2017, in music: Part I (Jan. thru June)
“The suspension of time is an important element in escape and recovery.”
– Mark Edward Achterman (from his essay “Brian Eno and the Definition of Ambient Music”)
“I think that when you make something, you offer people the choice of another way of feeling about the world … and as soon as people start practicing another way of feeling about the world, they actually create that world. As soon as you acknowledge the possibility of a certain type of being or a certain type of environment, you create that environment, because you tend to select and nourish those facets of that environment.”
– Brian Eno (quoted in a profile published in the October ’82 issue of Modern Recording and Music)
As both an avid consumer and a modest composer/producer, I spend a staggering amount of hours in any given week absorbing recorded music: scouting new sounds on BandCamp and YouTube; listening to newly acquired records (new and old releases in equal measures); working on demos and vocal contributions for various projects… But there have been times—watching the seemingly unending cycle of bad news unfold; placing frantic phone calls to my Senator; processing the latest terrorist attack, mass shooting, or sanctioned homicide by police officer—that I’ve pondered the ethical implications of spending as much time as I do (and I do) in this loop of musical digestion and creation. An essay I stumbled upon recently (written by Pauline Kael in 1967, on the then-novel phenomenon of televised motion pictures) seems to validate some of my running concerns, if transposed from the subject of film to that of music:
“If they [viewers of films on television] can find more intensity in this box than in their own living, then this box can provide constantly what we got at the movies only a few times a week. Why should they move away from it, or talk, or go out of the house, when they will only experience that as a loss? Of course, we can see why they should, and their inability to make connections outside is frighteningly suggestive of ways in which we, too, are cut off. It’s a matter of degree (…) Either way, there is always something a little shameful about living in the past; we feel guilty, stupid—as if the pleasure we get needed some justification that we can’t provide.”
One thinks of a time before recorded music, when performance, transcription, and interpretation were the only primary means to enjoy compositions of musical interplay. And whether interpreting (or writing) a song firsthand, or attending a live performance, it is inevitable that one should interact with a greater scope of external variables than what one encounters when listening to a recording: in fact, early innovators of recording technology were driven (at least, in part) by the limitations imposed by indirect transmission of musical ideas. But to echo Ms. Kael’s sentiment, the private enjoyment of a recording, from the safety and comfort of one’s own home—or one’s automobile; or iPod; or work computer—is, in a certain regard, “frighteningly suggestive of ways in which we… are cut off.” Which begs the question: must the suggestion at hand be inherently frightening? Is there not a rich tradition (in film, music, and—if one traces the lineage even farther back—the evolution from oral narratives to written texts) of individuals connecting to something bigger than themselves through all recorded mediums—let alone, the social phenomena that have since arisen from the communal enjoyment of records and television programs? Or is this tradition indicative of how we’ve settled for isolation tactics, considering the dwindling viewership of films in movie theaters, and diminishing attendance of live music performances? I suppose, if one were to carry the debate out to its natural conclusion, one might surmise the answer to be nothing more than “a matter of degree.”
Isolation vs. connectivity; outside interaction vs. inner-spatial reflection. It boils down to a question of ethics, I suppose: in what proportion ought an individual to invest time in the development of inner space, versus investing in an external network of connectivity to the “world at large?” Does seeking respite (at times, admittedly, escape) from the horror of current affairs—by delving into the vast universe of recorded music, or a film retrospective, or a book—constitute a deflection of reality, or is it nourishment for one’s wellness and empathic faculties? Is writing about such matters an exercise in intellectual wanking, or might such an exercise bring the inquiring mind closer to some meaningful conundrum at the heart of such a debate?
This line of thought has gained some nourishment from a book I’ve had my nose in recently, titled Oblique Music—an anthology of in-depth essays, exploring the boundary-shattering work of Brian Eno over the past forty-odd years. In one of the most compelling essays I’ve thus far encountered, the writer (Mark Edward Achterman) espouses his theory that Eno’s approach to ambient music is akin to J.R.R. Tolkien’s approach to the fairy tale: in his view, they both serve(d) (implicitly in the case of Tolkien, and explicitly in the case of Eno) the purposes of “fantasy, escape, recovery and consolation.” Instead of conveying a calculated message for the listener/reader—or operating in the muddy terrain of allegory (which Tolkien openly despised, despite some misguided acolytes)—these are works intended to help the inquiring mind achieve some respite from the drudgery and chaos of everyday life, with the sole caveat that they oughtn’t to provide “permanent desertion” (p. 90). Approached from this angle, Eno’s seminal series of ambient records, released during the late ’70s to mid-’80s, perceptibly coincided with Tolkien’s outlook: they proposed unrealized worlds and landscapes through aurally experimental atmospheres, while deliberately avoiding the structural archetypes of traditional “song”writing—archetypes which lend themselves all-too-readily to deconstruction by the listener with a predilection for in-depth analysis (which may, in turn, lead to a form “permanent desertion” when carried to extremes).
With that in mind, must it follow that only the music that is open in its outlook (vast yet precise; tonally dynamic, yet structurally ambiguous) should warrant our attention? If so, how does one explain the failure of ambient music to overtake pop music in critical and consumer appeal? Granted, many of the ideas underlying ambient music have burrowed their way into a variety of pop music forms (from the dreaded New Age music years, to the stripped-down production aesthetics found throughout recent top 40 charts), but the forms themselves have remained fairly consistent: case in point, much of Eno’s most-beloved work remains scattered throughout his more “conventional” outings—his four song-based/vocal studio albums from the ’70s, his collaborations with other pop vocalists (David Bowie, Karl Hyde, David Byrne, to name a few), and his production work for high-profile acts such as U2 and Coldplay. (Though Eno himself lamented at the end of the ’80s: “I don’t get the feeling of discovering new worlds from pop music that I used to get, just of being shown old ones over and over,” quoted in Tamm’s text Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound). Of his own accord, Eno somewhat recently returned to an overt appreciation for the singing voice as an end in itself—at the same time that he returned to more traditional forms of song in his solo endeavors: during a 2010 Paul Morley interview, he went so far as to disclose that he went out and joined a gospel choir(!) Pressed further on the subject, the artist explained: “They know I am an atheist but they are very tolerant. Ultimately, the Message of gospel music is that everything’s going to be alright … Gospel music is always about the possibility of transcendence, of things getting better. It’s also about the loss of ego, that you will win through or get over things by losing yourself, becoming part of something better. Both those messages are completely universal and are nothing to do with religion or a particular religion.”
Indeed, it goes without saying that music carries (within a given set of parameters) certain healing properties: whether by passive involvement (listening), or by active participation (performance), people can be consoled by music in certain forms. It also goes without saying that other forms of music operate counter to these intentions: either by conveying a pre-determined message, or incorporating sonically jarring elements (a subjective perception, but a perception nonetheless), other forms draw our attention to the idea of the music being performed—or, when ineffective (in this writer’s opinion), to the idea’s execution. In my own travels and travails, having collected and digested music(s) from around the world (and throughout the span of history), I’ve found most all of it to carry a modicum of beneficial qualities. And as much as quality itself tends to be a subjective experience—frequently trapped in the eye, or the ear of the beholder—it follows there must be something objectively appealing in these forms to justify their universality.
In his wonderfully entertaining book, Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson bravely (and humorously) explored the subjectivity of people’s taste in music: at the end of his text, he surmised that a lot of cultural debate over the virtues of various musical forms—and most specifically, the debate over what constitutes “good” pop music—stems from a social division between those who have settled upon cultural capital as an identifiable (and often strictly defined) asset, and those who’ve developed a natural, easy-going relationship with the idea of music itself. One could say it’s a difference between a top-down hierarchy (where the listener is captivated by the journey from music as an idea, to music in a specific form), and bottom-up processing (wherein one’s focus is on connecting a specific sample of music to its original, platonic form).
In keeping with the all-encompassing reality of subjectivity in taste, Wilson makes it clear at the end of his book that he still generally dislikes the music of Celine Dion—which he willingly set out to understand, and to appreciate in greater depth at the book’s start. He reminds the reader that it is possible to straddle both of these positions outlined above: to have a concrete, cognitive appreciation for the cultural significance of music—but also to appreciate music as a sensual, topical, and ultimately popular form of amusement. To these viewpoints, we can add Achterman’s notion that music might also be a vehicle to explore as-of-unfulfilled possibilities: that beyond mere amusement or cultural zeitgeist, music can provide the sort of restorative peace that readers throughout the past century have found in Middle Earth—or that Brian Eno found in a gospel choir.
Whys and wherefores aside, music remains my greatest passion; and new music, my greatest anticipation. And every time I question my passion—along the lines of Pauline Kael’s critique of cultural hermits—I remember the way Mavis Staples comes in at the start of “I’ll Take You There;” and the guitar solo that tears “Sweet Jane” open at the start of Rock and Roll Animal; and the way PJ Harvey’s voice soars throughout Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The unstoppable propensity of Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge,” and the spoken song-poetry of Talking Heads’ “Seen and Not Seen,” from their Remain In Light album (with backing vocals and production by Brian Eno, nonetheless). The indecipherable dreamworld of Heaven or Las Vegas, and the plaintive future-music of Plantation Lullabies. The way the first Goldberg variation on Glenn Gould’s 1981 re-recording comes charging in, immediately after the mournful final notes of the opening Aria have died off; the majestically arpeggiated dance-floor propensity “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Temptation.” The bass line to Nick Cave’s “Stagger Lee.” The sound of Marianne Faithfull’s voice disintegrating in the ’70s, and finding new life (in a subterranean register) during each of the subsequent decades. The way “Maggot Brain” stumbles into earshot following George Clinton’s ridiculous and prophetic monologue, as though it were crash-landing from a grimey dimension next door. The meaninglessly meditative interplay between John Lydon, Keith Levene, Jeanette Lee, Jah Wobble, and Dave Crowe on Second Edition…
When seeking the justification that Pauline Kael asserts “we can’t provide” ourselves, for privately enjoying art, I am reminded of these. I’m also reminded of the fond memories accrued throughout the years, attending concerts by (at least) some of the above artists with friends and loved ones, or swapping custom-made mix tapes and word-of-mouth suggestions. I can further attest to the reality that the following musical highlights—all of which were released over the course of the past, chaotic six months—have helped to keep me from going totally fucking insane this year.
Room 29 by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales
Pure Comedy by Father John Misty
Slowdive by Slowdive
50 Song Memoir by Magnetic Fields
No Plan EP by David Bowie
Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes
Damage and Joy by the Jesus & Mary Chain
“Drunk” by Thundercat
Memories Are Now by Jesca Hoop
Awaken, My Love by Childish Gambino
Common As Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood by Sun Kil Moon
Reflection by Brian Eno
Halo by Juana Molina
by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales
Written from the perspective of a room in L.A.’s world-renowned Chateau Marmont, the songs on this album are simultaneously agoraphobic and exploratory: they capture the “furniture music” mentality of Satie’s gymnopédies, or Eno’s ambient recordings, while at the same time venturing on a conceptual journey through time—within the designated space of the album/room. The high water mark of the record, “A Trick of the Light,” achieves the aural impact of a silver screen masterpiece, as the orchestrated accompaniment carries the introspectively omniscient narration into a visceral dimension that, ultimately, envelops the album itself. Is it a self-contained exercise in creative solipsism? Assuredly. But fresh air arrives in the form of narrative detachment, which prevents the songs from getting bogged down in the sort of reflexive exasperation of, say, a Roger Waters concept album. Also, “Daddy, You’re Not Watching Me” has to be one of the most brilliantly unsettling achievements in ambiguous song narration ever committed to record.
by Father John Misty
A clear-cut nominee (and easy win) for “most thematically relevant record of the year,” alias J. Tillman’s third full-length (a sometimes indulgent double-LP listening experience) is so culturally on-the-nose it frequently proves itself to be more than a tad discomforting. As he croons magnificently about his on-going fascination with religious fanaticism and cultural idiocracy—with a sensuousness that sounds as authentic as it appears plastic—Tillman here runs the gamut from academic, post-modern pop synthesis (“Total Entertainment Forever” and non-LP b-side “Rejected Generic Pop Song March ’15 #3”), to long-form autobiographical folk song (“Leaving L.A.;” “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”), to existential philosophizing (“Things It Would’ve Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution;” “Ballad of the Dying Man;” “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”), to something between narrative surrealism and romantic balladry (“Smoochie;” “Birdie;” “In Twenty Years Or So”). At times too smart for its own good, the record thaws itself out as it gradually unfolds the entirety of its canvas; by the end, we’re in a bar with a live pianist performing “Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place),” and it truly feels like “a miracle to be alive.”
Words can hardly do justice to the finest moments on this record. If you have any reason to doubt this, have a listen, then read the inadequate words I’ve strung together on behalf of “No Longer Making Time” in the section below.
50 Song Memoir
by The Magnetic Fields
Ambitious and disarmingly un-pretentious, Stephin Merritt’s assignment from Nonesuch to pen an autobiography in album form has yielded some of the most direct and entertaining songs in the Magnetic Fields oeuvre. From the opening notes of “’66: Wonder Where I’m From,” to the closing synth tones of “’15: Somebody’s Fetish,” 50 Song Memoir is incisive, strange, sad, and hilarious. Although—in technical terms, at least–a shorter undertaking than the well-loved 69 Love Songs, Meritt’s latest opus reveals a more versatile range of musical ideas than any of the collective’s previous outings. I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the live 50 Song Memoir experience at the Lincoln Theater in D.C., over the course of two nights this March: the performances were impeccable and buoyant.
Prior to the first evening’s performance, it was announced that Chuck Berry had died of cardiac arrest. Before launching into the already locked-in opener for the evening’s second set (“’79: Rock’n’Roll Will Ruin Your Life”), Merritt mumbled into the microphone: “this one’s for Chuck.” Someone seated close to the stage howled out in response: “Chuck Berry’s the greatest!”—to which Merritt winced, raising a hand to his ear and silently reminding the audience of his hyperacusis condition. As he drolly delivered the brilliant refrain (“Rock’n’roll will ruin your life/Like your old no-goodnik dad/Kill your soul and kill your wife/Rock’n’roll will ruin your life/And make you sad“), the non-irony was lost on no one.
No Plan EP
by David Bowie
Though everything on the No Plan EP was already available on the double-CD/triple-LP soundtrack to the off-broadway production of Lazarus, the EP is such a timely release that it fully warrants consideration on its own terms. Hearing the haunting refrains of “Lazarus” in 2017 is no less affecting than it was, heard at the close of the first side to last year’s un-surpassable Blackstar; one might even argue that it carries a greater weight now, considering the painful awareness—reinforced by time’s passage—that Bowie will not be returning to his followers in bodily form (much less, recording more pearls like the ones contained in this moving P.S.). But in keeping with the transcendence of his entire body of work, there is an unbounded freedom in the mournful strains of “Lazarus:” when he sings “this way or no way/you know I’ll be free/just like that bluebird/ain’t that just like me,” it cuts through the air like the brightest firework in the night sky, and we’re left gazing upward in wonder and sorrow.
Just as, when “No Plan” kicks in after the opening track’s fade-out, one might think of the music video released in support of the title song this January—depicting a small crowd of passersby, assembling in front of a shop’s window display (the shop’s sign reads Newton Electric, in reference to the character incarnated by Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth—and later, by Michael C. Hall in the stage production of Lazarus): the display is comprised of a stack of television sets, all tuned in to the same frequency, cycling through abstract, static-laden footage, and isolated words from the song’s lyrics. “All of the things that are my life/My desires, my beliefs, my moods/Here is my place without a plan.” In the age of 45, the words hit increasingly close to home; and the daydreamers among us may be prone to fantasies of stumbling upon such a window display, begging for the static to suck us in (not unlike the woman in “TVC15”); fans of Twin Peaks may also think of the electrical currents that link the “real” world to the other realms in the show’s universe—which, coincidentally, contain a trapped David Bowie alias (the character Phillip Jeffries, first encountered in Fire Walk With Me). It is also worth nothing that, in the new season of Twin Peaks produced for Showtime, Jeffries has been alluded—even spoken—to on multiple occasions; fan rumors abound that Bowie may have recorded yet-to-be-aired scenes for the series, which would surely be a cherry on top of an already-rich televisual return.
The final two original songs on No Plan, “Killing A Little Time” and “When I Met You” (both written for the Lazarus stage show, recorded here with the Danny McCaslin-led Blackstar band), present a powerful one-two punch—reminding us that Bowie was never one to linger in a state of despair. The former is easily the most aggressive piece of music to be released from the Blackstar sessions: “I staggered through this criminal reign/I’m not in love, no phony pain/Creeping through this tidal wave…” It’s a lurching, hair-raising throttle of symphonic brutalism; as he builds up to the cathartic chorus, one thinks inevitably of Bowie’s final days, and the 21st century clusterfuck we’ve been left here to contend with: “I’m falling, man/I’m choking, man/I’m fading, man/Just killing a little time.”
One at least feels a sense of gratitude at having the perfect soundtrack to accompany it all (from “The Width of a Circle,” to “It’s No Game,” to “I’m Afraid of Americans”…). “This is no place, but here I am.”
by Fleet Foxes
As though it were strategically released to coincide with (former Fleet Foxes drummer) Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, Crack-Up is a quietly meditative sound poem that is—to put it mildly—unlikely to play well with others in a mixtape setting. (Also like Pure Comedy, this is the third full-length in the Fleet Foxes discography; and although Tillman and the remaining Foxes are no longer be on speaking terms, Tillman released a warm statement in support of their latest endeavor: “an incredible album and a group of people I love and miss.”) It’s a record that washes over the listener—like the waves painted on the outer jacket, crashing against the dry terrain; dark clouds lingering on the horizon. I couldn’t name you a single song title or recite a single lyric, though I could hum any number of melodic fragments from the record, if prompted. In this regard, it’s an endeavor that comes quite close to Achterman’s definition of ambient music as “painterly:” “challeng[ing] musical convention and definition, presenting an approach to sonic construction and to listening in some ways wholly new” (p. 88). Also in keeping with Achterman’s (and Tolkien’s) views on pure, restorative art, Crack-Up sounds like a calm meant to coincide with the cultural storms of 2017. The record culminates in a wash of horns and strings, with (lead singer/songwriter) Robin Pecknold pleading: “All I see, dividing tide/Rising over me/Ooh wait/Oh, will you wait?” If there’s more where this came from, then gladly.
Damage and Joy
by The Jesus & Mary Chain
(Artificial Plastic Records)
Nineteen years have passed since the release of the last JAMC studio album—the under-appreciated double-LP endeavor Munki. Damage and Joy finds the Reid brothers picking up where they left off, and pretty much staying in the same place (musically speaking); and I mean that in the best of ways, because they deliver exactly what we’ve wanted—maybe even yearned for all these years. A chunk of the songs on this record were previously released as singles and soundtrack stand-alones: they’ve here been re-worked and re-recorded, to capture the impression of a cohesive whole, and the rehearsed-ness pays off beautifully. For there isn’t a wasted minute to be had throughout the entirety of Damage and Joy—a lean double-LP, with an average of 3-4 songs per side—and there’s just the right amount of production on it. One could argue there is nothing new to be had here, or (worse) that it’s an unnecessary reiteration of everything they’ve accomplished more succinctly on Darklands and Automatic. But even if one were to take such a stance, it’s hard to argue with the licks and moans of this record.
Like Automatic, Damage and Joy is so chock-full of Billboard-worthy single material, it’s damn near impossible to single one out for consideration. “All Things Must Pass” gets my vote on most days, but there are times when I want to shut everything else out and spin the Sky Ferreira duets “Black and Blues” and “The Two of Us” on endless repeat. Other times, the arm of my turntable gravitates towards “Presidici (Et Chapaquiditch),” in which Jim prefaces the chorus by insisting “Behind black eyes/My mind is fine.” It’s almost as if he had described the entire JAMC credo, in seven words.
I love Thundercat’s music. A compulsive noodler, this guy is so full of ideas—yet so precise in his viewpoint—that it’s hard to not be carried away by the enticing fumes of his retro-futuristic (one minute lounge, the next minute avant) jazz funk oddities. “Tokyo” is like Steely Dan on speed (and I always thought Steely Dan was Steely Dan on speed); “Show You the Way” (featuring Michael McDonald, and Kenny Loggins on vocals—no joke) serves up undiluted yacht rock ecstasy; and “Walk On By” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) captures the contemplative moodiness of a lonely late night stroll. Like Common As Light…, “Drunk” sometimes meanders a little more than one might like, but the disorientation pays off.
Memories Are Now
by Jesca Hoop
Her first solo outing since last year’s beautiful collaboration with Sam Beam (a.k.a. Iron & Wine), Memories Are Now is easily my favorite Jesca Hoop record to date. Sparsely arranged and rhythmically loose, the songs on this album are smart, fresh, and startlingly energized. There’s a moment on the second track, “The Lost Sky” (around the 1:04 mark), where Jesca segues suddenly from a hypnotic, run-on verse into the unexpectedly inevitable chorus: “When we said/the words ‘I love you’/I said them ’cause they are true/Why would you say those words to me/If you could not follow through?” It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Awaken, My Love
by Childish Gambino
(Glassnote Entertainment Group)
Awaken, My Love is one of the finest things to have been released in 2016, but I imagine I’m one of many who wasn’t able to appreciate this reality until recently. Having been released digitally in early December, and not having received a proper vinyl release until April 2017, the album is likely to find itself in limbo for inclusion on year’s end “best of” lists. That said, it deserves all the accolades it’s able to lay claim to. Like a sponge that soaked up all the finer elements of Maggot Brain, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and Here, My Dear (with a dash of The World is a Ghetto thrown in for good measure), Glover’s third full-length emerges as a fully formed, post-modern R&B marvel.
Common As Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood
by Sun Kil Moon
It’s fairly safe to say (and perfectly acceptable to ignore) that Common As Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood is not going to make anyone’s top 10 list this year. To put it mildly, the record sounds like a calculated epitomization of everything most critics hate—and sometimes embody: disorganized, bloated, pretentious, self-righteous, unpleasant; and worst of all, there’s nary a hook in earshot. Added to that, it’s over two hours long (which is likely to resolve the above dilemma, seeing as most critics won’t even bother themselves with it; which is, perhaps, best for all involved). But as tempted as I am to dismiss this quadruple studio album as an unforgivable exercise is self-indulgence, there’s something here that can’t be shaken off easily. One thinks of Lou Reed’s Berlin (which, furthermore, is referenced in Kozelek’s other 2017 release with Jesu): at the time of its original release in 1973, the record was dismissed unilaterally; Stephen Davis wrote in Rolling Stone that it was a “disaster.” (Ironically, as I write this, I find myself flipping through an RS back-issue from a stack of magazines on my coffee table, and I’ve stumbled upon a surprisingly optimistic write-up for Common As Light…) Many years later, Berlin was more fairly reassessed by critics around the globe, who finally caught up with the Brecht-by-way-of-Fassbinder spirit of the undertaking: a song like “The Kids,” which once sounded unreasonably sadistic and psycho-dramatic, eventually resounded with an audience that could recognize it as a microcosm of universal themes.
Likewise, I’m under the current impression that Common As Light… will find an audience (if not now, then someday) that recognizes it for what it is: an aural road movie that feeds on the blood of American true crime and (North & South-ern) gothic folklore. Although its founding conceit may be its generous (or merely indulgent, depending on the listener’s perception) length, this is, in and of itself, something unique—dare I say, even (somewhat) new: a sustained narrative album that structures its song components like fully-formed, interlocking scenes—free of the obligation to re-state its musical themes at key moments, since every moment is painted to be a key moment, and the individual listener’s experience of its widescreen totality is what lends the thing perspective. For it is impossible to absorb everything on this record in a single sitting; the album comes with no listening instructions, but both physical format releases (vinyl and CD) hint that it is meant to be experienced as a two-part sound film—preferably, with an intermission in between.
Recurring themes include Richard Ramirez (anthologized previously in Benji), among a litany of other murderers and serial killers; the open road (epitomized in the cyclical texture and roaming structure of every song); Kozelek’s wife, Caroline; terrorism, natural disasters, and Donald Trump—in other words, the usual Kozelek-ian kaleidoscope of current events; David Bowie’s death… Most prominent among the album’s themes, however, is the act of writing: Kozelek constantly interrupts himself on this record, giving himself directions like “go back to the other part now,” and reading aloud an extensive write-up on the murderer of Dad Rock Slowhand Simpleton. While the act of self-interruption in a studio performance is nothing new (not only has Kozelek become prone to reading entire fan letters midway through a song, the trick itself can be traced back at least as far as 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman), the pervasiveness of the act in the already meandering soundscapes of this album highlights its on-the-road mentality. During its most powerful moments, Common As Light… offers the distinct impression of visiting a hotel room in which some terrible crime or other took place; in its weaker sections, it all feels like a prolonged afterthought.
I challenge the willing listener to think of the record more along the lines of Satie and ambient music (or a distant, dysfunctional relative to Room 29): put it on and do some housework around it. You’ll find sections that draw you in momentarily, but then dissipate into a sonic texture that may blend nicely with running water in the kitchen sink. Because as indulgent as the premise may seem, this record often gives off the impression that Kozelek is knowingly taking the piss and (for a change) not taking himself too seriously. When the balancing act pays off, we find ourselves being genuinely affected by the serious stuff (and when it doesn’t—as in the breakdown section of the eye-roll inducing “Vague Rock Song”—we only feel a mild sense of embarrassment at having derived some amusement from it).
Just the other month—and in keeping with his astounding rate of productivity—Kozelek released a second collaborative full-length with the experimental British group, Jesu: it’s a far more accessible ordeal, and features at least one of my favorite songs of the year (to date), but I have yet to reach the level of comfort required to offer an un-assuming write-up. That said, I’ve no doubt it will rate more favorably.
by Brian Eno
Tranquil, restorative, and thoughtful. Eno’s latest (the first ambient record he has released since 2012’s Lux) is a proverbial breath of fresh air. Released on New Year’s Day in an array of physical and digital formats, Reflection is available as a stand-alone 54-minute record, or as a digital app experience that offers up curated, self-generated permutations of the album’s musical leitmotifs on a seasonal basis. I recall putting this record on, for the first time, about a month into the administration of 45; it was a time of great confusion and disheartenment, and the ambient riverscape of Reflection provided a much-needed salve. It’s a great record to read or meditate with, and at that, it may prove to be the most utilitarian record of 2017. Regardless of how one perceives it, Eno has provided further validation (as if it were necessary) of the very real terrain outlined in Achterman’s essay on the restorative powers of ambient music.
by Juana Molina
I still remember taking my lunch break at my desk (as usual), and opening an email from a friend and musical collaborator, suggesting I check out an NPR Tiny Desk concert by Juana Molina. I grabbed my headphones and clicked on the link, and almost instantaneously forgot to fetch my food from the break room. The opening number of this performance, “Eras,” remains one of my favorite numbers of Molina’s that I’ve yet heard: a mind-bendingly fluid, totally unpredictable organism of a song, the performance draws you in unlike anything this side of the Krautrock years. As for Halo, it’s a dark, vast, slow-burning triumph of atmosphere-over-regiment. The arrangements are clean, sophisticated, and elemental; not unlike the music itself.
- [listen] “Room 29” by Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales
- [listen] “Floor Machine” by Company Man
- [listen] “Total Entertainment Forever” by Father John Misty
- [listen] “Cassius, -“ by Fleet Foxes
- [listen] “Our Destiny / Roadhouse Garden” by Prince & the Revolution
- [listen] “Redbone” by Childish Gambino
- [listen] “Die 4 You” by Perfume Genius
- [listen] “Memories Are Now” by Jesca Hoop
- [listen] “Get the Sparrows” by Lioness
- [listen] “No Longer Making Time” by Slowdive
- [listen] “The Greatest Conversation Ever in the History of the Universe” by Sun Kil Moon & Jesu
- [listen] “Shadow” by Chromatics
- [listen] “Casual Backpiece” by Brian Baker
- [listen] “All Things Must Pass” by the Jesus & Mary Chain
- [listen] “Andy Warhol’s Dream” by Trevor Sensor
- [listen] “New York” by St. Vincent
- [listen] “Brutalisteque” by Final Machine
- [listen] “Arabian Heights” by Afghan Whigs
- [listen] “Paraguaya” by Juana Molina
- [listen] “Chili Lemon Peanuts” by Sun Kil Moon
- [listen] “Controller” by Hercules & Love Affair (feat. Faris Baldwin)
- [listen] “Reassuring Pinches” by Alison Moyet
- [listen] “’83: Foxx and I” by the Magnetic Fields
- [listen] “Down Endless Street” by Fleetwood Mac
- [listen] “Show You the Way” by Thundercat (feat. Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins)
- [listen] “In My World” by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie
- [listen] “Omnion” by Hercules & Love Affair (feat. Sharon Van Etten)
- [listen] “Smoke ‘Em Out” by Cocorosie (feat. Anohni)
- [listen] “Dr. Mister” by Company Man
- [listen] “Reflection” by Brian Eno
- [listen] “No Plan” by David Bowie
- [listen] “April 10th” by Alison Moyet
It creeps in on a wave of oscillating feedback, then leaves you in a pop-ishly experimental (or experimentally pop-ish?) mock-up of an exotic island retreat. The soundscape of “Dr Mister” occasionally calls to mind Jon Brion’s scoring work on Punch-Drunk Love—or Badalamenti and the private office of Dr. Jacoby in Twin Peaks. Whatever your mind may see, yours ears will grin. A similar effect can also be achieved with the album’s opener, “Floor Machine:” I challenge you to find a better verse re-entry point, elsewhere than the 1:27 mark in this uncontrollable hip-shaker.
“Our Destiny / Roadhouse Garden”
by Prince & the Revolution, from Purple Rain (Expanded Edition)
This unexpected 3 CD/1 DVD reissue of one of the most highly celebrated and beloved records of all time delivers the goods, plain and simple. And while it’s a treat to finally have all the B-sides and extended mixes bundled together on a single, official disc, the real loot lies in disc 2—containing previously unreleased material from the Prince vault (much of which hasn’t even been available on any of the countless bootlegs circulating since its original release). I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite, but I’ve found myself most frequently revisiting “Our Destiny / Roadhouse Garden:” with its open, unhurried arrangement and unpolished veneer, it offers an illuminating glimpse inside the late artist’s working methods, and more-than-occasionally takes my breath away.
by Childish Gambino, from Awaken, My Love
Quite easily the song of this year’s Summer season, “Redbone” is an out-and-out funky miracle. I first heard the song performed on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show (whose only consistent saving grace appears to be his distinct selection of musical guests): if you have not had a chance to experience it yet, I advise you to treat yourself.
“Die 4 You”
by Perfume Genius, from No Shape
The fourth studio album by Mike Hadreas (alias Perfume Genius) is a fairly direct continuation of the sonic palette that comprised 2014’s Too Bright. But what it lacks in differentiation, it more than compensates for with beauty—as one might well ascertain by giving this album single a spin. Further listening: lead single “Slip Away.”
“Get the Sparrows”
by Lioness, from Time Killer
The first full-length by the Dayton, OH-based collective Lioness is an eclectic and lively charmer. The album’s second track, “Get the Sparrows,” provides ample validation to support this assessment—with its Arthur Lee-reminiscent melodies, startlingly playful background vocals, and mariachi-esque violin parts. The entire gamut of Time Killer can be streamed on the band’s official BandCamp page.
“No Longer Making Time”
by Slowdive, from Slowdive
This song is so bloody good, it almost makes me angry when I hear it. It contains everything one could hope for from a 28-year-old dream pop band: ambience, unexpected curves, finely sculpted parts, and a hook so simple and modestly delivered that your jaw hits the floor, trying to understand how something so basic could summon feelings so complex. I recall listening to the record for the first time and thinking, as the song re-starts itself for a final run-through: “Gee, this is a really good song, too!” All I can say is the past 22 years (the gap between 1995’s Pygmalion and this, their 4th studio full-length) must have served them well. Further listening: the entire album.
“The Greatest Conversation Ever in the History of the Universe”
by Sun Kil Moon & Jesu, from 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth
The follow up to last year’s marvelous Sun Kil Moon / Jesu album, this year’s 30 Seconds… retains the same refreshing spirit of the collaboration’s debut (which ranked high on my list of last year’s favorites). This song, in particular—wherein Kozelek reflects upon a dream he once had, in which he sleepwalked through the house of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson—is a gem. The Jesu-directed, triumphantly arpeggiated backing track provides a distinctly surreal, fittingly melancholic backdrop for Kozelek’s verbose song-poetry: when he talks about the performance he gave on the day of Lou’s passing, commenting that “what his album Berlin meant to me, I’m not even going to try to explain it to you,” he succeeds by not even trying (just as, when he tells anyone critical of his inclusive songwriting style to “fuck off and listen to ‘bye bye Miss American Pie,'” he succeeds in letting us laugh at and with him simultaneously). To echo the closing sentiment of the song: Thank you, Mark; I’m forever grateful for your music. (Further listening: “Twentysomething,” the hilariously moving tribute to the frontman of a U.S. indie band, titled after the kid’s self-penned paperback novel. It’s painfully gorgeous one minute, laugh-out-loud funny the next, and a living reminder of why Kozelek is one of the greatest American songwriters alive today.)
by Chromatics, from Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series)
(Italians Do It Better)
Originally released in 2015, “Shadow” first reached my ears during the end credit sequence of the Twin Peaks limited-run Showtime series premiere. Johnny Jewel (whose solo/instrumental work is also showcased, elsewhere in the series) and his band can be seen performing the number in the Bang-Bang Bar at the close of Part 2, and I don’t know if I’ll ever shake the spine-tingling sensation that accompanied that first viewing. The series is, to put it mildly, one of the finest reasons to be living in 2017; and this song, along with other soundscapes for the show (including the timeless Badalamenti score, which received a stellar vinyl reissue by Mondo last November, followed by the even-superior 2xLP Fire Walk With Me score this February), is a four minute capsule of dreamy, synth-driven perfection.
by Brian Baker, from Glue Stick
(not on label)
There’s a section in “Casual Backpiece,” around the 2:01 mark, that features one of the most perfectly anticlimactic pop song breakdowns I’m able to recall. I love everything about this track, and the synth run-out that carries the final minute to a close is pure joy. (Further listening: “Junk.” With its wonderfully downbeat, accidental chorus: “So many reasons to go wrong/So many reasons to go high/So many reasons to go crazy,” it’s a self-produced gem.)
“Andy Warhol’s Dream”
by Trevor Sensor, from Andy Warhol’s Dream
I first heard of Trevor Sensor in a Jagjaguwar newsletter, announcing his debut full-length release (carrying the same title as this song). While the album cover was striking in its own way, I was caught off guard by what I heard after I clicked on the music video for the lead single, “High Beams:” a seemingly forced, grotty moan—howling something about angels, high priests, and mother’s milk (my partner pointedly observed that it sounded like a back-up singer for the Lollypop Guild). I’m still trying to separate some of the vocal stylings from the songs themselves—which perhaps is unfair to the guy, on my part—but it’s safe to say that the title track is one of my favorite things it has to offer. From the piano motif that fills the opening bars, to the gated reverb drum fills (kicking in around 0:38), it’s arguably the freshest-sounding arrangement on the record, and the song is modest but deceptively smart. Curious to hear where he goes next.
by St. Vincent, stand-alone single
St. Vincent’s latest single is a breezy piece of synth-pop balladry. Clocking in under three minutes, it’s catchier than just about anything on her previous full-length, and feels refreshingly bright and un-tortured. It also contains one of the most smartly phrased lyrical uses of “motherfucker” in recent memory.
by Final Machine, from rec_6
(not on label)
Roger Owsley (alias Final Machine) has been productive: with 5 separate new releases already under his belt this year (following the 5 EPs dropped in 2016), he’s continually proven himself to be a stalwart practitioner of what he loves; and what he loves is sound. One can surmise this simple fact from hearing any of his works on the official Final Machine BandCamp page. “Brutalisteque,” off the rec_6 EP, is a shining example of Owsley’s uncanny knack for toying between the extremes of experimentalism and trance-ism; it also would fit nicely on this year’s special compilation release of songs that inspired Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (The Wicked Die Young).
by the Afghan Whigs, from In Spades
The Afghan Whigs remain a band that I admire more than love, but In Spades comes closest of any of Dulli’s projects I’ve yet heard to winning me over resolutely. “Arabian Heights” is a monster of a track, both living up to the gothic splendor of the album’s artwork, and showcasing their knack for masterful arrangements. (Also, some of the chording points ever-so-subtly to the similarly-named and insurmountably perfect 1981 Siouxsie & the Banshees single.)
When I find myself feeling low, there are several pockets—mostly “guilty” pleasures—of my music library that I’m prone to digging in for consolation: Andy Butler’s shape-shifting music collective is one such pocket, and I’ve been eagerly anticipating their fourth full-length (their last one, which featured several terrific vocal contributions from the great John Grant, was a thirst-quenching foray into dark synthwave clubbing territory). If these two lead singles are any indication, it’s not likely to disappoint. “Controller” features the vocal slither of Faris Baldwin (The Horrors), and “Omnion” provides an unlikely showcase for the beautiful voice of Sharon Van Etten. Like everything that has preceded them in the H&LA catalogue, both are the equivalent of perfumed offerings to the nightclubbing gods.
by Alison Moyet, from Other
Alison Moyet is an artist I both greatly admire, and am frequently perplexed by. Incredibly smart, inventive, and articulate (which is to say, she has the ability to convey the first two virtues), she has dedicated a substantial set of her post-Yaz(oo) career to projects that sometimes test the limits of saccharine production, and the sort of songwriting that beckons from another era; in fact, on a recent studio album titled Voice, she was focused intently on covering the likes of Bacharach, Gershwin, and Brel. But much like the other revered British interpreters of Brel (Scott Walker and David Bowie), Alison Moyet seems to have kept something for herself throughout all these years, and one is bound to remain intrigued by trying to figure out what that something might be.
In Other, Alison delivers the most directly audible echo of her early Yaz years: the production is slick, but it carries some sharp edges and more than a few twists and turns. (The lead single, carrying the album’s namesake, was an alarming precursor: a percussionless, downbeat, understatedly mournful ballad, it’s a Pandora’s Box of possible interpretations. It also features some of the most hauntingly beautiful lyrics I’ve ever felt compelled to listen to.) In contrast to the more traditional Moyet solo fare mentioned above, “Reassuring Pinches” sounds both like an homage to the years of “Situation” and “Goodbye Seventies,” and a continuation of the themes heard on 2013’s The Minutes. Guy Sigsworth (who previously lent his producer’s ear to some really fine material by Madonna and Björk) matches Moyet adeptly at her ambitious and experimental musical game: a song like “April 10th” proves itself to be a brilliant synthesis of pop music theory from days gone by, while simultaneously pointing far out on the horizon of possibilities still to come.
“Down Endless Street”
by Fleetwood Mac, from Tango in the Night (30th Anniversary Edition)
Though slightly less so than last year’s long-awaited Mirage reissue, the bonus material on this Tango in the Night anniversary set contains a number of surprising gems. Foremost among them, for this listener, is this Lindsey-penned piece of surrealistic nostalgia (originally released as a B-side to “Family Man”), which often sounds like the missing link between the ’50s-inspired arrangements of Mirage and the crystal clean production of Tango. (Further listening: the beautifully simplistic “Where We Belong (Demo),” and strictly on YouTube, the neglected Stevie demo for “Joan of Arc,” which inexplicably did not get polished up for this deluxe package.)
“In My World”
by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, from Buckingham McVie
A friend of mine observed, upon hearing there was to be a Christine McVie/Lindsey Buckingham side-project this year: “This is either going to be really great, or it’ll be the most maple syrup-y thing ever.” As one might expect, the finished outcome manages to be both things at once. While at times over-wrought (production-wise; thanks, Lindsey), there’s an undeniable pop brilliance to the songs on Buckingham McVie, and “In My World” is one of the more solid Fleetwood Mac songs of recent memory not to have made it onto a Fleetwood Mac album. Further listening: the stomping opener, “Sleeping Around the Corner“—so infectious that not even the tortured embellishments of Sir Buckingham can hold it back.
“Smoke ‘Em Out”
Cocorosie feat. Anohni, stand-alone single
(not on label)
File under: “great guilty-not-guilty pleasures of 2017.” (Further listening: the Paradise EP by Anohni—a follow-up to last year’s stunning, post-transition Hopelessness).
Our second full-length studio endeavor, ulter nation, is available to stream/download/order on our BandCamp page. Also, a playlist is available to stream on our YouTube channel, featuring a series of videos produced in support of the songs.
Art Will Not Fix This EP
The first EP by a new collaborative project, featuring Yours Truly on vocals. All of the music on Art Will Not Fix This was written by the brilliant Derl Robbins (Company Man—see above—Motel Beds, Peopleperson), and I’m proud to have been invited to recite some words on top of his arrangements.