Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kelley Polar

Here are two albums by Kelley Polar - 2005's "Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens" and this year's "I Need You to Hold on While the Sky Is Falling". Polar is a Jiuliard-trained classical violist who somehow turned to making bizarro-future-disco. Excellent!

"I Need You to Hold on While the Sky is Falling" [2008]

"Love Songs of the Hanging Garden" [2005]

Visit Kelley Polar's website

Li Jianhong - San Sheng Shi

Let's start with a brief biography of Li Jianhong I aped off of
Li Jianhong (Li-Jianhong - 李剣鴻-李剑鸿) is one of the most active chinese sound artists in Mainland China. Born in Fenghua, Zhejiang Province in 1975 and now residing in Hangzhou, Li is the founder of the avant-rock group “Second Skin” and the manager of 2pi Records (“2pi” being the chinese equivalent to 2nd Skin), an independent experimental label based in Hangzhou, China.

Now, San Sheng Si: This album consists of a 51 minute processed guitar solo - throughout these 51 minutes Li Jianhong creates a dense textural noise work which manages to earn it's long time-frame. There are very interesting dynamics here - nice contrasts between moments of ethereal beauty hidden underneath a heavy, heavy blanket of noise. There are melodies lurking out in moments out from the background, never quite revealing themselves. There's plenty of heaviness throughout this piece, but at moments I feel this odd tenderness I can't quite put my finger on. Highly recommended.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Supercontinent - Vaalbara

I'd like to change gears for Giraffe Kingdom for a minute for this review. So far we've been focusing on more esoteric, "serious" artists and albums, dipping our toes into some pop-sensible waters, but never quite putting the whole foot in. I'm still not quite ready for a swim but I'll be leaving outer-space today and setting that foot on a very evil looking mountain with flowing magma dripping between my toes. By which I mean I'll blog about Supercontinent's awesome, heavy, fun album "Vaalbara"

I'll readily admit that I'm no metal expert - but I believe this is what the kiddies are calling sludge metal. Big sound, slow beat, heavy distortion, lots of tension - all anchored by some finely crafted riffs. This Ann Arbor-based group bring some big, big riffs. (3 of its 6 members are guitarists) This album is heavy heavy heavy for nearly its entire duration, but refreshingly, it stays dynamic without needing to rely on obvious loud-quiet-loud formulas to keep the songs moving, just various different moods and some very memorable, catchy guitar lines.

Buy directly from the band (please do) at their myspace

Nobukazu Takemura - Scope

This 1999 album marked Japanese DJ savant Nobukazu Takemura's debut into highly experimental, difficult to classify music, which had previously been primarily club oriented or at least closer to the traditional side of IDM. "On A Balloon" kicks things off ambitiously with more than 20 minutes of utterly alien, amorphous sounds, whose original sources we can only guess at. His process for generating these sonic wonders involves sending some of the outputs of his mixing board back into the inputs, creating a feedback loop with many exotic possibilities. The palette of sounds constantly changes, but many melodic and textural themes do recur - Takemura's use of building up and breaking down patterns keeps the careful listener in constant attention and surprise. His use of stereo panning is also very impressive here; headphones are recommended to appreciate all the detail present.

Next is "Kepler", the most accessible song on the album and arguably the highlight. It finds Takemura in a minimalistic setting reminiscent of Steve Reich's most textural pieces, with beautiful warm synthesized melodic figures repeating in a meter that one would rather just cruise with than hope to count. Soon micro-aural vocal samples enter, unpredictably fracturing and interacting until they form steady rhythms. All the while the underlying harmony undergoes sudden modulations, drastically changing the mood from serene to ominous and back. This song is a gem among the best electronic creations this author has heard.

The remaining material maintains a high standard, though much of it is a good deal less accessible. On "Taw", many jarring, dissonant, awkward, and confusing sounds are juxtaposed in complicated ways that many listeners may not find musical in any traditional sense. This is not music to tap one's foot to. Nevertheless, Takemura's imagination is always at full force, and even the most bizarre moments have a sense of humorous invention to them. There is also beauty to be found all the way through, especially on "Icefall", in which a fuzzy opening melody is joined by bubbling bleeps and bloops to create a joyous, frenetic texture of bouncing notes. Closing the album is "Tiddler", a sluggish, good natured piece with the feel of a hymn or lullaby.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Paco de Lucia - Cositas Buenas

I am ashamed to say that for most of my life I'd written off Paco De Lucia as a latin-jazz-fusion cheeseball. I'm not sure why exactly I made that judgment, considering I'd hardly heard any of his music, aside from one album by The Guitar Trio with Al Dimeola and John McLaughlin, which honestly, I don't rememeber. I think it may have been an opinion transferred to me by my older brother, who was a big influence on my music tastes for a long time. Anyways - when that brother handed me this album "Cositas Buenas" I was stunned. I had for some reason come to associate De Lucia with empty technical wankery and fusion corniness, but I was hearing something completely fresh to me - modernist flamenco! Off-kilter rhythms, unworldy vocals, beautiful melodic narratives carefully dancing around eachother - complex, but not in a way that places too much emphasis on Paco's virtuosity (of which there is plenty, wow) - but complex in all the right ways, to deepen and enrich the music. Perhaps nicest of all is that it's rare to find music this rich in intellectual musical fervor that is so plainly danceable - each song on this album is based on the rhythms of a traditional Flamenco dance form, but Paco explores every option that rhythm seems to allow - skirting around and in-between that rhythm to the point where it's barely recognizable. Perhaps I'm unusual in this regard, but my absolute favorite thing for music to be is surprising - this album consistently surprises. Beautiful, fun, and definitely surprising.

Here's a more sensible, to the point review:
For four decades, Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucia's jazzy, Mephisto-like technique redefined flamenco. This CD, which means "Good Small Things," is de Lucia’s first release in five years, and it's been worth the wait. Most of the eight tracks feature just de Lucia, a chorus of vocalists, percussion, and the zesty handclaps called palmas. Lucia and company take you through the Moorish, Jewish, and Gypsy inventions and dimensions of flamenco, from the buleria "Patio Custodio" and the torrid tientos "El Tesorillo" to the moody, mid-tempo buleria por soleatres, foreshadows the future of this ancient and inventive art form. --Eugene Holley, Jr.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

György Ligeti - Clear or Cloudy [Box Set]

In tribute to the great Hungarian iconoclast who passed away in 2006, Deutsche Grammophon released this affordable collection of his works spanning the 1960s to 1990s. The selections are varied, covering the many facets of Ligeti's personality and invention in a wide range of formats.

Disk 1:
Sonata for Solo Cello
Bagatelles for Wind Quintet
String Quartet No.1
Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet
String Quartet No.2

Disk 2:
Lux Aeterna
Organ Study No.1: Harmonies

Disk 3:
Aventures for 3 singers and 7 instrumentalists
Nouvelles Aventures
Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra
Chamber Concerto
Mysteries of the Macabre
Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe

Disk 4:
The Big Turtle Fanfare from The South China Sea
3 Pieces for 2 Pianos
Etude for Piano, Book 1, No.2
Etude for Piano, Book 1, No.4
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

A great deal could be said about all of these works and the composer in general, but suffice to say he was one of the most influential and creative figures of late 20th century music; though his imaginative process was frequently confounding, his music still displays a sense of playful joy.

Download Disk 1
Download Disk 2
Download Disk 3
Download Disk 4
Own it New for 22.43!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tim Hecker - Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again

Tim Hecker is one of Canada's foremost experimental ambient artists, and many of the track titles on this seamless album reflect the cold atmosphere of his country. Names like "Music for Tundra", "Arctic Loner's Rock", and "Boreal Kiss" evoke strong images, and the music itself does the same; it would be a fitting soundtrack for a desolate expanse of ice or slowly flowing glacier. The songs are constructed mainly from purely digital means, with beautiful shimmering drones, crackles, pops, hisses, creaks, clicks, and synthesized melodies. Occasionally we also hear recognizable instruments and vocal samples, which make the album more emotionally accessible. Most of the material has a melancholic and nostalgic feel to it, perfect to accompany oneself during a solitary night under a sky full of stars.

Purchase starting from $10.55

Friday, November 14, 2008

Keith Jarrett - The Carnegie Hall Concert

This concert was recorded in late 2005, but only released nearly a year later as a double album. It depicts Jarrett in top form, engaging in the purely improvised odysseys that made him famous. Fans of The Koln Concert, La Scala, and the Vienna Concert have surprises in store regarding the format of this solo date; for after returning to live performance after years of battle with chronic fatigue syndrome, Jarrett found he no longer had the stamina required for 40+ minute sojourns into the limits of his and the piano's capabilities. Now he conducts his improvisations as a series of shorts ranging from 3 to 10 minutes, where each vignette is directly influenced by the one preceding it (the opening improvisation is very abstract indeed). Much of the music here is dense and challenging, but it is also endlessly rewarding, as repeated listens reveal great depth and deliberation in his stream-of-conscious playing. After 10 of these miniature marvels, Jarrett closes the set with a superb encore of 5 standards, including his own compositions "Paint My Heart Red" and "My Song". Another fantastic look at arguably the greatest living genius of jazz piano.

Download Part 1
Download Part 2
Purchase New for $15.49

Monday, November 3, 2008

Shuttle 358 - Optimal.LP

I can hardly describe this album better than was done by AmbiEntrance back on July 25, 1999:

optimal.lp draws heavily from the microscopic and ostensibly souless world of digital electrons, giving them loose structure, warmth and life by way of stunningly arranged sound patterns. In this most impressive debut, shuttle358 (a.k.a. Dan Abrams) has constructed a definitive ambient/electronic blend. For further insights, see this month's interview with Taylor Deupree of 12k.

Generating its own bio-mechanical atmosphere, a hazy, rhythmic echosystem opens swarm, to be joined by thinly hovering rays, muted notes and occasional insectoid electronic accompaniment. Sweeping over bug-like sound patterns and a bed of static, slowly in... casually drones in a straight line, with further accents from smooth bell-tones. Airy synthflow adorned by a faint shuffle, and slightly disruptive microbursts is next (1:49).

Echoing with self-replicating patterns and just a bit of grit, gone goes peacefully amidst a radiant electron mist, overlain with synth strata. A thin, computerized techno-tribal beat penetrates the free-floating dronecloud of optimal, which simply basks in its lovely radiation field. A distorted voice twice questions the listener of floops which proceeds to sing a story of abstract electronics which pulse, drone, warble and waft oh-so-beautifully.

Beginning as an evolving sonic protoplasm, emergent eventually spawns small beats which rise from its densely simmering miasma. A cyclic techno-mechanical backdrop is draped with lushly swelling synth sheets in system (8:35), which receives additional visitations from electrically warbling fly-bys, muffled notes and precise, tinny syncopation. From a random gel, tank grows into something a bit more active, as its dully chiming notes begin to cascade and multiply in a gorgeously geometric soundsculpture; eventually the form suffers entropy, fading away and falling apart, though achingly lovely all the while.

Operating as shuttle358, Dan Abrams proves that the "cold" mechanics of computerized sound can be given distinct warmth and beauty. optimal.lp absolutely radiates with a dazzling blend of precision and passion, evoking a hearty 9.4. Seriously, you'd best be getting over to the 12k website and getting your copy of this masterpiece; it's limited to 500 copies...
...and those 500 copies have long been sold. Today the album is only available for download.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Alog - Duck-Rabbit

"Norwegian duo Alog's second CD is "As Complicated and as Beautiful as Always," to quote one of the track titles. The rich constructions of samples and real instruments, both reassembled on the computer after the initial improvisations, continue to challenge the mind, but this time around the duo has shifted its focus. While 1999's Red Shift Swing showed a strange but definite filiation with jazz (both free and lounge, go figure), Duck-Rabbit is an ersatz distillation of pop and techno. The album title itself illustrates the kind of Frankenstein-inspired surgery that Espen Sommer Eide and Dag-Are Haugen accomplish. The important thing is that the resulting creature lives. The danger was to fall into a recipe, something Alog cleverly avoided by varying its inspirations and sources. The music itself sounds just a bit less convincing, or maybe it is only because it requires a little more effort from the listener. Highlights include "Violence and Magical Danger" (nice voice samples providing a chilling effect), the title track, and "Idea-Changing Liquid Alchemy," the latter being one of the group's easiest tracks but also a very successful one. The closing "Drunk DJs" represents the biggest surprise: an acoustic guitar duet, the antithesis of everything that came before. What's even more surprising is that one can only agree this was the best way to end Duck-Rabbit. " - Francois Couture, AMG


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Gil Shaham & The Berlin Philharmoniker play Brahms

This acclaimed Deutsche Grammophon recording features two ecstatic works by Brahms, the Violin Concerto in D, and the "Double" Concerto for Violin & Cello in A-minor. Both pieces are staples of late-Romanticism, replete with lush orchestration, advanced harmonies, and explosive emotion. Gil Shaham is a virtuoso with a satisfying balance of delicacy and fervence, and the engineers of Deutsche Grammophon have, as many of us have come to expect of them, achieved an excellent sonic reproduction of a very rich orchestral texture.

Buy Used and New from $5.74

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Boris Malkovsky - Time Petah-Tiqva

Full of fire, restless energy, ominous darkness, and delightfully spooky pizzicato, this avant-garde release on John Zorn's Radical Jewish series mixes "Jewish traditions with classical, gypsy and downtown improvisation" (Tzadik). Sounds fairly esoteric, but the atmosphere of the record is usually anything but - this is fun, accessible music packed with real emotions and astonishing group coherence through a lot of highly complex pieces. For the inclined the word "math" might come to mind while listening to this, but the constantly changing, bouncing rhythms really feel closer to ethnic traditions from Eastern Europe than the contemporary math rock scene, and never feel like the point of the compositions. Led by Malkovksy's button accordian and held together by the Israel Contemporary String Quartet (plus an extra contrabassist), this is 50 minutes of delight.

Tzadik Records page
Own it for $7

Avishai Cohen Trio - Gently Disturbed

Avishai Cohen plays a unique breed of jazz informed by the traditions of his native country, Israel. On this album he plays with drummer Marc Giuliana, who is astounding, especially live, and with a new pianist, the 20 year old Shai Maestro. I personally feel Avishai's albums don't approach his live show, which really is fantastic, but this album comes closer than he has in a while.

Buy from Avishai

Monday, September 1, 2008

Enrico Rava/Stefano Bollani - "The Third Man"

From AMG:

The Third Man is a skeletal, live-in-the-studio duo recording between pianist Stefano Bollanni and Italian treasure, trumpeter Enrico Rava, its sound moves far beyond the intimacy that such a pairing would normally warrant. Bollani and Rava have been playing together for over a decade, and these 12 pieces reflect the deep communication that exists as a result of that working relationship. According to Bollani, they have worked as a duo in concert settings before and on record, but never like this. What this means is that both the recording studio -- the Auditorio Radio Svizzera in Lugano, Italy, and Manfred Eicher's recording process for ECM that allows recording without headphones in direct communication -- played a unique and powerful role, as well as an informative one in the process of making the record. The title of the disc references Eicher as a collaborator, as well as referring good-naturedly to Orson Welles and the film noir tradition. Rava composed six of the album's tracks, Bollani one, and the pair freely improvised the hauntingly beautiful and melodically compelling title cut. There are all sorts of nods here. For openers, there's Bruno Martino's "Estate," a Neapolitan folk song, which was extrapolated upon by Antonio Carlos Jobim for "Retrato Em Branco y Preto." The original plus two versions of the Jobim tune are here. This track and its evolution marks passage through the set at beginning, middle, and the final variant, right near the end. Then there is the magnificently tender reading of "Felipe," by one of Brazil's greatest composers, Moacir Santos. (Check out his Blue Note sides, which are available as inexpensive imports from Europe at good online retailers.) Its open, reverie-like character is brought into the present by Rava's deeply expressive take on the melody, as Bollani offers augmented chords that enhance and deepen it. When he takes his solo, he uses the melody as a way inside the character of the tune, making it a bittersweet cavern of memory. "Cumpari," by Rava, is a fine and strangely complex lyrical approach to modern composition. The contrapuntal pianism of Bollani as he uses three different scalar approaches to the motifs in the structure nod to everyone from Stravinsky, Bartok, and even Lutoslawski, but they echo Bernard Hermann, Umiliani and Morricone, as well. Rava engages a more dimensional and textural approach in his solo, where he adds vanguard and modal jazz to the mix. This is the only "remotely" outside thing here. At just under five minutes, it is still a delight, and melds well with the more deeply and consciously melodic pieces here. It's a wonder that "The Third Man" is so near the beginning, because it is arguably the best thing here. That said, it doesn't detract from the rest as much as it provides an aural view into the deeply conversational and historically rich sound world being so poetically explored between this pair. While it's also true that it is indeed the Italians who have put such a lyrical, emotionally honest stamp on jazz since the '60s and are indeed involved in a tremendous period of creativity with it since the '70s that shows no sign of slowing down (no matter which subgenre of the music being made), these two are among its most expressive and communicative, making them ambassadors. The Third Man is a brilliant collaboration and a beautifully accessible as well as adventurous offering.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Waldemar Bastos - Pretaluz

Pretaluz or "black light" is a fitting title for an album with such stark contrasts. Angolan songwriter and musician Waldemar Bastos sings of much joy and pain over nine beautiful songs, which contain elements of Afropop and tropicalia, frequently making strong use of guitar and rhythm. However, Bastos' voice is the highlight of the album - it ranges from warm and friendly to horrifically despairing, and gives all of the music a sense of emotional sincerity that distinguishes it from more typical worldbeat albums. Angolan pride is infused throughout the work, motivating a combination of African tradition with modern pop elements derived from many regions of the world. Finally it is worth noting while it's still August that "Rainha Ginga" makes for one of the greatest sun-tinged summer songs this author has yet heard.

Used from $1.67 / New from $7.00

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Leonidas Kavakos, Peter Nagy - Stravinsky/Bach

This is a wonderful album. Alternating between pieces by Igor Stravinsky and Johannes Sebastian Bach, Leonidas Kavakos and Peter Nagy dance and gasp through moments of baroque rationality, aggressive modernism, and achingly beautiful serenity. The combination of Stravinsky and Bach works quite well and the playing is masterful. The highlight here is the first piece, (and the least accessible), Stravinsky's relatively unheard of "Duo Concertante", but all the selections are gorgeous. Leonidas Kavakos' violin is the star of the show here - he plays with an expressive fervor, and his gasps for air add some humanity and struggle to his otherwise seemingly effortless playing.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Itzhak Perlman & The Boston Symphony Orchestra w/ Seiji Ozawa - Violin Concertos

This Grammy winning recording of three complex, expressive works by three composers as different from each other as they were individually brilliant, was recorded in 1980 yet is still an essential reference for these pieces more than 25 years later. On the program:

1-2. Alban Berg's Violin Concerto "Dem Andenken eines Engels" ("To the Memory of an Angel")
The duration is 25'49. This was Berg's last completed piece before his death; the composition is rooted in 12-tone theory, but with an atypical amount of free artistic creation afforded, so that it often sounds tonal or beautiful. In this author's opinion the piece would serve as an excellent introduction to the territory covered by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and others, mainly because it is so exciting and lush, with a great deal of memorable melodic content. Even Bach makes a cameo during the close of the second movement.

3-6. Igor Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D
The piece opens with a dramatic chord flair before quickly developing a theme a little bit reminiscent of Christmastime. And as this is Stravinsky, the whole affair is marked by relentless creativity, wit, and a very wide range of expression. Lasting 21'39 and spanning four movements, at times exuberant and at times heartbreaking, the listener will be finding new nuances in this composition for years.

7. Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane"
Technically not a violin concerto, at 9'31 this piece opens with four minutes of harrowing solo violin figures before some spooky new colors from the New York Philharmonic begin to enter. But while deceptively small in scale in the first half, this piece features a great deal of contrast, and before long a large number of variations in texture, rhythm, pace, and timbre occur with increasing urgency. Perlman really displays ferocity on this one, and each peak of energy from the whole orchestra is breathtaking.

Perlman and Ozawa have proved to make an excellent team, the former's great virtuosity and emotional impact matching beautifully with the latter's great instincts in timing, dynamics, and overall understanding of the music. The content of this recording proves that the tradition of 20th century composition is about much more than intellectual prowess and artistic austerity - it celebrates the human spirit in an unprecedented way.

54 Used & New from $3.89

Saturday, August 23, 2008

John Schneider - Lou Harrison: Por Gitaro

This is an album entirely of solo acoustic guitar playing, with light percussion added on select tracks. Listeners may be skeptical they possess the attention span to sit through over an hour of such a bare overall texture, but novelties abound for the uninitiated into the colorful world of microtonal music.

Briefly, the story is this: ancient Greek scholars beginning with Pythagoras held with certainty that perfect music note intervals should be constructed from simple, whole-number ratios, such as 1:1, 2:1, 3:2, etc. These ratios respectively correspond with the perfect unison, octave, and fifth. However, seemingly irreconcilable problems arise when one tries to invent a complete tuning system with these simple ratios, for the numbers refuse to add up and at least one bad-sounding interval becomes inevitable.

The modern solution to this was a compromise: it was agreed upon that the octave should be split into 12 notes, each an equal distance apart in terms of ratios. Equal temperament tuning, then, is based upon the 12th root of 2 - an irrational number. While the irrational frequencies of equal temperament tuning are quite close to their perfect rational counterparts, this compromise means only the unison and the octave sound as good (in terms of purely physical consonance and dissonance) as what is theoretically possible. On the other hand, it is a practical solution: every interval does sound acceptably good for most people.

But not for all, and thus is motivated the need for microtonal composition, which eschews equal temperament and the very heart of Western music - the 12 notes per octave. Indeed, in non-Western spheres many cultures adopt altogether different tuning systems, such as Turkey with a 53 note per octave system. The compositional possibilities of these expanded pitch palettes fascinated many 20th century Western composers, including Lou Harrison, whose compositions are featured on the 2008 recording Por Gitaro.

Most of these pieces therefore feature themes which sound exotic or ethnic to Western ears, and all feature those golden, pure ratios lost to the system of equal temperament. John Schneider's playing is well-paced, precise, and not in the least lacking in emotion, ranging from somber and reverent ("Threnody to the Memory of Oliver Daniel") to whimsically playful ("Tandy's Tango"). This will appeal to audiophiles, guitarists, mystics, and any lover of beauty.

Mode Records page

Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet - Images

On this often overlooked 2004 release, German free-jazzman Peter Brotzmann joins the brilliant Ken Vandermark and the Chicago Tentet to create one of the most dynamic and fascinating records in modern jazz. The main event here is Ken Vandermarks composition "All Things Being Equal (for robert rauschenberg)", a sprawling 37 minute epic which covers so much musical ground it's a little difficult to describe. Brotzmann's signature cacophonous approach is present, but there are also surprising elements of groove that anchor the composition, along with triumphant big-band horn passages and even moments of quiet contemplation. On "All Things Being Equal", you get equal servings of free-jazz, big-band, afro-beat, modern-classical, and probably some more inbetween. "Beautiful" might not be the first word one would use to describe Brotzmann's music, but there is some really inventive and beautiful playing on this album. Very interesting.

Buy from Okka Disk: