Saturday, February 26, 2011

2010 - Fifty Great Releases, 5 - 1

5. Teebs - Ardour

Teebs' debut LP for Brainfeeder was one of my most anticipated releases of 2010, and it delivered on my every expectation and hope, and then some. Around the fall of 2009 I heard about Teebs from Nosaj Thing's excellent mix of music for the XLR8R Podcast series. Apparently Teebs got into making music when he sustained an injury from skateboarding and found a lot of time on his hands; somehow, he connected to Flying Lotus and became his roommate in LA. Teebs handed out a CD-R compilation in 2009 which completely sold me the first time I heard it. My readers probably know about me that I put a high priority on beauty, and Teebs makes futuristic instrumental hip hop that possesses utopian levels of beauty.

Ardour takes the best handful of tracks from the Teebs '09 compilation and distributes them among more than a dozen newer tracks to form a very tightly focused album. All but one of the tracks (the dreamy "Long Distance" featuring Gaby Hernandez on vocals) are instrumental, and many of them use a similar combination of chimes, bells, sparkling clean electric guitars, bass, Rhodes, ambient synth patches and traditional hip hop percussion. Lush and warm nearly to the point of humidity, the album effortlessly breezes by with some of the most consistently excellent production, melodic hooks and rhythmic flair around. Not a single track is weak, and a handful of them are as good as anything out there. Why, then, did the album end up at my #5 spot when I initially thought it was Top 3 material?

For being so consistent in instrumentation and so constantly gorgeous, combined with the length, Ardour ends up suffering a little bit from samey-ness and Ear Candy Syndrome. Basically we get a little too much of a really good thing. If the album were shorter or changed up its mood a little more, I would probably call it perfect. It works well as a musical trip to paradise, but I'd like to hear Teebs explore some colors other than glowing pastels. One darker track, and a standout on the album, "Why Like This", suggests he could very well work more with grittier sounds if he wanted.

Despite this selfish criticism I still think Teebs is making some of the most interesting new music, truly evolving beyond hip hop to probe sci-fi realms nobody else is exploring. His live sets go full-on psychedelic at times, and anybody in the vicinity of Eagle Rock should check out the new monthly live event "Futura" at the Center for the Arts, curated by Teebs and Asura. I should also mention that Teebs is a talented visual artist and the painter of his own album cover. With a craft as tight as anybody's in the game, Teebs could become the new most exciting beat pioneer by taking his sound just a little bit deeper.

4. Charles Lloyd Quartet - Mirror

No saxophonist I can think of has released more high quality albums throughout the 2000s than Charles Lloyd. His latest for ECM, Mirror, is not just the best jazz album of 2010 but one of the finest albums Charles Lloyd has ever recorded in his 45+ years as a respected improviser, interpreter and composer. His current band, with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums, is one of the strongest active jazz quartets. Their last album was the 2008 live concert recording Rabo de Nube, highlighting their passionately energetic interplay and daring solos. Things are relatively more toned down and introspective on Mirror, which features the group at their most sensitive and elegant.

The track selection includes several Charles Lloyd originals including the beaming, lovely "Desolation Sound", asymmetrical "Mirror" and exotic "Being and Becoming", as well as fresh interpretations of standards and spirituals like "I Fall in Love Too Easily", "Go Down, Moses", and "The Water is Wide". The band plays two Thelonious Monk tunes, "Monk's Mood" and "Ruby, My Dear", giving both of them an indescribably pretty, closer to celestial treatment; at one point of Jason Moran's supremely lyrical solo on "Ruby, My Dear" he lands on a note in the upper register and repeats it over and over while echoing it an octave below - this is one of the most heart-stoppingly-lovely brief moments in music recorded in 2010. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" has its anthemic melody stretched and contracted over rapidly skittering drums in more or less controlled free-time, and after a rollicking, Jaki Byard-esque solo from Moran, Lloyd releases uninhibited streams of melody worthy of John Coltrane.

The meditative, spiritual and deeply inspired mood throughout the album is encapsulated in the final track, "Tagi", which features Charles Lloyd reciting verse from the Bhagavad Gita before launching into joyous sax improvisation. "Become angry, you confuse your mind. Confuse your mind, you forget the lesson of experience. Forget experience, you lose discrimination. Lose discrimination, you miss life's only purpose." This is contemporary jazz as moving and essential as anything recorded in its golden era.

3. Celer - Dwell in Possibility / Dying Star / Honey Moon

Dwell in Possibility

Dying Star

Honey Moon

Three of Celer's many 2010 releases impressed me so much on the first listen, and continued to deepen with further listens, that I couldn't pick just one to make my Top 3. All three are of quite different breeds, and all are top tier entries to the Celer catalog and good starting points for new listeners to the group.

Dwell in Possibility was the very first full-length Celer album to be released on vinyl alone. Its name is loosely suggestive of its content - a large number of musical possibilities contrasting in timbre, texture, color and mood rapidly float by like a sequence of (day)dreams. The instrumentation includes processed voice, cello, violin, piano, ocarina, field recordings, rocks, whistles, a toy organ, and cassette tapes; none of these are clearly recognizable for what they are, though their diversity comes through in the subtle movement from one combination of timbres to the next. Side 1 is titled

"I've Thought Only of Empty Shadows / Embark, Hollow Heart /
Adhered Irreverence / Empty Streets of Accurate Reasons /
The Street Rain & Pain of the City Rests Under My Toenails /
One Long Blast / Fine-Tuned Treetop / Functioning Voluptuary

revealing that its 18-minute form is subdivided into 8 distinct movements. Though there are no gaps between movements and the dividing points are pretty fuzzy, the changes are much easier to perceive than on other of their albums that follow a similar plan, e.g. Poulaine in 13 Parts and Fountain Glider in 22 Parts. Nevertheless, the structure takes many close listens to carve out. From a spooky beginning comprised of muffled and detuned strings, Side 1 meanders amorphously until more sustained drones emerge, first in the high and then low registers, the feel becoming increasingly uneasy. Tension mounts as a filter passes over the thick stream of drones, only letting through a few in the middle register, becoming more concentrated and anxious. The filter breaks and a huge and ominously resonant tone cluster bursts onto the sound stage, only to gently subside into a lacuna long enough to reset the listener's bearings until another monumental mass of pulsing bass tones comes rolling along. This dark wave leaves a limpid field of bright drones in its wake, washing away the earlier atmosphere of dread and warmly closing Side 1 with the solace of fragile, shifting beauty.

Side 2, only slightly shorter than Side 1 and divided into seven parts, is titled

"A Mislaying of the Out-and-Out / Trespassing In Love's Furrows /
Umbrella Terms Protecting Puddles / Bony Hands and Hips Drawn /
The Satisfied Disorder / Say A Prayer For Me Tonight / The Veins of My Days"

The first portion of this side is distinctly sadder in tone than anything on Side 1, making its transition to the blissfully enchanting middle section all the more sublime. The record then enters a region more stable, focused, reserved and pure than any heard leading up to it, ultimately closing on a note of melancholy. 'Deep' hardly begins to describe it all; be sure to try spinning it at 30 RPM to go even deeper.

Dying Star is a very different affair. The instrumentation on this 50 minute album reads "Analog Synthesizer, Mixing Board". That's it. The entire album was free-improvised in one shot on a keyboard, without post-processing applied, which gives us a unique document of Will & Danielle Long working purely on instinct, in the moment. The control, restraint and taste they maintain in this most demanding of formats is downright incredible; this dying star is not a violent supernova, but a white dwarf billions of years old, finally puffing away its last layers. Activity is kept at a relatively low level for the most part, and the album is mixed very quietly; amping up the volume isn't encouraged, as this music was meant to capture a sense of seclusion. Despite how low-key and relatively static the tracks are, close attentive listening is greatly rewarded every time a subtle shift or accentuation occurs. In particular, there's a magical moment that another reviewer described right on the money:

"Yet despite the seeming placidity of the Dying Star's trajectory, the album's most poignant moment comes at the beginning of the final track. Flickers (Goodnight) is the only track that doesn't begin in silence, but instead is crossfaded directly from its predecessor. Even more significant, its continuing drone is overlaid with the only two even mildly percussive events, aptly characterized by the flickers in the track title, coming at the very beginning of the track and echoed about forty seconds in. These two events, so quiet as to be barely suggested, and appearing only after forty minutes of quiet undulating drones, are Dying Star's hidden treasure. Is it the dying star finally imploding, creating a brief flash all too easily overlooked? Has the listener drifted into an oblivious somnolence and heard it only in his or her dreams? Celer makes a call to the listener's attention and imagination and thereby elevates this release to one of their best." - Classical Drone

Well said, Caleb Deupree.

Neither as reserved & ascetic as Dying Star nor as diverse & kaleidoscopic as Dwell in Possibility, the cassette release Honey Moon occupies a somewhat more standard place in the Celer discography. The album was recorded "at home on the Autumnal Equinox, 2008" and is nocturnal through and through. Each side of the cassette has three tracks separated by silence, adding up to nearly an hour of Celer's trademark hypnotic immersion. Though the title suggests brightness and the joy of new matrimony, the work is eerily moody, balancing the murky feelings of the night with the ethereal glow of the moon.

Celer continue to stun with their ever-growing pool of releases. Thankfully, the rate of new material coming out seems to have curbed a bit, giving us some time to digest all that they've given us so far. I'm nowhere near exhausting all the beautiful and subtle details on the three albums in this review, let alone the dozens of other of their albums available. 2010 removed all doubt that Celer have the most impressive discography of any ambient group.

2. AFTA-1 - F O R M

I think I will take the lazy way out with this one and link to my past review of the album. Nothing has changed with respect to how strongly I feel about this jewel of instrumental hip hop. This is one of not too many albums I'm happy calling "perfect". How AFTA-1 remains an under-the-radar, unsigned artist, I have no idea. Easily one of the most talented and individual voices working in this new wave of beat based music.

1. Flying Lotus - Comosgramma

Cosmogramma is not a perfect album. It's not the best thing I've ever heard or even necessarily the most moving thing I heard in 2010. That said, I can't deny that it's the most unprecedented, important, on-another-level album released last year, promising more great and exciting things to come in bigger ways than any other 2010 release.

My quibbles with Flying Lotus' masterpiece are few in number and nitpicky. First, I think he could have and should have employed his cousin Ravi Coltrane to more substantial ends. The two tracks Ravi is afforded, "Arkestry" and "German Haircut", both sound like amorphous interludes - frankly, filler - compared to the rest of the album. For how indebted to jazz Cosmogramma is, I wish it had taken what was a ripe opportunity to include some actual trailblazing future-jazz with these tracks. Second, the album's structural arc is very hard to get a grip on, and I'm still not totally sold on it, particularly with how it opens, immediately throwing the listener into a fray of hectic confusion before shifting gears; you know something funny is going on when the fourth track is titled "Intro". I've heard the argument that Cosmogramma is divided roughly into three sections which represent the old Flying Lotus style (loop-heavy electronic arcade Los Angeles era), the new style (more organic and jazz influenced), and the transition between the two. Fair enough, but that kind of meta-ness distracts me a little bit, and overall I wish I simply got the new Flying Lotus. "Intro" would have made a really sweet first track.

Okay, this hasn't been the most glowing review so far for what I'm calling the album of the year. The truth is, what I perceive as flaws are the result of an excess of brilliance, not a lack of it. On the positive tip, there are about fourteen or so tracks here that are some of the most mind blowing things you can hear right at the moment. Many, many words have already been written about how great this stuff is, and in the interest of finally being done with this Fifty Great Releases list, I won't add too many more. Flying Lotus is a genius and charging the way to a future of sound I can't really imagine. His influence on other musicians is profound, and with his Brainfeeder label promoting artists like piano prodigy Austin Peralta, he may just be able to make jazz cool again with the young kids. Conclusion: if you live under a rock and haven't heard Cosmogramma yet, I wholeheartedly recommend you get on that ASAP.

Wow! It feels good to finally have this project behind me. I think 2010 was one of the most amazing years for music in recent memory, and so far 2011 has been delivering equally amazing goods. At this point I'm going to take a little break from reviewing to focus on composing and recording some new music. I hope you enjoyed my (way past its due-date) Top 50!

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