Saturday, January 28, 2012

SCQ's Winter Records 2012

Walking home from work the other evening – headphones on and lost in thought – I suddenly caught the distant sound of bird chatter. I tore off my headphones and stood alert in the night street, assured that those sounds of nature were separate from the music, but all I could detect was a dull wind. Unsurprisingly, I relocated the chirps of winged things after returning to my iPod, the upcoming Ulrich Schnauss album and a field recording nestled in the silence between tracks that I’d never heard before.

A kind of embarrassing tale to admit, given that we’re stuck in the darkest month of a Canadian winter, but it’s also fascinating to acknowledge how stretches of one season can make us long for even the finest details of another. With regards to hearing bird chatter at night, we residents of the globe’s northern reaches have a few months yet to wait, so why not embrace the cold with Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s latest winter recommendations?

Less than two months to go…

~ Love SCQ

Low Roar - Low Roar (SCQ's Winter Records 2012)

Low Roar

Low Roar
Tonequake Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

I won’t wake a wealthy man someday, cause the sun don’t follow me,” Ryan Karazija insists in the opening lyrics to Low Roar’s eponymous debut, and it’s a tough pessimism to pierce. As a twelve-song ode to the challenges of moving from California to Iceland and trying to adapt to a startling new life, Low Roar already carries some metaphorical (and literal – sorry, had to) baggage. But the self-titled record proves a harder nut to crack in light of how it projects that baggage, choosing a consistently dreary mood that reduces each song’s tempo to a chilling crawl. That uphill battle, daunting though it may be, beguilingly sets the stage for the many reasons you, dear reader, will want to stick around.

Each song plucked from the self-titled’s first handful of tracks conveys acoustic ruminations backed by two disparate palettes: a molasses-slow smear of buzzing organ (‘Give Up’ and ‘Patience’, the latter sounding like a minimal reduction of Coldplay’s grandiose ‘Politik’) and electronic ambience (‘Nobody Else’). Karazija establishes his Thom Yorke-styled vocals elegantly into both environments and somehow merges the wintry isolation of his words with a nestled coziness drawn out by his arrangements. His songwriting knack neither lightens nor slips over the course of its near hour, although one could argue that the remote feeling intentionally driving Karazija’s muse becomes detrimental to the album as a whole. As much as I appreciate the merits of later songs like ‘Rolling Over’ and the mournful ‘Help Me’, it’s tough to stick by the record uninterruptedly. That Low Roar’s single, ‘Tonight, Tonight, Tonight’ appears at the close of the song-cycle might be acknowledgement of the record’s long journey but it’s telling that I can’t tell you what it really sounds like.

Obviously a work of extreme intimacy, Low Roar bears a lyrical directness like the diary of a man abandoned to the edge of humanity. Still, it proves lush and evocative beyond Karazija’s supposedly stark confines and looks to connect with anyone susceptible to melancholy. If given the proper time to digest, Low Roar has all of the makings of an overlooked, if arduous, classic.

Always In Postscript - willamette (SCQ's Winter Records 2012)

Always In Postscript

Own Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

In terms of a winter record, Always In Postscript is a no-brainer for both its tundra-like façade and being released amid the cavernous lows of January. It could be argued that the quality of ambience captured by willamette over these eight transient compositions has the potent chops to attach itself to any season and, while that could ultimately be the case, the moods swept up by these progressions breathe best in closed-up, wind-ravaged rooms. The album title seems to encourage an aftermath

Always In Postscript’s title references this notion of aftermath best, instilling further the collection’s winter-still sense of finality and remembrance through a minimal selection of blurred tape loops and subdued orchestration. Keyboard melodies rise just audibly above the clouded forces of ‘un court theme pour lyla’ and ‘balustrade’, allowing our minds to fasten these fragments into something personal. Often it’s the suggested elements of willamette’s composition that help Always In Postscript sidestep the expected Stars Of the Lid comparisons, while still providing an insular soundtrack to devote our memories to.

Noting how the difference between “insular” and “isolated” can carry giant repercussions on the resonating impact of an ambient record, it’s important to note that Always In Postscript bears too much warmth through its disciplined instrumentation to truly feel barren. Its blank slate landscape will absorb the listener’s surroundings and naturally react, with ‘images d’une longueur de cheveux’ and the title track likely to imbue an austere but romantic quality as well. However icy and fogged over its domain may sound, the listener remains sheltered. For that reason, Always In Postscript stands most impressively as a hibernation record.

Ghost Town - Owen (SCQ's Winter Records 2012)

Ghost Town

Polyvinyl Records.

SCQ Rating: 83%
CMG Rating: 78%

Mike Kinsella doesn’t mince words. Which is to say, he’s a songwriter that finds little value in allusion or flowery imagery when he owns such a convincing arsenal of blunt honesty. Whether he’s bemoaning those who come out to his shows as “the idiots in the back” (“Curtain Call”) or detailing the vices of colleagues he despises (“Bad News”), Kinsella’s body of work under the Owen moniker often steers the introspection entitled to singer-songwriters toward a therapeutic extreme. For the first half of the 00s, Kinsella’s muse bounced between romantic betrayal and self-righteous self-pity; he typically starred as the victim and recorded these albums at his mother’s house. You’re probably starting to get the picture.

Nonetheless, Owen has amassed a humble career by telling it how it is, and it works because that unflinching honesty which bandages his bad days also unravels Kinsella’s vast emotional core. Ghost Town mostly busies itself with the latter task. The Chicago-based musician’s keen ear for tender arrangements has rarely found such a match, muse-wise, as when Kinsella executes the father/daughter coming-of-age lullaby  “Mother’s Milk Breath”. Owen’s vocal delivery managed to poeticize plain speech even back when he was singling out random bar girls to score with (on “Poor Souls”, from 2002’s No Good For No One Now), so it’s hardly surprising to hear how disarmingly his timbre sits upon balladry that deals with anything other than him being an asshole.

Luckily, as his focus on formative heartbreak has slowly graduated to the trials of marriage and children, Owen’s catalog has likewise matured in sound. Supplementing his once stark acoustic foundations and intricate electric guitar flourishes are lush accompaniments – like the heart-string tugging orchestral bits underlying “Too Many Moons” and “An Animal” – that rendered New Leaves (2009) such an upgrade. As well as deepening the dramatic stakes, Ghost Town offers fresh bite with a dissonance that takes center-stage in “No Place Like Home”’s peppered guitar work and “I Believe”’s defiant, kick-drum riddled climax. 

Keep in mind: these are Owen-styled rock songs, in essence his sad-sack acoustic fare boosted to mid-tempo with extra feedback. Still, Ghost Town’s poles present a curious divide for Kinsella to walk following the perfectly measured and orchestrated New Leaves. Gone is that album’s wistful nostalgia and unhurried tree-ring counting; here, Owen has illustrated a scene greater than his ego, one that jostles between faith and resignation with regards to loved ones, family, friends, and the greater socio-political headaches we consider rites of passage. 

In what stands as perhaps his sole – if overarching – allegory, the “ghost town” Owen sketches out over these nine tracks is just bittersweet reality; the expectation and eventual hope that whatever house and people you leave on the way to the office (or, say, week one of a two-week tour) will be changeless when you return. “I’m home and somehow while I was gone,” he sings on “The Armoire”. “This house I’d left for dead had lingered on.” Despite singing “I’ve a thirst for skirts and hell to raise…” a few songs later, Kinsella now accepts the cozy shackles of his lifestyle with a minimum of begrudging sentiment. And if it’s within that claustrophobic, anti-rock star environment that brings Owen his songwriting transcendence, the irony certainly isn’t lost on him.

(This review was originally published on CokeMachineGlow...)

Monday, January 16, 2012

R+B=? - Aeroc


Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 80%

Would I be remiss to suggest that people who don’t listen to electronic music would find R+B=? the perfect excuse to absolve themselves from ever giving the genre a shot? A cursory listen would seem to support the idea, given the record’s relaxed break-beats and the clinical, bubbly tones that politely surround them. As if strict rock enthusiasts didn’t already have enough prejudice concerning the merits of electronic music, the fact that Aeroc’s opening track is called ‘Spaced Out’ just furthers the assumption that R+B=? belongs on a bong shelf somewhere. Personally, I’m more than happy to keep them in the dark.

That’s because R+B=? just begs to be underestimated. As it turns out, boasting an affinity for turn-of-the-millenium lounge and reworking downtempo beats won’t really resonate with the perverted crossover culture of 2012, but those who stick with Aeroc’s austere workouts for repeated listens will uncover a satisfying and sophisticated collection of minimal techno. What churns Aeroc’s game to another level is the abundance of acoustic guitar featured here; the looped strums on ‘Soflo’ evoke the chill-out template of Kruder & Dorfmeister and yet take on a new momentum through the intricate picking on ‘For Sake’. At its atmospheric prime, White’s guitar work melds into the placid body of his electronic composition with the accomplished air of Boards of Canada’s The Campfire Headphase, unveiling deeper layers to ‘You Say That’ and ‘If I Had the Time’.

The initial feeling of sterility that may ward off curious listeners is merely space, the sort of uncluttered openness that directs our focus to the details (like, say, what’s actually a consistently deft display of beat-programming) or allows our mind to swim in Aeroc’s brainy diversions. R+B=? is far too straight-laced and exclusive to convert anyone’s narrow notions of electronic music. And on behalf of everyone who treats this album as a secret soundtrack, we’re just fine with that.

Aeroc - Spaced Out

Overgrown - Tapage


Tympanik Audio.

SCQ Rating: 79%

Tympanik Audio may yet be a major-player in the electronic realm but there’s no refuting the reputation it’s garnering. Turning a cast of mysterious monikers – such as Displacer, Stendeck and C.H. District – into absorbing, poorly kept secrets, the Chicago-based imprint heads into 2012 with another head-swimming dose of IDM beats and atmospherics.

Released but a year after his collaboration with Meander, Overgrown finds Tapage traversing more achingly beautiful melodies and tough, intricate beats. Only this time Tapage’s alone at the helm, allowing his warm tones to stretch and convulse far over Overgrown’s alien landscape. As ‘Loss’ brings the album into bloom with a brilliant overlap of keys and morphing analog loops, ‘Pink Mist’ steps back into less structured brain-candy that is slow to pick up emotional steam. Although the beautiful tracks outweigh the occasional meander, the album carries on trading gorgeous couplets of ambient-IDM tracks (‘Ethyl’, ‘Pockets’) for the odd case of cerebral noodling (‘Leptoid’).

Now there’s nothing inept concerning Tapage’s experiments – they’re accomplished assemblages of varying ideas – but some sonic adventures fail to develop the record’s canvas (which at sixty-four minutes, runs on the long side). Overgrown flirts with the real possibility of containing too much of a good thing and, taking that into consideration, a schizophrenic collage like ‘Mimic’ feels redundant against the poignancy lacing Aphex Twin-worthy ‘Xyloplax’ or the slow-building ‘Unfolding’. Tapage proves himself a maestro in the soft-hued IDM field when operating around a committed melodic core and, luckily for us, Overgrown spends the vast majority of its run-time centered on that particular strength.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Under Your Shadow - Al Tuck

Under Your Shadow

Al Tuck
New Scotland Records.

SCQ Rating: 72%

As a songwriter, Al Tuck revolves his own peculiar planet. He has venerable ties throughout Atlantic Canada’s music community and yet his music has yet to incorporate another’s sound or muse. Fittingly Under Your Shadow presents Tuck as a pillar unto himself, resting heavily upon rootsy arrangements and his understated delivery even amid a loose ensemble of contributing musicians.

What isolates Tuck’s seventh studio recording proves to be its complimentary, off-the-cuff feel; that despite a lot of obvious forethought put into Under Your Shadow’s formation, it toes the line of creativity not yet settled in place. His insistence on overcast acoustic tones and light discord are saved by the latent energy in arrangements that lift this typical singer-songwriter fare from the doldrums. From the small-town couplet that drives through full-band swagger (‘Ducktown’) and sleepy organ passages (‘Yawnsville’) to the rich folk of ‘Slapping the Make On You’, Tuck keeps listeners alert by trading sly shades of comedy and earnestness.

Despite his strong sense of self, Tuck’s talents require careful, repeated listens before fully springing forth and, even then, Under Your Shadow has its road-bumps. ‘Hello, Prince Edward Island’, a live track dropped halfway through the album of all places, doesn’t exactly gel with the patient folk-strewn atmosphere built up until then, but it bears the charm of a songwriter who plays perpetually on the cusp.

Ruins - Talkdemonic


Glacial Pace Records.

SCQ Rating: 68%

One element has sustained post-rock these many years and, no, it isn’t volume. It isn’t lengthiness either, although both contribute to what is most certainly the key ingredient to any post-rock classic: mood. Without genuinely evoked mood, volume would be a nuisance and run-times would unspool into mindless sprawl. Talkdemonic eschew this equation but not as a means to create anew; Kevin O’Connor and Lisa Molinaro have instead propositioned us with an eclectic mixed bag of two-to-three minute electronic-rock jams. That latest album Ruins offers the lightning punch you’d expect from a description such as that but post-rock, it is not.

Once you’ve shed those weighty expectations, Talkdemonic’s economic streak garners muscle more appropriate for its ilk; ‘Violet’ uses cacophony in percussive fits while ‘City Sleep’ – the only track to break the five-minute mark – congeals out of compressed guitar distortion into a rhythmic little backbeat in need of a hook. The record’s softer side serves Talkdemonic better, with the sleepy drum-machine of blurry-eyed opener ‘Slumber Verses’ beckoning us into its woozy orchestral warps. Acoustic arrangements make a clear-headed highlight of ‘Revival’ and padded haze drips on the string-laden ‘Chimera’. Still, despite Ruins’ ear-pleasing concoctions, each track exits on a stunted note, as if engaging the post-rock playbook but running off once the stakes get raised. Whether one listens to post-rock for its trademarked volume-shift dynamics, its epic proportions or something else entirely, we can all agree that post-rock aims to generally up the ante. Ruins, on the other hand, constructs some pretty surroundings which are weightless without stronger conviction.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

TIME CHANGES #2: Top Jazz Picks '11

The premiere post for Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s jazz foray dealt with discovery, not necessarily finding one’s genre but music as a general hobby. Breaking into the world of jazz has required those same hesitant steps that instigated my first pop/rock purchases: find a group of artists you enjoy, take a look at the company they keep (their band-mates, labels), and then refine your tastes ad nauseum.

I’ve taken to these steps with an obsessive’s dedication, sampling artists I’ve only recognized by name and compiling extensive lists of promising releases worth looking into. Most interestingly, however, I’ve immersed myself in jazz’s labyrinthine name-game. A cursory glance upon bassist Dave Holland led me from his key session work on Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew to his barrier-pushing solo catalog (from which his 1990 highlight, Extensions, now sits in my collection). Or take Terje Rypdal, the Scandinavian guitarist I first heard in the soundtrack to Michael Mann’s Heat, whose work I’ve become an avid collector of. That both of these chosen-at-whim artists belong to the ECM label is also no fluke; the Munich-based imprint, known for releasing some of the most progressive modern classical and jazz, has introduced a bottomless pit of pivotal musicians for my perusal. And through each bandleader’s palette and take on improvisation, my tastes have begun to refine indeed.

Funny thing about tastes, though; you can’t necessarily share them with all of your closest friends. Our earliest refinements in taste endured this same phenomenon – the “guilty pleasures” – where we’d fear being judged for enjoying something outside of the norm. Even though I’m no longer the bashful teenager hiding Bjork CDs behind my Sublime catalog, jazz remains an impossible divide when entertaining friends. Not to say I haven’t tried: I scored a friend’s study session with Pat Metheny’s New Chautauqua and played the icy thaw of Rypdal/Vitous/DeJohnette for an open-minded visitor. Both were polite in their indifference. It was me who couldn’t handle it, the whole time listening not only through their ears (and any assumptions I had grabbed from their mute reactions) but through my own past preferences, with ears that would’ve balked over these records even two years ago.

As you might imagine then, jazz has remained a personal hobby for me but an obsessive one too. And with that in mind – not to mention the approaching one-year anniversary of my first jazz purchase – I thought I’d kick-start the January blahs with Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s Top Ten Jazz Albums of 2011. What makes this list particularly off the cuff is that it pulls from nearly a century of jazz I happened upon over the past twelve months, so only a few of these titles will actually be from 2011. Test some of these out...

10.) Modern Music - Brad Mehldau & Kevin Hays (Top Jazz Picks '11)

Modern Music
Brad Mehldau, Kevin Hays & Patrick Zimmerli
Nonesuch Records.

Having purchased my share of lame ducks this year, I’ve learned that few solo piano albums grow to become universally heralded. Whether it’s the minimalist nature of the project or a matter of listener preferences, I can’t say, but only a handful of records have ever risen from the pack. So it’s fitting that my first year of jazz ends with a meeting of two jazz-pianists; Modern Music pits former classmates Brad Mehldau and Kevin Hays into both new and classic compositions – some classical, some jazz.

Quelling any fears that this project too will evaporate into monotonous background music is first track ‘Crazy Quilt’, a rambunctious hint toward the duo’s heedless energy. Composer Patrick Zimmerli oversees subsequent performances that cover Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman and Steve Reich with equal doses of drama and flair. A late addition to this list, Modern Music bridges my burgeoning interest in two like-minded genres.

9.) Quiet Inlet - Food (Top Jazz Picks '11)

Quiet Inlet
ECM Records.

When facing the brink of a new world, sometimes all one needs is a little push. That said I hardly expected my nudge to come from electronic composer Christian Fennesz, but there his name sat on the cover of Quiet Inlet. No wonder it was my first ECM purchase!

As foggy and damp as its cover suggests, Quiet Inlet merges ambient soundscapes and jazz instrumentation into a single current. Boasting a sound more meditative than any other jazz-related album I purchased this year, Food’s airy saxophone passages and echoed drums resonated like a welcome seasonal awakening.

8.) Round About Midnight - Miles Davis (Top Jazz Picks '11)

Round Midnight
Miles Davis
Colombia Records.

As you might imagine, my first year listening to jazz encountered no shortage of Miles Davis personas to choose from, let alone the multitude of records available from each. There’s the Miles Davis who gave birth to the “Cool” in ’49, the rising star who split a marathon recording session into four classic records to skip record labels, the fusion-creating mystery behind In a Silent Way and the Avante-maestro responsible for Bitches Brew and Live Evil. In retrospect, however, Round Midnight seems like the ideal pick; not only does the LP capture Davis at the cusp of greatness, it introduced me to his singular sound. And for a man who has performed within so many chameleon-like transformations, that singular sound is something to marvel at.

7.) Isla - Portico Quartet (Top Jazz Picks '11)

Portico Quartet
Real World Recordings.

Portico Quartet doesn’t really fit into this list’s emphasis on veteran-heavy, household names, in no small part because they’re a group of twenty-something outsiders to jazz’s often purist tenets. But forget that: despite their greenhorn status, Portico Quartet show a breadth of talent that thrives outside of the genre’s comfortable expectations.

Wielding the unlikely choice of hang – a percussive instrument that creates a variety of tones not unlike a steel drum – one would imagine Portico Quartet’s sound as being warm and sunny. Not the case. While Isla does feature vague Caribbean connotations on account of the hang, it’s clouded by tense instrumentation and overcast arrangements that have validated constant comparisons to – of all bands – Radiohead. Like the catalog of that celebrated rock group, Isla illustrates the sort of unexplored universe modern music needs more of. 

6.) Vespers - Iro Haarla Quintet (Top Jazz Picks '11)

Iro Haarla Quintet
ECM Records.

Many times over I’ve approached an aspect of jazz as though it’s an uphill battle, something I’ll have to fight tooth-and-nail to comprehend, and most of those instances have proven far easier to digest than I’d expected. But no record felt quite as natural and immediate for me as Vespers, which I first played while wandering the snowy fields of my wife’s parents’ place.

It goes without saying that Vespers exudes the wintry solitude of its cover-art but how this quintet manages such a unique sound is worth a few words. With exception to the occasions where Trygve Seim and Mathias Eick synchronize their powerful horns, Haarla’s quintet mediates between the soft brushstrokes of Jon Christensen’s drums, the dull rumble of Ulf Krokfors’ double-bass and Haarla’s twin strengths on piano and harp. The culmination of these performances carries a dream-like quality that I’ve yet to step away from.

5.) Daxaar - Steve Reid Ensemble (Top Jazz Picks '11)

Steve Reid Ensemble
Domino Records.

No kidding, I nearly bought this album in 2008 on account of Kieran Hebden’s involvement alone. The man behind Four Tet had, by this point, completed three releases with percussion-master Steve Reid as a duo, but none of them would compare to the full arrangements of Daxaar.

I’ll leave it to the video below (which I love) to illustrate how and why these musicians gathered in Africa but the results readily justify the means. Whether falling effortlessly into a loose groove (on ‘Jiggy Jiggy’) or a freeform spiral (‘Big G’s Family’), the septet’s casual chemistry is mind-blowing. 

4.) A Love Supreme - John Coltrane (Top Jazz Picks '11)

A Love Supreme
John Coltrane
Impulse Records.

Well of course.

3.) Skala - Mathias Eick (Top Jazz Picks '11)

Mathias Eick
ECM Records.

The music of Mathias Eick struck me as a bit hokey on account of his premeditated, tightly organized arrangements. You see, I first heard Skala while inundated with a number of hard-bop records that championed improvisation above all else, so it took me some time to acclimatize to this layered, Norwegian vibe. And even if some of Eick’s trumpet work still comes off as overwrought to my ears, it’s countered by a smart ensemble capable of articulating mournfulness through motion.

2.) La Place Demon - Tied & Tickled Trio (Top Jazz Picks '11)

La Place Demon
Tied & Tickled Trio
Morr Music.

In a year that found me exploring far-off labels and genres, La Place Demon was the sole record that came to me. Featuring an avante-jazz outfit led by one of my favourite electronic artists (Markus Acher of The Notwist) and packaged courtesy of one of my favourite labels (Morr Music), the collaboration between Tied & Tickled Trio and Billy Hart was a no-brainer.

Smartly steering clear of The Notwist’s indie-tronic playground, La Place Demon engulfs itself as much in 70-year-old Hart’s dexterous percussion as it does in Acher’s symphonic ear for strings, horns and woodwinds. With both Hart and the Weilheim ensemble composing together, it’s remarkable that an album so overrun with dislocated muses can collect into such a convincing and moody whole. 

1.) Rypdal/Vitous/DeJohnette - Rypdal, Vitous, DeJohnette (Top Jazz Picks '11)

Terje Rypdal, Miroslav Vitous & Jack DeJohnette
ECM Records.

Immediately standing out from the Dave Brubeck and Django Reinhardt records that sparked my collection, Rypdal/Vitous/DeJohnette opened my ears to a strain of jazz far-removed from the spritely golden age.

Dealing in drizzly organ and synthesized textures, the trio creates a series of improvisational passages that weave between murky tempos and blur instrumentally. The only distinct changes tend to occur when each musician takes their turn leading the pack; Rypdal, Vitous and DeJohnette are each awarded compositional credit to two tracks, with DeJohnette’s portion embracing the most overt departure through its percussive focus. As much a fusion of ambient and jazz as it is intricate mood music, Rypdal/Vitous/DeJohnette satisfies on a level that few traditional jazz ensembles can imagine.