hijacking where a who's who's of art punk luminaries set about dismantling any number of Jewish standards and re-building them as fractured shards of art punk. While Busy Being Born isn't quite at that level of re-invention, it's certainly of a certain piece with it all the same, warping an array of standards through Gary Lucas' unique sensibilities and coming out with an album that for all its reliance on familiar material feels somewhat fresh and new.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that no matter what he's playing, no one else in the game plays guitar like Gary Lucas does. Even if you've only heard him once or twice, it's hard to imagine that you've come away thinking that he's just another guitar slinger. Something in the tone of his guitar and his loose, ambling style of playing sets him apart from any of his closest peers. As a result, even when he's riffing on the hoary likes of "A Hundred Ponds of Clay" or "The Mensch in the Moon" the results are much more individualistic than you might expect. He doesn't even do as much to reinvent them as you might think, but the mere act of applying his own style to them gives them a decidedly Lucasian vibe that over-rides their familiarity.

But the fact that the best moments don't just stop there is the real joy of Busy Being Born. I'm thinking of "Sandman"'s twin devolutions into skronk punctuating the incredibly creepy vocals that Lucas adopts, or the three sides of "Adon Olom" explored as the CD's bookends, or the punkish fervor of "Crawlspace." It might be enough to pique my interest with just Gary Lucas re-interpreting the Jewish songbook, but it's the other avenues that he and his cohorts take that idea down that give Busy Being Born a lot of its residual charm. It may not be his best solo outing - really, he has a long way to go to recapture the magic of Skeleton at the Feast - but it's certainly an interesting detour for him to take, and the results more than justify it. [7.9/10]

Kramer Let Me Explain to You Something About Art (Tzadik)
It's hard to put into words, but the closest I can come to describing the experience here is this: Imagine if The Fiery Furnaces' Rehearsing My Choir was re-imagined as a tragedy instead of a surreal comedy. Translate the album in that way and you might come close to the feeling that Let Me Explain... gives me. Kramer - yes, the same guy that was at the heart of Bongwater and Shimmy-Disc Records - describes it as a meditation on the dying process, and that shines through even without having his word for it. It's in the foreboding accordion and bass pulse that backs what appears to be a series of bar mitzvah guests congratulating the birthday boy on "Jupiter and the Infinite," the various snippets of history that he loops and returns to during "Odds Against Tomorrow," the very sound of the voices on "Umberto D." It's never full on bleak, thankfully, but it's not exactly a laugh riot either.

If I described the basic elements that Let Me Explain to You Something About Art is based upon, you might not understand why I'm so hung up on it. The major elements at play are a series of oral histories from aging Jewish men and women and a static yet shifting bed of dark classical music. That's it really, and yet something in the way that Kramer manipulates them, the oral histories especially, that makes it resonate a lot more than I'd have thought it would. I'm not invested in the stories, but they stick with me because Kramer takes a particular line or two and loops them to almost devastating effect. I'm hard pressed to say that the instrumentals are great in any way, but the way that they evolve and shift so subtly underneath the samples is perfectly evocative. The two elements don't interact too much, but they imbue each other with qualities not inherent to them on their own.

Like I said, it's hard to explain this album since so much of it defies verbalization. It's all about the feeling it evokes, the subtleties of the mix and Kramer's treatment of the material more than any show-stopping element that I can point to and say 'that! right there!'. Nevertheless, it's an album that sticks with me in an odd way, a way that very few albums do to be quite honest. I may not be able to do it justice here, but it's hard to hold that against the album itself. [7.9/10] 

No comments: