Monday, December 29, 2008

"A Chacun Son Gout," or, "There's No Accounting for Taste!"

My ridiculously and improbably succinct best-of-the-year roundup of favorite music from 2008:

We Started Nothing - The Ting Tings.

- The School of Seven Bells.

Also noted, music I turned to most
during the year when I couldn't decide what to listen to :

Put A Record On - Gudrun Gut.

The Incredible Anthony Adverse
- Anthony Adverse.

(...anything by Kylie).

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Je Suis Animal

Just discovered this lovely, boy/girl, British/Norwegian, Indiepop band that blends influences from Broadcast, Electrelane, and Lush into a tasty treat.

The video for The Mystery of Marie Roget is fabulous viewing even without the music. Of course, it's styled to look like a 1920's silent film, and borrows some images from the 1928 Bunuel/Dali collaboration, Un Chien Andalou.

The title of the song comes from a short story by
Poe. The girls in particular look incredibly authentic in this:

Their debut album, Self-taught Magic from a Book, has just come out on the Angular Recording Corporation.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Roisin Murphy. Mansion. October 24, 2008.

It's incredible that this past Friday night was the very first performance of Murphy in New York City. She's a veteran of the music biz in the UK and Europe, having been the extroverted half of electronica duo Moloko for ten years and six albums. During her show at Mansion, she highlighted tracks off her new album from last year, Overpowered, still yet to be released in the US. She performed one Moloko tune, but her somewhat experimental debut solo album, Ruby Blue, was represented only by the title track, and Ramalama. (Why didn't she do Sow Into You, one of her best, if not THE best, of all her solo work?). If you weren't one of the lucky ones able to be there, here's a good idea of what it was like:

The set list was as follows:
Cry Baby

You Know Me Better

Checkin' On Me
Dear Miami

Ruby Blue
Movie Star

Forever More

Let Me Know


Tell Everybody


Murphy connected well with her adoring audience, projecting into the crowd and crouching down to grab hands. She commented that she's waited a long time to to play NY, "but I'm here now." There is word that she will return next spring during a full tour.
Roisin has maintained that performing is very important to her. I was reminded of Peter Gabriel's early days with Genensis. Their music was compelling and entrancing to hear, and in performance took on the dramatic aspects of theater. Roisin changed costumes almost for every song: looking like a sleek biker chick, Little Red Riding Hood, or a plaid deer. My favorite outfit was probably the furry wings. My own snaps didn't turn out too well, but there are some superb photos and video posted on other blogs here, here, and here.

Murphy's NY debut was actually part of the CMJ marathon - a five day showcase of over 1,000 bands from around the world. She certainly outclassed (and outdressed) the mostly unknown,
low-profile indie bands playing all over the city, often for free.

This was certainly the only time I will even get near the ultra swanky club, Mansion, formerly Crobar, in Chelsea. Looking almost decrepit from the outside, the interior is surely
somebody's idea of - what? High style? Maybe a 21st century version of Morris Lapidus, full of the same self-important desire to dazzle, but without the surrealism. Mansion is huge, but it felt like we were packed into phone booth as I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other fans on the main floor, maintaining my balance while being jostled by clubbers who tried to dance, or even just breath. But the venue was an excellent choice to showcase Roisin's flashy, glitzy electro-pop.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Ting Tings. We Started Nothing (2008).

The cute boy/girl duo of Jules and Katie aspire to mindless silliness, and they certainly achieve that, however they can't hide their creative musicianship. One gets the impression they could actually play prog rock if they wanted to, but thank goodness have chosen instead to deal in bratty Indiepop.

The opening track, Great DJ, bounces along amiably, flirting with an augmented I chord along the way, until the chorus kicks in with a modulation to the parallel
minor, and you suddenly know The Ting Tings are into something very special.

Great DJ:

They flopped as a full band previously known as Dear Eskimo. Disenchanted with the music industry, Jules and Katie made music for fun, and were surprised by their new success from just doing what they love. Steve Jobs plucked them from obscurity for an iPod commercial, and we all heard how good they were (licensing is the new radio).

They're at that exciting point in their career where they will still play a little club in upstate NY (Valentine's in Albany,
to be specific), a record store appearance in Missouri, then have a spot on the freak show otherwise known as the VMA awards on MTV (for the most part preempted by a commercial interruption, unfortunately).

They make enough noise as a just a duo, and in live performances play guitar and drums with a flexible setup of electronics to allow for some improvisation.

Shut Up And Let Me Go:

The whole album is cohesive and concise at 37 minutes. The last track seems to drag, but would probably be effective at a live gig. Each track has some nice details you may only notice with headphones, so it's worth a close listen. Traffic Light would fit beautifully on an album of music for children. Katie can sing, but often exclaims in a sing-songy chant like a demented cheerleader, or a more spastic George Pringle.
Do we really care that Shut Up And Let Me Go, and We Walk are built on practically the identical rhythm? No, we don't.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Interview - Action Biker

Swedish musician Action Biker has released her debut album, Hesperian Puisto, the title of which is named after a park in Helsinki. Sarah Nyberg Pergament credits influences as diverse as Moondog, Francoise Hardy, Syd Barrett, Flying Lizards, and Maurice Ravel. And yes, it's actually possible to perceive hints of all these inspirations.

The texture of her carefully arranged songs feature tendrils of delicate melodic lines woven in distinct counterpoint. The finely etched details of her compositions are probably due to her many years studying classical music. The brief tracks are interspersed with even briefer miniatures like diverting intermissions between vocal tracks. A fan of old musicals, she even does an idiosyncratic cover of the old standard, "By Myself," from the 1937 musical, "Between The Devil," by Dietz and Schwartz, performed by Fred Astaire in the 1953 film, "The Bandwagon." Fans of Au Revoir Simone or Broadcast should love this album.

Her thin, girlish voice is perfectly matched to her vulnerable and delightfully personal lyrics, including a quirky tribute to her favorite grocery store.

ICA Lapis:

The title track is based on this lovely chord progression: A flat Maj7 / g min7 / d min / C Maj7.

Hesperian Puisto:

I recently interviewed Sarah about her new album and her musical background:

Your new album is lovely. Are you happy with the way it turned out?

Thanks. Yes I guess I am. But it was quite difficult to finally decide that it was finished, but after working on it for a few years I felt it was important to complete something. The second one will be much easier to make and won't take another five years!

I know the name Action Biker comes from an old computer game. Why do you use a

I like to keep some distance between who I am and what I do I guess. Even though it's very related. It was my friend Anton who came up with the idea of the name. He was a big Commodore 64 enthusiast and he just decided that that was to be my artist name... if ever I'd release something. This was after I'd made one or two songs, and I had no idea that people would actually would come to hear them.

Why did you choose to record the tune, "By Myself?" And are you playing flute on that, or is it a sampler?

I'm a big fan of old musicals, especially the ones with Fred Astaire. In the musical "Bandwagon" he gets off a train and starts to sing this song to himself. I chose to include some flute on it since my father is a professional flautist, and I felt I wanted to include him on the record somehow.

Your songs are very meticulously put together. Did you study classical music?

I used to play violin for ten years and the piano for seven years. But I gave it up when I was
fourteen. I took some singing lessons a few years later. I've grown up with classical music, since my parents are classical musicians and I listen a lot to it still.

There are a number of short tracks on Hesperian Puisto. What role do these miniature compositions play in flow of the album?

It's just something that felt natural to me, since I've done a lot of tracks like this that I guess maybe don't seem to make sense at all but still they are part of what I do. I just wanted to be honest. I wanted to include things I like to do.

As I listen to the album, I keep feeling it is telling a story, rather than just a collection of tracks. True of false?

I'm not sure. If that's how people feel that's fine. The record and my lyrics are quite personal even if the subjects vary a lot. A difficult break up or thoughts about refrigerators. I never intended to do a story though.

What software and equipment do you use for producing music?

Reason and Cubase.

Swedish pop acts, for example: Komeda, Club 8, Cardigans, and Robyn, are all very different from each other. Yet, they seem to have certain qualities in common, such as lightness, poise, restraint, melodic inventiveness, and pretty surfaces. How do you think the Swedish national character is reflected in its pop music?

I don't know really, since both the light pop and hard rock scene is quite big here. The Indiepop scene here has got quite a reputation during the last couple of years, I don't know how it reflects the Swedish people though. We're told to be quite introverted and shy, maybe we need to make music to express ourselves. Aaah! I don't know!

I read an article in Spin magazine
that the Swedish government takes an active role in supporting pop music. How has the Swedish government helped you in career in any way?

Not in any way whatsoever! But I've never tried, I'm happy to work on my own without support, I really don't care about money or anything, not even gigs that much. This is something I do on my spare time. I get my money for being a student, I sure wish they'd help the students more over here!

I read that you played the NYC Popfest at the Cake Shop in June. How did you like performing in New York? Will you be returning to the US any time soon?

I must say I got a strange feeling somehow. I can't explain it. I liked it, but I was very jet lagged so I felt quite confused. I'd love to return some day. I had a wonderful time in New York. I loved Central Park.

Thank you Sarah!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Interview: Gudrun Gut

During her long career, Gudrun Gut has appeared on over 50 releases, and has been involved in the German music scene since the early 80's, playing in bands such as Mania D, Matador, Malaria!, Miasma, and was a member in the first incarnation of Einsturzende Neubauten. She is also the founder and owner of two record labels, Moabit Musik in 1990, and Monika Enterprise in 1997. After working so long in group contexts, Gudrun was inspired to produce an album with a carefully chosen range of invited collaborators, releasing the fascinating "Members of the Ocean Club," in 1996. The release party for that album spawned a regular club night in Cologne, and a tour, eventually establishing a presence as a radio show in 1997, which continues to broadcast across Germany, as well as Siberia and China.

A particularly captivating track and accompanying video from "Members of the Ocean Club" is
"Firething," a collaboration with underground Australian chanteuse, Anita Lane. Filmed on location at the original Ocean Club, the video combines a mood of bewitching glamour, and the intimate sense of eavesdropping on a private conversation. A vague sense of danger is offset by a barely detectable sense of humor, which takes the whole thing into the realm of an askew psychodrama:

In 2007, Gudrun released her first "real" solo work with minimal outside collaboration entitled, "I Put A Record On." References are made to a variety of genres of music, tango, sludgy blues, polka, and even some swinging, lounge-y kitsch. She uses bits and pieces from the standard building blocks of popular music, but assembles them into unfamiliar collages. Loops are grainy, and murky, as if channeled from antique Victrolas. The percussion parts have just a hint of techno. Her vocals, usually in English, are cool and unemotive, purred like Dietrich, or Morticia Addams, whispering from the crypt. Some of the vocals are merely spoken, but Gudrun's alto is delivered in such a soft, mellifluous style that you accept her sing-songy performance as melodic. Her compositions are pop based, but not like any "pop"
you have ever heard. No shiny, glittery surfaces. Everything is sepia, hand-tinted, or black & white, and slightly deteriorated and dusty. The tracks are interleaved with channels of mystifying noises, looping like some arcane machinery running in the background. Although the arrangements are uncomplicated, repeated listenings are rewarded with the perception of new levels that were unnoticeable even after a dozen or more run-throughs. Her work was rewarded this year with an in-depth cover story in The Wire.

The opening track, Move Me, is composed of a queasy mix of delay lines and loops of a wheezy tango accordion. The track spins through your head like a mesmerizing blur, reminding me of the work of Philip Jeck, or Tom Recchion. When Gudrun's voice emerges, it suddenly becomes an accessible pop song, one however that manages to intriguingly bridge a divide between "sound art" and "pop:"

Gudrun is in the midst of performing around Europe this summer, in Germany, as well as Belgium, Italy, Spain, and she recently played in Moscow, which she described to me as a "fantastic" experience. She graciously took time to answer some questions that were on my

How does living in Berlin affect your work?

oh- i love living here. berlin gives me freedom. its nice to know that there are some like minded people living close. i guess the fact that i have to kind of prove myself in this surrounding does affect my work.

Did your study of art influence your music?

yes i guess that my interest in art does matter.

What do you envision as the best way to listen to your music: on headphones, a good stereo system in a quiet room, or a club?

oh whatever is most comfortable.

Why are your lyrics primarily in English?

because that way i get a little distance to the lyrics- my vocal style is pretty private 'cause i do not sing loud- and i like to have that little language border. english has a different melody in itself. on the other hand i do enjoy german lyrics as well. bl├Ątterwald is german - because it's a free flow improv, and that doesn't work so well in a second language. i have a lot of english speaking friends as well- so english as a language is very important for my day to day communication.

How much time do you spend working on your own music every day?

ha- depends- at the moment i am still refining the live material and i always try new pieces and do new edits for the live sets. but at the same time i listen a lot to other music- once for the radio show we do every week and then for the label as well. i find this inspiring too.

Do you begin your work with ideas, or by messing around with sounds?

for new writing- i mess around. i love and need chaos for writing. chaos makes the ideas come without limitation - and out of this mess i love to create something new. organize it. collage it. the lyrics i have mostly roughly written before and then built it all together with the music.

What equipment or software do you use?

i use macintosh computer with logic and ableton live programs. for vocal recording and editing i go into logic. the more loop based stuff i prefer to do in ableton- more and more i do work the whole song with ableton. and i use it for live as well.
otherwise mostly plugins. nice and simple. i have a good vocal mic and a focusrite vocal compressor. my set up is pretty simple- no big mixing console- sometimes i mix at the oceanclub studio.

The tone of "Members of the Ocean Club" is very crisp and pretty, whereas the sound of "I Put A Record On" is distinctly different, much darker and more organic. What kind of sound world were you intending to create on the new album?

different time- in the 90s i wanted a smooth sound. and i had johnny klimek coproducing- there were many guests artists- it was quite hard to get a unique, altogether sound happening.
this time i wanted to have it rougher and produce, program and mix the album by myself- be totally responsible for it. there were a couple of doubts and insecurities- but i was happy to overcome them.

Why do you think Monika Enterprise has survived and succeeded for over 10 years?

quality. monika is an artist label. it all depends on the artist. and they are good. :-)

You're performing quite a bit over the summer. What are your live shows like?

i have a laptop and a mic and have accompanying videos with similar images like the album artwork.
the set is loop based and i play tracks from the album differently arranged and mixed as well as short parts of tracks as references which i blend in and rearrange i use snippets from some of my old recordings- just short sound files. some might recognize or not. its half instrumental and half with vocals.

Will you be performing in New York?

would like to but no plans so far.

Hopefully, that will change! Thank you so much, Gudrun.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Earthquake Orphans

As the death toll in China's Sichuan province has surpassed 55,000, consider that thousands of the survivors are children who have lost their parents - read the story.

Please contibute to an accountable charity.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Interview: Mia Clarke

As guitarist with Electrelane, Mia Clarke provided a critical element to the group's sound, holding down rhythmic parts, contributing supportive counter melodies and delicate arpeggios, as well as rocking out with heavy riffs. Her extended solos during live shows were riveting improvisations that included glorious distortion and escalating squeals of feedback. Mia has also published extensive music criticism in a variety of outlets, notably in The Wire, and Pitchfork, among others. After about 10 years together, the band has taken an open-ended break that they are calling an "indefinite hiatus." While in Brighton, awaiting a visa to return to the US, Mia had time to answer a few of my probing inquiries about her early musical influences, the working method with Electrelane, guitar gear, and her newly adopted hometown of Chicago. Off the road for the first time in over a year, she is already very busy with a new band, as well as some exciting new projects and collaborations.

Who or what influenced you to pick up the guitar? What made you keep playing? What were some of the first things you tried to play?

When I was 15 I saw Fugazi in my hometown of Brighton, England. It was the first time I went to a show by myself, and remains one of my strongest memories; it was the beginning of everything in terms of my love of music and desire to play it, and that feeling was so exciting. The day after the show, I went to the pawn shop down the street and bought an electric guitar for about 30 pounds.

I never really took to playing other people's songs, although I did give a few Bob Dylan covers a shot. I became bored practicing alone in my bedroom and wanted to be in a band, playing with other people. Then, a little while later, I joined Electrelane. I consider that as the time I really began playing guitar, and I still think that writing music with other people, and getting comfortable improvising, is one of the best introductions to learning an instrument.

What was the first band you ever saw perform live?

Radiohead, 1996, in Brighton, when I was 13.

If you hadn't pursued a career in music what might you be doing otherwise?

I probably would have focused on writing, or become a zoologist.

When I saw Electrelane perform I don't think I noticed you using any ear protection - any thoughts or concerns on extended exposure to volume?

That's very perceptive of you! Foolishly, I never used earplugs when I rehearsed or played live shows with Electrelane, as I found them very difficult to get used to. It felt like playing music inside a fish tank! However, I now have a proper pair, fitted to my ears, and use them all the time-- in fact, I can't imagine playing without them.

The sound that Electrelane came up with was quite unique, not entirely "rock" or "pop." To what do you attribute the unique style that the band achieved?

I think it was a combination of everyone's musical background and interests. Ros and Verity were classically trained when they were younger, whereas Emma and myself were not. I think this produced an interesting dynamic when we were writing songs together, particularly in terms of the structure of songs. At times there could be conflict, but I think it generally kept things interesting. And, although we shared a love of many of the same bands, we each had our own areas of interest, and I think this came through in our ideas when improvising together (which is how almost all of our songs first took shape).

How do you view the role you had in helping to shape the Electrelane sound?

I'm really not sure! I think the 'Electrelane sound' developed as a result of the four of us writing music together, and playing off one another's ideas. It's hard to say exactly how much a particular instrument affected the overall sound, as it was part of the whole.

Are there unreleased items by Electrelane that might see the light of day, interesting demos, alternate takes, videos?

There are a couple of unreleased songs knocking around, but not many. We recorded lots of different radio sessions over the last few years, so there's quite a bit of material from those, plus personal video footage that we shot while on the road. We released 'Electrelane: Singles, B-Sides, and Live' a couple of years ago, which complied a few previously unreleased tracks. It would be great to release a disc of live material one day, or even a DVD, but we don't have any plans at the moment.

What were your feelings toward the end of your last tour about the band and the future, knowing the end was eminent? How well are you adjusting to not being on the road now

I felt it was the right time to move on and, personally, I needed the change. Of course the last tour was emotional for everyone, and it was a very surreal experience-- sometimes sad, sometimes fun. Our final show, in Brighton, was very intense. I miss the momentum of touring a lot though and would love to get back on the road soon. I get 'itchy feet' very quickly!

An Electrelane show seemed to slowly build on rhythmic propulsion until it would have to stop, or just explode from its own momentum. What was it like to have to come down from that level of intensity night after night?

It was generally a real rush, and could be so much fun. We often felt exhausted after playing, especially headlines shows. There's rarely much time to relax after playing though, as we'd usually have to sort out the merch stall, pack up, load the van etc. A few beers would help though! It was always rewarding to play a show after a long day driving, or being stuck hanging around a venue.

I know you used your Hagstrom guitar on tour, and I think you were using a Vox amp. Can you give us a list of the equipment you used on tour?

I used the Hagstrom, which replaced the Gibson SG I had been using for years, and the Vox Amp. The only other gear I had were pedals, all Boss: Overdrive, Tuner, Digital Delay, Compression Sustainer, and Tremelo.

Do you suffer from "gear lust?" Do you look through instrument catalogs and go to music stores and look longingly at amplifiers and guitars?

I never really look through gear catalogs. However, I am longing for a Les Paul Custom. I've been borrowing one from a friend from time to time but would love my own. The sound through the Vox is beautiful. I'd also be thrilled to own a HiWatt stack-- but that's about $4,000, so it's out of the question at this point in time! I also tried out a Fulltone Overdrive 2 Mosfest, which I prefer to the Boss pedal, so that's a more affordable addition to the wish list...

You've written quite a bit music criticism, would there be a book in your future?

I don't think I'll write a music book, but I plan to concentrate more on fiction writing, so we'll see what happens...

You've reviewed a wide variety of music, how do you keep up with new music, where do you find it? What bands are you enthusiastic about right now?

I mostly find out about new music through friends, reading blogs, or records that are sent for review. Some of my favourite new-ish music at the moment is: Nalle, James Blackshaw, Disappears, Awesome Color, Hauschka, Anni Rossi, Birthmark, Entrance, No Age, No Blue, Head Of Skulls, Tiny Vipers.

How would you characterize the style of your new band? Who's in it and what do they play? Does the band have a name yet?

Well, it's early days, and we are still in the process of working on songs (no name yet, either). The material so far is pretty heavy; it's been great to let go a bit more and also have the challenge of playing with different people. The band is myself, Tony Lazzara (ex-Atombombpocketknife, Sterling) on drums, Colin DeKuiper (ex-Russian Circles) on bass, and Eric Chaleff (also of Sterling) on guitar. A friend of ours recently commented that this new band sounds like a conglomeration of all our previous bands, which is accurate and makes sense.

How do you find Chicago as a city for Indie music? What are some of the good places to hear music there?

Chicago is an excellent city to play music in. First off, it's relatively inexpensive, so it's possible to find a place to rent and a decent practice space for not too much money. Secondly, people involved in the music scene are just so supportive of their community, which is not something I experienced while growing up in Brighton, which was a much more dog-eat-dog environment. It was so refreshing when I first started spending time in Chicago, seeing how much bands are willing to help each other out and be supportive when others do well. It's very positive.

As for venues, well, there's a basement space called Mr. City, which often puts on really great shows, as well as lots of punk rock lofts on the Southside. And there are good regular venues such as AV-Aerie, Schubas, and The Empty Bottle...

Did you ever meet Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne? She has mentioned she's a fan of Electrelane, and even says "I believe in Electrelane" in the song "Finisterre."

Yeah, I know that song! We were really touched when we heard it. I haven't met Sarah Cracknell, but we were once interviewed by Bob Stanley for a piece in Mojo magazine a few years back.

I know Verity jumped into another music project already, what are Ros and Emma up to?

Ros does a solo project, called Ray Rumours, and plays in quite a few other bands as well, such as SiSiSi SiSiSi SiSi, which is so great. I don't know what Emma is doing, but I think she plans to keep playing music too.

You've been in a critically acclaimed band and toured the world, what goals do you have now?

I definitely want to keep playing music. I actually just got back from Amsterdam, where I recorded a guitar improvisation (or 'guitargument' as we were calling it) with Andy Moor of The Ex. That was great, and I'd really like to collaborate more with other people as well as working on this new project. Music aside, I am hoping to go back to school next year, but in the meantime plan to keep writing. I also co-edited and compiled (with Sara Jaffe, formerly of Erase Errata) a book of photography, artwork, and writing done by musicians while on tour/inspired by touring, which is going to be published by Yeti this autumn. We've been working on it for a while, so it will be very exciting when it finally comes out!

Thank you so much Mia!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


Goldfrapp's second album, Black Cherry (2003), seemed a jarring departure from their debut, Felt Mountain (2000). When the duo's third effort, Supernature, emerged in 2006, it continued in the same the disco-glam electro stylings, which seemed to render the eerie uniqueness of their premier disc as an anomaly in their output.

Black Cherry and Supernature were accomplished and successful, yet Felt Mountain remained as a creation of singular majesty and originality. On it, they created a magical world of beauty, ranging from creepy darkness to Alpine coolness, all infused with a sense of impending menace. The lyrics, instead of telling stories, or even painting scenes, dropped queasy, half-lit images, hinting at unsettling enigmas. The music didn't sound like much of anything else in pop music, drawing mostly on folk and classical genres, which speaks to both the absorbency, and meaninglessness, of the umbrella terms, "pop," or "rock." Ethnic sounding instruments mixed with lush string orchestras and, in one disturbing track, Alison's voice was fed through something like a gated filter which, when active, sounds as if her larynx is turning to melted rubber. Listening to the album from beginning to end left one with the impression of having journeyed through an enchanted fairyland, managing somehow to have just eluded the wicked witch.

A Trip To Felt Mountain:

One of the most memorable tracks, Paper Bag, with the bizarre refrain: "When the world stops for snow, When you laugh, I'm inside, Your mouth," has the recurring chord progression: i, vii7, iii7. A sequence of minor chords, the second and third of which introduces an unexpected flattened note from outside the scale, is a little trick of harmony epitomizing much of what makes Felt Mountain breathtaking: subverted presumptions turning corners on surprising loveliness.

Paper Bag:

The new album, Seventh Tree, has almost not a trace of the previous three. It's a relaxed and personal affair. The lyrics are reflective of interior observations, and the instrumentation is folksy, even when its electronic. It's hard to imagine "selling" these tracks in the arenas that Goldfrapp has become accustomed to performing in. These songs seem more suited to small theaters or intimate spaces. Some tracks, such as Caravan Girl, are more straightforward than we've ever heard from this duo. However, it's all very lovely and suggests a welcome retreat to more introverted spaces than they've explored in a while.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Musicians of Ma'alwyck. "Moonstruck," Union College. March 1, 2008.

Anne Marie Barker Schwartz conceived an inspired program for an expanded edition of the Musicians of Ma'alwyck ensemble, combining two demanding works from the 20th century, and a new work by Hilary Tan.

Pierrot Lunaire, by Arnold Schoenberg, looks both backwards and forwards. Schoenberg accepted the offer to create a melodrama for the actress Albertine Zehme, and it was premiered in 1912. The work sets 21 poems by the Belgian Albert Giraud for recitation and a small chamber ensemble. The poems themselves are ridiculously decadent and profane, filled with macabre images and gallows humor, and are axiomatic examples of Symbolism, written in the midst of that movement's heyday in the 1880's. For 1912, the poems would have been long out of fashion. Schoenberg's atonal musical treatment, colorfully inspired by Pierrot's nightmarish escapades was, however, on the cutting edge, although it predates his dodecaphonic basis of composition. Schoenberg's conception of a small chamber ensemble with vocal soloist would be influential for decades to come, notably in the work of Stravinsky (who, never to be outdone, used three narrators in A Soldier's Tale), Boulez and Crumb, among others. The prickly pointillism prefigures a style that would be further developed by Webern, and a host of post-WWII composers decades later.

Soprano Jean Marie Callahan Kern, was dressed in black and white, emulating the costume of Pierrot, and used minimal props to emphasize the theatrical aspects. The recitation is notated in the score as sprechstimme, where the performer is asked to approximate intonations somewhere between speech and song. Kern's performance vigorously addressed the dramatic content as her powerful voice, swooping and diving, delivered an appropriately exaggerated embodiment of the melodrama. This was, as far as anyone knows, the first and only performance of Pierrot Lunaire in this region. Kern only rested her voice for about 10 minutes before launching into the Strauss songs.

Put in perspective, Webern was already dead three years, and John Cage had completed his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, when Richard Strauss finished the Four Last Songs in 1948. Filled with images of sunset, autumn, rest, and the soul in flight, they are explicitly about the patient anticipation of death, and they were in fact completed close to Strauss's own. The vocal melodies soar on harmonies functional yet dizzying in their shifting of a perceived tonal center. These songs were written in such a highly evolved rhetoric of late-late Romanticism that it exists on a plane above "style." Although the Four Last Songs are well known, Strauss is most renown for his extended (overblown, perhaps?) programmatic tone poems. Here, Strauss gets to the point, immediately delving into the sublime, crystallizing his ideas, instead of dragging them around for 40 minutes. The effect is overwhelming, not overpowering. Beauty is not always pretty, but these songs are pretty on the surface and deeply beautiful as well. Originally written for a large orchestra and voice, this chamber arrangement by William Carragan, for piano and half a dozen instrumentalists, amazingly loses none of the impact of the original. To the ear, everything remains intact, but is now more transparent and intimate in this new setting and, in some ways, even more appropriate to the subject matter.

The writing in Hilary Tann's piano trio, Nothing Forgotten, itself resembled the gnarled trunks of trees depicted in the accompanying photographs by Lawrence White. The trio is modal, organic, with bumpy rhythms, and chromatic notes adding irregularities to the expectations of the emerging motifs. The views of the Adirondacks showed macro and micro views of natural scenes, eventually revolving around images of trees that appear to have grown their roots around and above enormous boulders.

The musicians, led by conductor Lanfranco Marcelletti, appeared remarkably at ease with this program of the new, relatively unheard or, in the instance of the new Strauss arrangement, the unfamiliar. The capacity audience had an obvious appreciation for their effort. Here's hoping our ears will be treated to more fascinating and unusual repertoire by this masterful group.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bodyrox featuring Luciana. Yeah Yeah (2006).

Neither the duo Bodyrox nor musician/actor/artist Luciana Caporaso have an album out yet, and they have only collaborated on two singles, but the outcome has been startling.

Yeah Yeah consists only of a few tightly detailed elements: a single synthesizer line which functions as the bass, hook, and harmonic content, with a little vocorder fill, and a drum track that pounds out simple quarter notes. The synth line is a tricky, off-center riff comprised of mostly dotted eighths and some quarter notes, and it's as taut and steely as a cable on a suspension bridge. At the heart of it all is an extraordinary vocal performance by Luciana. At first listen, her vocal seems like a tossed-off, mindless string of cliches. A closer listen reveals how the nimble flawlessness of her vocal line fits as an exquisitely independent counterpoint to that oddly subdivided synth part. Luciana's artistry is evident in how she was able to integrate a strongly grounded part into an existing grid which is continually challenging the natural feeling of the downbeat. The subtle offset of syncopation hints at a mix of 3 against 4, but with a pop/house swing. Luciana's warm and sensual sprechstimme is the beating heart in this music box of chrome and glass. At first impression, her performance appears to be elastic and free, but underneath there is a skilled and conscious composer in complete control.

Friday, January 18, 2008

April March

Despite having her 1999 CD, Chrominance Decoder, named one of the best 10 CDs of the year by the New Yorker magazine, I doubt April March is suffering from overexposure. That might change as her 10 year old song, "Chick Habit," has been resurrected for the Death Trip soundtrack. She released about 12 albums or EPs previous to Chrominance Decoder during the 90's, ranging from punky outbursts, and garage rock, to authentic replications of early 60's French pop music, while having a "real" job, as Elinor Blake (real name), doing animation for the Ren and Stimpy show and Pee Wee's Playhouse.

With Chrominance Decoder and the follow-up, Triggers (2003), Blake achieved a more mature style working with futuristic/retro French producer Bertrand Burgalat. He polished her newer
songs with a subtle, intricate and sophisticated veneer of electronica, tinted by out of fashion styles of pop, as well as the discernible influences of jazz and classical music. April March's songs had always been wry and witty, but on these two albums she delved into deep territory, dealing with dysfunctional family systems, alcoholism, madness, rape, higher powers, and the social impact of television. If it sounds heavy going, it isn't. The music, arrangements, and Blake's vocal style, are all so captivating, quirky, and light that one can listen again and again, charmed by the experience as a whole, without actually listening to the words for meaning. Almost half the time she's singing in French, anyway. If you tune out all the ear-tingling details, and the sound of Blake's tiny, bird-like voice, and listen closely to the lyrics, it finally hits you that she's singing about some very dense and dark stuff. It adds up to a prismatic, funhouse version of pop music, where we recognize the structure but the details are askew.

I've admired April March's sense of style, which is that of a Seventeen Magazine co-ed, circa 1961:
(If that doesn't give you chills from the sheer delight of it, how long have you been dead?)
She has a new project out now with Steve Hanft, which is available to download from her Myspace site. April March is performing tonight at the Bowery Ballroom with Au Revoir Simone, a dreamy double bill of girly pop that was surely conceived in heaven, but sadly, I have to miss it :(
Que c'est triste