Saturday, April 21, 2018

Spring Roundup Part 2: Evening Music

I have a longstanding interest in music that is "soothing but not boring," but this area of my listening is often eclipsed by more energetic styles. This is probably because the primary site of listening has traditionally been my car, and active music more readily overlays the experience of driving. The increased access provided by the Plex app, however, has opened up new spaces in my everyday routine.

For example, Seabuckthorn’s Turns is a masterful, atmospheric yet emotionally moving album that worked in the car well enough, but its status as the 2017 Album of the Year is a result of its pervasive presence in the evenings after the kids went to sleep. Towards the end of last year, I became increasingly interested in finding more music that could fill this space, giving rise to the second category that has arisen in the past few months - Evening Music.

There are many albums that I put in this category, and virtually all of them are engaging, but very few of them actually ended up working as well as I had hoped. With only a couple of exceptions, most of them balanced ambient aspects with at least a few moments of explosive noise. I find this musically interesting, but from a functional standpoint, Evening Music can’t wake up the kids or cause study room doors to slam in irritated disgust.

Pejman Hadadi - Epiphany: It's hard to believe that I never wrote about this, but last semester we had a housemate from Iran (via Belgium) who was auditing the PhD program that my wife is in. She gave me this CD as a Christmas/parting gift, and it has served very well as my “non-Western” listening at the beginning of this year.

Tangerine Dream - Zeit: I walked into Zeit hoping to investigate retro-synth source material, only to find that Zeit is hardly the place to start this kind of research. As it turns out, however, it is a surprisingly captivating proto-ambient album that shares more common ground with Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma than Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene.

Kyle Dixon & Micheal Stein - Stranger Things 2 OST: Like its predecessor, Stranger Things 2 shows its intent in its structure. It is a collection of cues, rather than freestanding compositions, which opens up different creative freedoms for Dixon and Stein.

The Radiophonic Workshop - Burials on Several Earths: This is more in line with what I thought Zeit would be like, but it is also far more ambient than I had anticipated. In terms of authenticity, however, you really can't go wrong with three or four guys who worked in the BBC radiophonic Workshop during its heyday in the 70s.

Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch - Blade Runner 2049 OST: This soundtrack doesn’t speak quite as clearly as a lot of Hans Zimmer’s work, but it matches the movie so well that it is hard not to appreciate. It falls prey to the unfortunate trend of closing with a painfully formulaic pop song.

Burial - Untrue: This album has received some attention recently due to its rhizomatic influence on several current electronic styles. Although it’s dark atmosphere has found a pretty regular spot in my evening music listening, its complexity and subtle energy allows it to spill beyond this setting with ease.

Park Jiha - Communion: I love Communion’s emotional cross-pollination of jazz, classical, and traditional Korean music. When it moves into more strident territory, however, other people in the house unfortunately start to plug their ears.

Air - Moon Safari: Moon Safari came up on a Pitchfork “best of the 90’s” playlist a week before I found it in a used bin, I have had Air on my playlist for years, mainly due to Jason Falkner’s involvement, and,despite knowing that Falkner was not involved, I got it on a whim.

Matt Chamberlain, Viktor Krauss, and Dan Phelps - Modular: This one is my favorite of the bunch by far. Its got an amazingly well-thought out concept that binds it together, fantastic playing, and enough mystery as to its overall construction that I simply can’t stop listening to it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Spring Roundup Part 1: Dinner Music

It makes me incredibly happy to say that I received an obscene amount of music for Christmas and my birthday this year. So much, in fact, that getting acquainted with it all well enough to generate commentary with any kind of confidence has taken the better part of the past few months. Now, however, I am at the point at which addressing them all, even in a generalized roundup, would result in a prohibitively long post.  Additionally, the longer the lapse in the posting, the more unruly catching up seems. What to do?

After spending some time with all this music during my commute, I started to notice that loose categories began emerge. These categories were partially based on style, but also arose in the music’s everyday functionality. For example, some music seemed appropriate after the kids had gone to sleep, while others were far too abrasive to get much airplay in any other setting than the privacy of my car. To break down this overwhelming influx of music, I will post a series of roundups according to these categories.

For example, dinner time in our house is one of the rare occasions in the course of the day that the whole family has a chance to sit down and enjoy each other’s company. Thanks to the Netflix series Beat Bugs, my kids have grown to love the music of the Beatles, so I curated a playlist based on their favorite songs,  It has dominated dinner time for the majority of the year. This set the tone for a category I have come to call Dinner Music, which has evolved into a showcase for newly discovered power pop, relatively accessible songwriting-based music, and, of course, the Beatles.

Danny De La Matyr - Crybaby: Danny was the primary songwriter behind one of my favorite bands of the 90s Dallas scene, The Days, so I was very excited when I heard about his recent solo album. It is, however, disappointing in that it is marred by distractingly flat production.

Dawes - We’re All Gonna Die: Dedicated Dawes fans have raised a bit of commotion about the stylistic direction on the band’s most recent release. We’re All Gonna Die is decisively more rock-oriented than its predecessors, but it is not as jarringly different as reviewers might suggest.

Shugo Tokumaru - In Focus?: In Focus? is a super-eclectic take on pop-styled songwriting, occupying a unique place on the spectrum between Sean Lennon. and Frank Zappa. Despite its unapologetic eccentricity, the album holds together as a fun and and challenging listen.

Field Music - Open Here: Each of Field Music’s albums have become increasingly grand and sweeping in their scale. Open Here continues this trend, with liberal use of strings and other orchestral instruments sidling up beside some of their most accessible and political work.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Rainy Morning and Zweiton's "Form"

I have a very clear memory of listening to Zweiton’s Form early on a rainy March morning in 2016. The sky was overcast, but the morning seemed bright, and the rain was light enough that windshield wipers were almost unnecessary. Patterns of water formed on my windshield only to be erased when the view became dangerously obstructed. I was deeply involved in the melody at the end of Licht, appreciating the way that it snaked through a variety of disorienting polyrhythms, only to reveal its simple origins in its final variation. I was really, really tired, and my exhaustion seemed to heighten the hallucinogenic quality of this exploration.

My weariness was well-earned, because just days before, my second daughter EJ had been born. I was on paternity leave. It was also one of the most important days of the school year for a Texas band director - UIL Concert and Sightreading. I would, however, be sitting in the audience listening to my band rather than standing in front of them. Knowing that she would be coming right in the middle of contest preparations, I rehearsed the band for the first half of the season and, with some careful planning, turned them over to the High School director for their final performances. I knew that they were in good hands, but letting go was still difficult.

This sea of overlapping thoughts and emotions seemed more vivid due to lack of sleep, and Form, which had been in rotation for several weeks, had become the standard soundtrack for my bedraggled state. The album had been suggested by fellow Stick player that I had met during my studies, and true to his suggestion, it is unique and engaging in ways that sidestep easy categorization.

As a project that centers on “touchstyle guitar” playing, Zweiton’s style can be traced back to King Crimson with some confidence. In particular, the heavier, mathematical approach that the group was spearheading in the mid-90s on THRaK. At that time, the band expanded to a cacophonous double trio with Trey Gunn on Warr Guitar. His contributions on THRaK were initially difficult to unravel, but they became clearer when he released The Joy of Molybdenum, a defining album to which Form owes its scope.

Form has some very heavy moments, but never veers into the emotionally vacuous traps of technical prog-metal Instead, its heaviness emerges from deeply mathematical grooves and interlocked melodic structures. These more intense moments are made more effective as they are juxtaposed by more delicate, atmospheric passages, spun together into often sprawling yet coherent compositions.

By the time contest came around, I had made the decision that I would not be returning for the following year. Sitting in the audience was not the way in which I wanted to end my 9 year run at the school. I unequivocally decided, however, that family, took priority in this situation. I know many directors who would have not taken this path, but ultimately I was happy to be relieved of the pressure so that I could focus on EJ’s somewhat problematic infancy, and I do not regret it to this day. At the time, however, it was not the way that I wanted to say goodbye to those kids, which made this particular morning a bittersweet and introspective one.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Dr. Spin's Best of 2017 part 2

For the first time ever, I missed my annual New Year's deadline for my "Best Of" list.  One would think that sometime during the 14 days of my holiday break, I would have found some time to free up both my hands and capture a moment or two to sum up the year, but it just didn’t happen. We spent the entire time taking our newly expanded family on the road for the holidays, cleaning up, or packing for the next trip.

The final phase of this succession of holiday celebrations was spent during New Years with some family friends at The Great Wolf Lodge, a kid-centric hotel and indoor waterpark. The experience was met with great highs and a few lows.  The facility and its programming are definitely geared towards school-age kids, and the members of our group in this age bracket had a really great time. I also have an advanced toddler and an infant in my family, however, and most of the activities were categorically over their head. Very often, we had so split into groups, with one or two people who had to stay in, or at least close to, the room to attend to "the littles" eccentric needs.

When it was my turn, I felt the room was stifling.  Granted, its overall cost included unlimited access to great water slides, kids programming, and “magic quests," but when I had to spend long stretches of time there with a group of small humans who could not speak English or use the potty, the barren, windowless walls and poorly maintained furniture gave me the sense that I was "confined to quarters."  As a result, my patience often ran a little short, and I found myself being snippy with the people in my orbit for no apparent reason.

This experience at the Great Wolf Lodge unfortunately serves as a microcosmic example of my mood as the year drew to a close.  Having two very young children has been tough, especially with an older third one who is struggling with our newly distributed attention and a wife starting her PhD coursework. The level of stress sometimes seems unmanageable, and I feel like it has been at this level for a while.  While I philosophically believe that I am here to live my life in service to others, if I am to be honest, I have found keeping that belief practically difficult to sustain in recent months.  I find myself at the end of my patience more often that I would like to admit. I get grumpy, cranky, and introverted when I feel overwhelmed, and anyone who met me for the first time this Fall probably thinks that I am a really big jerk. If that is so, I apologize.  I am examining ways in which I can steer my actions into closer alignment with my intentions in 2018.

2017, however, sounded like this:

10. The Amazing - Gentle Stream: I initially put The Amazing on my watchlist because I heard them described as a “prog-psych” project featuring Reine Fiske, the guitarist from Dungen. While I think that Dungen is probably the more adventurous of the two groups, The Amazing has the advantage of accessibility, which allowed Gentle Stream to find its way into play quite often this year.

9. Contact - Zero Moment: This incredible synth-prog album has the distinction of being the only MP3-only album on this year’s list. It's an arresting joyride of hyperactive drums and impeccable compositions throughout.

8. Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones: I am never disappointed when I decide to pick up a Tom Waits recording. Swordfishtrombones has turned out to be one of my favorites.

7. Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands: Dawes is the current iteration of classic songwriting at its finest. While All You Favorite Bands doesn’t quite have the consistency that earned its predecessor Album of the Year in 2014, its still great enough to crack the top 10.

6. Accordio del Contrari - Violatto Intatto: Some albums sound like complete gibberish upon first listen only to reveal layers and layers nuance upon repetition. Violatto Intatto, a twisting, disorienting knot of brilliantly executed instrumental progressive rock, is exactly one of these albums.

5. Lunatic Soul - Fractured: The sound design on this albums is consistently jaw-dropping, which provides a deep environment for Lunatic Soul's compelling songwriting. It’s one of the few albums that I could favorably compare with Peter Gabriel’s solo work, although made distinct by a dark and angular instrumental approach reminiscent of Tool.

4. United Vibrations - The Myth of the Golden Ratio: The Myth of the Golden Ratio was a lucky discovery that has sustained an incredible amount of listening this year. Its “Sting-meets-Fela” vibe is both distinctive, familiar, and it checks an impressive number of personally interesting musical boxes.

3. Crying - Beyond the Fleeting Gales: It’s difficult not to at least appreciate the enthusiasm that Crying injects into their music. Beyond the Fleeting Gales is thoughtfully crafted and meticulously composed, but never at the expense of being a fun listen.

2. Astronoid - Air: Astronoid’s “dream-thrash” concept melds the rumbling blast-beats of Deafheaven with Mew’s cosmic vocals. The overall effect is like strapping on a jet-pack and blasting through the universe at light-speed.

2017 Album of the Year

1. Seabuckthorn - Turns: Looking back at the progressive rock and songwriting that traditionally dominate my Album of the Year selections, the oscillating ambiance of Turns makes it an unlikely choice at first glance. It has, however, almost served as my companion this year, providing many moments of contemplative stillness in an otherwise manic existence without ever losing a bit of its intrigue or mystique.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Dr. Spin's Best of 2017: Part 1

Its almost mid-December, which means its time to start revealing my Top 20 albums for 2017. As usual, I will present this in two parts, with entries 11-20 posted below and the Top 10 going up in a couple of weeks. I follow this format mostly to generate some vague feeling of anticipation to those who follow the blog, but it also allows me to spend just a little extra time with the Top 10 for some last minute tweaking if necessary.

Truth is, though, the harder of these two posts to write is undoubtedly this one, because it represents the cut-off - what albums “made it” and what albums “didn’t.” Last year, I kind of cheated by expanding the list to 30, but even so, there were several great albums that I didn’t include. I have been more diligent in my “roundup” practices this year, though, and in the process have created a relatively accurate record of what has gone through the player.

As a result, I have gone back to 20, and in the process have sadly left off many great albums by longstanding favorites and newer artists that might need the exposure. If these albums prove their mettle in the long run, however, they may receive a dedicated post at some later date.

The same criterion apply as in previous years. An album doesn’t have to have a 2017 release date to qualify, but it has to have connected with my 2017 experiences in one way or another. An album cannot be repeated from a previous year or be strongly associated with experiences previous to 2017, and there can be only one entry per artist.

20. Twin Peaks -The Return OST: This entry represents a whole lot of Twin Peaks music I listened to this year. Although I strongly reconnected with the Fire Walk With Me OST before the new series began, it has past associations preclude its status as a clear representation of 2017.

19. Steven Wilson - To the Bone: I have a few reservations about this release. It’s many good moments, however, represent some of the best music I have had the pleasure of checking out this year.

18. Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up: Where Wilson’s above-noted album represents more accessible aspects of his style, Crack-Up veers towards a more contemplative and open-ended approach. If you perceive the Fleet Foxes to be “The Beach Boys of Winter,” this might be considered their SMiLE.

17. Roger Waters - Is This the Life We Really Want?: To pose a third contrast, Water’s newest release is no more experimental or accessible than his previous work, but instead digs further into his already well-established style. Times have come back around to meet him, however, and his acerbic social commentary seems more relevant now than it was during the last conservative political cycle.

16. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid: Smith is one of the more original artists that I have had the pleasure of discovering in the past couple of years. It is encouraging to hear the arc of her artistic development on The Kid.

15. Geinoh Yamashirogumi - Akira Symphonic Suite: This is an incredibly innovative recording for the time that it was released. When Paul Simon was barely scratching the surface of intercultural syncretism in his music, this collective had already reconciled the tuning discrepancies between Western keyboards and gamelan, cultivating a compelling pan-Pacific style that is crucial to the eerie feel of Akira.

14. Johann Johannsen - Orphee: Johann Johannsen’s soundtrack for Arrival was my most-played album of the year, but his free-standing 2016 album Orphee is a superior work by a small margin. Its subtle narrative provides an autonomy that Arrival, as great as it is, does not require in as great a measure.

13. Dungen - Allas Sak: Allas Sak has reinvigorated my respect for Dungen. There may be a journey into their back catalog in store sometime in the near future.

12. Weezer - Everything Will Be Alright In The End: I would confidently argue that Everything Will Be Alright In The End is the best album from the band in many years, beating out even last year’s Weezer [white]. It reinvents what was so compelling about the band in the first place by focusing on adult insecurity rather than faux teen angst.  

11. Gaye Su Akyol - Hologram Imparatorlegu: Gaye Su Akyol is an amazingly quirky and daring Turkish art-rocker that I was fortunate to stumble upon this year. I still insist that the world would be a better place if someone could get her contact information in front of David Lynch.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Twin Peaks Then and Now: Autonomy and Association

My stint as a record store employee in the late 80s and early 90s had a big impact on widening my taste in popular styles, but in retrospect, my preferences for soundtracks and instrumental music was still relatively narrow. Shortly after my good friend Snoopy and I invented binge-watching on a now well-worn Twin Peaks VHS box set, however, I purchased the Twin Peaks soundtrack. 

It might have seemed a bit incongruous with the rest of my collection back then, but Angelo Badalamenti’s unique mix of environmental synthesizers, emotive piano, dreamy pop, and dark four-dimensional jazz caused this soundtrack to emerge as a personal favorite that endures as a classic to this day. I used to put it on headphones and go on walkabouts, pretending like I could see into the inner worlds of people passing by and perceive the whispers that exist outside of everyday existence.

It was this album that allowed me to see the fascinating paradox that lies at the root of any good soundtrack. The various tracks on the Twin Peaks OST are able to stand on their own merit as self-encapsulated compositions, but are also inextricably bound to the show’s uniquely surreal narrative. While various tracks serve a multiplicity of purposes throughout the show’s run, no singular track sums up Twin Peaks more effectively than Laura Palmer’s Theme.  Its seamless travels through cycles of melodramatic ecstasy and sinister darkness unerringly reflects both the character Laura Palmer and the show as a whole.

The Twin Peaks soundtrack broke me out of a flattened and somewhat limiting rock sensibility that laid at the very foundation of my musical identity. It's effectiveness in bringing the playfully surreal tone of the show back to life for the listener is, in its own way, as masterful as anything produced by King Crimson’s technique or Jellyfish’s songwriting.  It ended up playing a very important role in my musical history, so it is understandable that when the new series was announced and Badalamenti was confirmed as its composer, I was very eager to get its soundtrack in rotation as soon as possible.

The burning question on my mind, of course, was whether or not the new series soundtrack would strike the balance between autonomy and association as effectively as the original. Although it similarly connects with the narrative of the new series, it doesn’t stand on its own as effectively as its predecessor, which is, again paradoxically, due to a change in the show’s narrative approach. David Lynch’s increased creative control in this new run has resulted in a darker, more ethereal, and often impenetrable version of Twin Peaks. Badalamenti’s new cues reflect this with less melodic, more ambient compositions.

There are other distinguishing factors that, I think, also have something to do with Lynch’s greater creative control. With the exception of the original Twin Peaks OST, most of Lynch’s soundtracks are usually a mix of composed musical cues and curated tracks, and the soundtrack for Twin Peaks: The Return is aligned with this tradition. Badalamenti’s cues are prominent, but I admit that I am a bit disappointed that the soundtrack is not entirely his music. The curated tracks pulled in from other sources, however, play significant roles throughout the series and would be noticeable in their absence.   As an example, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, which is presented in its entirety on the soundtrack, and used to devastating effect in the show.

Clearly, patience is the name of the game with the new series, and subsequently there are portions of the soundtrack that require a similar mindset. While the “coffee and cherry pie” crowd might have been largely chased off by this new approach, I found it compelling, if not always entertaining.  Entertainment, however, at least in the superficial sense, is perhaps not the immediate point of Twin Peaks: The Return.  
The real value of David Lynch’s idiosyncratic style, and what makes this run so appealing, is that it demands that the viewer participate in creating meaning. Valued on this criterion, Twin Peaks: the Return was an unmitigated success, and its soundtrack is similarly successful in capturing its open-ended mystery.

The Auspicious Toss: 2017's Final Roundup

Since O came into the world, I have not posted very often on individual albums, but I have remained diligent in keeping track of what albums I have been listening to and with what frequency.  As a result, 2017’s roundups serve as a pretty complete document of my listening this year.  There is a small gap, however, that began in September and ends now, in mid-November, that I still need to document.  These final albums are the last contenders for my 2017 favorites.  

Grizzly Bear - Painted Ruins:  From a songwriting standpoint, Painted Ruins is perhaps a bit less memorable than Grizzly Bear’s previous albums.  In the end, however, its sonic characteristics push their sound to its most theatrical and refined iteration, making for a consistently engaging listening experience.

Steven Wilson - To the Bone:  Wilson’s most recent effort is an intentional break from the progressive masterworks that have defined his solo work.  It is, instead, a somewhat inconsistent but successful move towards a more concise and accessible sound.

Twin Peaks: The Return OST:  The soundtrack to the recent Twin Peaks series is as effective in representing the show as its predecessor.  That doesn’t mean, however, that it is necessarily an easy or accessible listen as much as it is an intriguing one.

Twin Peaks: Songs from The Return:  I am usually ambivalent about curated soundtracks, but my quest for answers to the myriad questions posed by the new Twin Peaks piqued my interest.  Of course, it doesn't provide any obvious answers, but it does reveal the subtle influence that Lynch’s work has exerted on popular music.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid:  Smith’s last album immediately grabbed my attention and blew my mind, and I was concerned about her capacity to follow it up.  With its linear narrative and streamlined song structures, The Kid is a worthy successor.

Geinoh Yamashirogumi - Akira Symphonic Suite:  My current interest in soundtracks landed the rerelease of the Akira OST in rotation on an impulse.  Although I have seen the movie several times, I did not remember it being so “world-fusion” in execution, and I certainly did not realize that it was written and conceived by such a fascinating collective of musicians.

Lunatic Soul - Fractured: Lunatic Soul has been on my wishlist since the KScope Sampler a couple of years ago.  Positive reviews on this most recent release forced my hand, and it has not disappointed.

King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black:  I was fortunate enough to see King Crimson on their most recent tour, and in the process of preparing myself I spent a little time reviewing their back catalog.  This is a gem from the John Wetton era that I have often overlooked but that has taken on new life in the wake of the concert.

Mark Mothersbaugh - Thor: Ragnarok OST: Mothersbaugh’s (of Devo fame) name caught my attention, but a cursory listen really got me excited.  Thor: Ragnarok is a compelling blend of orchestral grandeur and retro-synth mayhem that really hit me where I live.