Other thoughts, reviews, lists, and random postings will still appear in this space, but weekly reviews will be found at Experimedia. As always, thanks for reading.
In a time of such prolific technology, it is comforting to know there is still merit in placing two noted musicians in the same room with few ideas and a host of instruments. That’s how Thomas Meluch (aka Benoît Pioulard) and Rafael Anton Irisarri (aka the Sight Below) approached their project as Orcas and they emerged with an album that gives equal reverence to a song’s destruction as the creative spark that spawned it.
The album is predominately made up of hushed and opaque acoustic pop songs that are overlaid with electronic manipulation and imbued with static in an almost stately manner. Of course, it’s often dusky and vaporous music, but two key signifiers – the deep pulse from Irisarri and Meluch’s lovely baritone – keep each of the album’s nine songs grounded amid encroaching grains of noise and digital hiss. It’s precisely the type of somber, texture-heavy music you would expect from these two artists, but it succeeds with its delicate balance of finely-honed melody and displaced abstraction.
Hear ‘Carrion’ below and purchase the LP from Morr.
The world of classical minimalism is an overcrowded one. Though, like any restrained music, small changes and subtle departures can move with the force of a much greater gesture. It’s a tactic that Berlin-based composer Greg Haines is well aware of as his new album, ‘Digressions,’ alters the gap in between Philip Glass and Arvo Part just enough to feel entirely compelling sonically and rich theoretically.
Fittingly, strings swirl in elegant, elongated patterns, piano chords pulse and resonant, and movements take several minutes to coalesce from their silent roots. For Haines, however, this is only the beginning – point “a” on a long, complex journey. From here he edits in a way only computers will allow, filtering entire passages through banks of reverb units and augmenting his harmonies with deep sine wave tones. This gives the five extended tracks of ‘Digressions’ a sense of blurred mystery, challenging the listener to parse the various electronically treated strings and raw acoustics he composes with. From above, though, Haines’ best album yet is a sparkling, gorgeous study of how new angles and subtle shifts can still create minimalist masterpieces.
Hear ‘183 Times’ below and purchased the CD from Preservation.
Like many ‘60s pop groups, the lyrics of ‘Lonesome’ belie the joyous and upbeat lilt the song takes on. It is this era that the band has been bound to throughout the course of seven full-length albums, often cribbing styles and borrowing passages from some of the most celebrated bands in history, including The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Band. Yet, ‘Lonesome,’ the lead track from ‘Be the Void,’ harkens back even further into musical history. With a percussive stomp that could have been sourced from a raucous saloon and a backwoods blues guitar that creaks and scratches a memorable melody through the song’s three minute tenure, Dr. Dog diverge and expand from their previous influences.
The rest of the album is, admittedly, a bit uneven, but ‘Lonesome’ has a certain magnetism that has been hard for me to resist since its release in early February. The band, now expanded to a six-piece, feels vibrant, loose, and compelling in ways I hadn’t previously envisioned. And, even if it’s just for a solitary song, that’s something I’ll hold onto.
Hear ‘Lonesome’ below and visit Anti- to order.
It’s hard for me not to call Oren Ambarchi something close to an icon, a name I can rely on to put forth consistently engaging and abstracted versions of music. What I cannot rely on is consistency of style, approach, and sound – each release that holds Ambarchi’s name is singular and distinct in his discography. Cavernous noise, stately minimalism, and straight line pop music all litter his past, but now they appear on one album, ‘Audience Of One.’
It begins with a perfect, refined gem: ‘Salt’ is a masterpiece of restraint that is more song than experimentation. Paul Duncan provides vocals that, while expertly layered and cloaked in reverb, are among the most naked and affecting statements you’ll hear all year. His melancholic words drape over the slow swells of violin and viola to form a minimalist statement that is both sonically and emotionally resonant. True to form, what follows is completely different, particularly ‘Knots,’ the following track. A half-hour exercise in loose, dynamic soundscapes, ‘Knots’ features a mid-section of free-rock ecstasy as Ambarchi’s electric guitars bristle with gnarled feedback and distortion. It’s a stark contrast with the remainder of the album, but it’s also what makes Ambarchi a perennial favorite.
Buy the album from Touch and hear ‘Salt’ below.
01 White Fence ‘Is Growing Faith’
‘Is Growing Faith’ was one of the first LPs I bought in January and it never quite got better than this. I returned to it again and again for a multitude of reasons: it rushed like the British Invasion and swirled like early psychedelia; possessed the ability to shift from rural, cobweb-stricken folk to urgent garage-pop. As warped and errant as the songs may seem, no one wrote a better collection this year than Tim Presely operating as White Fence. Whenever I questioned this choice, I queued up the LP and lowered the stylus. And the proof was always between the groves, just as it should be.
02 A Winged Victory for the Sullen ‘A Winged Victory for the Sullen’
The reigning hiatus of Stars of the Lid was once a thing of dread, fearing that never again would I hear the hallmarks of their vintage LPs. Conversely, Adam Wiltzie partnered with pianist Dustin O’Halloran with an equally sublime result. Not that this is SOTL 2.0, but Wiltzie’s approach of deep tones and hushed, symphonic wonderment is so markedly singular that it is impossible not to hear shades of his previous project. O’Halloran proves to be a perfect complement as his piano notes give melody and buoyancy to the heavy drift of strings and room tone.
03 Kurt Vile ‘Smoke Ring for My Halo’
‘Smoke Ring’ was as invaluable as an old friend on those early mornings, lazy afternoons, and quiet nights. And while Vile litters his songs with lyrics of ambivalence and laziness, this album strikes deep and true with taut songwriting and sublime, golden-hued atmospheres. Here he takes the common tropes of folk and classic rock and spins them into something wholly his own.
04 Psychedelic Horseshit ‘Laced’
This album seemed invisible. If it did garner the praise and notoriety it deserved I was certainly not privy to it. And what a shame that is since Psychedelic Horseshit crafted one of the most beguiling and compelling records of 2011. ‘Laced’ is the sound of shoegaze left out in the sun – hot, melted, and disfigured, while still retaining a true pop sensibility. A gem.
05 Colin Stetson ‘New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges’
The boldest album of the year. In many ways, my 2011 was bookended with this full-length LP and Stetson’s equally enticing 10”. Each mapped the contours of a strange and twisted planet with an utterly new sound that was as violent and erratic as a madman, but also as controlled and precise as a chemist. Solo saxophone music is not always something I seek out, but ‘Judges’ successfully creates an entirely different language replete with guest vocalists, a mixing process that involves 24 microphones for a single instrument, and a circular breathing technique that rivals the best marathon runners.
06 Sic Alps ‘Napa Asylum’
I’m not exactly sure how long Sic Alps took to write and record their glorious double LP ‘Napa Asylum,’ but anywhere between three days or three years would be believable. On the first few listens, it may be easy to be distracted by their raw, off-the-cuff approach to songwriting. But once it sinks in deeper it becomes clear the San Francisco trio are working on a different plane, and the album makes sense sonically when it has no right to theoretically. Sic Alps know exactly how to hold back integral pieces to songs – the few perfectly placed piano notes in ‘Ranger’ or the tambourine in ‘Turtle Soup’ – and make you realize you didn’t know how bad you needed to hear them until they appear. ‘Napa’ only further proves they are one of the most thoroughly exciting bands around.
07 The Cave Singers ‘No Witch’
It’s music for backwoods and barrooms, for campfires and whiskey. But even if your surroundings didn’t always include those things, ‘No Witch’ elicited enough dust, humidity, and smoke to make it a reality. The tradition of folk, blues, country, and rock and roll is as deep as anything in America and, from the remote corner of the Pacific Northwest, The Cave Singers mine all the right areas. From the tender fiddle inflections of ‘Swim Club’ and the psychedelic undercurrents of ‘Outer Realms’ to the ragged electric guitars of ‘Black Leaf’ and the gospel evocations of ‘Haystacks,’ no album dug into Americana better than ‘No Witch.’
08 Jacaszek ‘Glimmer’
Part baroque classical, part electronic abstraction, ‘Glimmer’ assembles divergent styles with ease and fluidity. Jacaszek plays pipe organ, harpsichord, Spanish guitar, harp, and many other instruments that are, in turn, blemished by digital manipulation, defaced by pitchshifting, and left as naked as their natural state. Sonically, ‘Glimmer’ is utterly intoxicating: textural and abstract while retaining an immediacy and melodicism. Little was as special as that combination in 2011.
09 Tim Hecker ‘Ravedeath, 1972′
Tim Hecker’s distortion-crusted drone was thought to be perfected with 2006’s ‘Harmony in Ultraviolet,’ but he has never recorded anything as imposing or blatantly powerful as ‘Ravedeath, 1972.’ A composite of many different elements end up creating the sound of ‘Ravedeath,’ but two things ultimately define it: guitar amplifiers and a cathedral. These two components are at odds with each, one giving a raw, rough-hewn quality to the record while the other provides an immense, symphonic sound. As always, the synthesis of the two is where the record triumphs.
10 Atlas Sound ‘Parallax’
Seemingly every year a Bradford Cox helmed album ends up in my top 10 list. Though not quite as consistent and instantly catchy as ‘Logos,’ ‘Parallax’ is an extremely solid collection of songs that blends atmospheric debris and tremoloed guitar lines with clear-eyed acoustic ballads. Of course, Cox is never one to rest on such a simple description, also utilizing loops, garage-rock stylings, and raw lyrics to color in his vibrant songs. But no matter how he dresses them up, the pop melody is his ultimate muse and ‘Parallax’ is yet another endearing document of such an idea.
11 James Blake ‘James Blake’
I’m always curious to see what albums resonate with huge, broad media institutions like Time and Entertainment Weekly and appear on their year end lists. James Blake landed on People magazine’s top ten list, which, given how unlikely his singer-songwriter/dubstep formula is, should not have surprised me in the least.
12 Frank Fairfield ‘Out on the Open West’
A true troubadour from yesteryear, Fairfield picked, plucked, and bowed a series of incredibly bare and stark folk songs on ‘West’ that would sound great in any era.
13 Ty Segall ‘Goodbye Bread’
This may be the most “conventional” rock record on the list, but Ty Segall has enough energy and verve that his classic sources – T Rex and Nirvana among them – seem to matter less than the instantly hummable songs he writes.
14 Pete Swanson ‘I Don’t Rock at All’
A busy year for the already prolific Pete Swanson. ‘I Don’t Rock at All’ was the pinnacle with three extended electric guitar tracks that gristle with distortion and glitter with rich harmonics.
15 Tom Waits ‘Bad as Me’
At 62 years of age, Tom Waits has lost none of his trademark grit and intensity. In fact, to these ears, ‘Bad as Me’ is one of his most striking, daring, and accessible statements yet. No one writes a verse quite like him.
16 All Tiny Creatures ‘Harbors’
I’m slightly biased with this selection and I wasn’t really sure where to place it on the list. But one thing is certain: it deserves to be here. All Tiny Creatures disregard innumerable stereotypes and trends with their debut full-length and operate in a sound world wholly their own that is equal parts exacting electronic song-craft and abstract minimalism.
17 Six Organs of Admittance ‘Asleep on the Floodplain’
No matter how predictable a new Ben Chasny record may be – each contains familiar folk songs that are scuffed with feedback and imbued with drone – I’m pretty sure I would continue buying them for the next 50 years.
18 Earth ‘Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light’
It’s still slow, grinding, and unrelenting, but you don’t listen to Earth to hear sometime different than what’s come before. You listen for the indelible patience, that perfectly sculpted guitar tone, and the progressions that seem to arc into infinity – all of which ‘Angels’ has in spades.
19 Collections of Colonies of Bees ‘Giving’
For the better part of 10 years, Collections of Colonies of Bees have been crafting some of the most imaginative and invigorating instrumental music this side of a laptop. My only quibble? ‘Giving’ clocks in at only 28 minutes.
20 The War on Drugs ‘Slave Ambient’
If you would have told me an album that splits its focus between Springsteen-esque rock anthems and analog sound experiments would have been anything but a failure I would not have believed you. ‘Slave Ambient’ confirms just how wrong I was.
After an obtuse, psychedelic film about the Monkees, Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson collaborated on what I can only describe as an understated masterpiece and one of my favorite films, ‘Five Easy Pieces.’ The lineage between the two may not be direct, but it speaks to the level of artistic trust they had in one another to confront two entirely different film projects with equal passion.
‘Five Easy Pieces’ was undoubtedly a hit when it premiered in 1970, but it’s paradoxical that its most enduring moment – the chicken salad sandwich scene – is probably the film’s most atypical. The resulting 98 minutes is a fearless character study of a person who is completely discontented with the structure of the life that was envisioned for him and mostly disconnected to the people he surrounds himself with. Nicholson, as Bobby Dupea, plays an oil rigger who has forsaken a live of privilege and high class as a pianist in favor of drifting and disappearing into the fringes of society. Though, more than anything, ‘Five Easy Pieces’ is a rhapsody about emotion that is too difficult to verbalize, but too strong to ignore.
To purchase as part of the BBS box set and watch the trailer, visit Criterion.
Whether it was published in a magazine or remained just scribbles in a notebook, my years of writing about music taught me one indisputable fact: the most difficult thing to write about is the thing you love most. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a person, place, or sour candy. It is an arduous task to properly condense its brilliance into a mere couple hundred words, encapsulating the right energy, verve and style along the way.
So let me limit the chance of any uncertainty for this subject, the thing I love most: today marks the 20th anniversary of ‘Loveless’ by My Bloody Valentine and it is the greatest album ever recorded.
The moments deeply embedded in the mix, glistening on the surface and swirling somewhere in the margins of the album’s 48 and a half minutes represent so many things I love about the very nature of sound itself that it feels futile to even attempt an explanation. Yet, above all, it is the dualities and endless complexities of its sound I recall most clearly: loud and soft, abstract and pop, violent and tender, ethereal and so tangible I swear I can taste its bristling harmonics on my tongue and feel its pink-hued warmth on my skin. More than just a soundtrack to my existence, it’s a bible, a roadmap to this life of mine, a haven to retreat to, and a reason to continually fall in love with music again and again.
Listen to (a low-quality version of) ‘To Here Knows When’ below.
When witnessing Colin Stetson perform ‘The End of Your Suffering’ a couple months back, it was impossible not to be moved, impressed, and enthralled by the force he was expending in order to play his instrument. The physicality of being able to blow, scream, and expel sounds through a saxophones for ten-plus minutes without taking a proper breath is akin to a marathon runner’s endurance test. Only the outcome of Stetson’s movements sound a whole lot better.
‘Those Who Didn’t Run,’ Stetson’s new 10”, includes two side-long renditions of frantic, pulsing minimalism that are alternatively sublime and raucous. My previous comparison for his early 2011 full-length was to some odd Glass/Ayler hybrid, which, seemingly, has become even more apt with this release. Though no piece of vinyl can compare with Stetson’s live onslaught, this 10” is a lovingly crafted package with a thick record housed in a screen-printed heavyweight jacket. And the music you will find inside is, yet again, among 2011’s best.
Hear ‘The End of Your Suffering’ below and grab the 10″ from Constellation.