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.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mind the Gap: A Post-Summer Roundup

It’s probably not a surprise that a significant gap has emerged since I posted celebrating the birth of O, our third child.  My output became similarly sparse after EJ was born last year, but I was hoping that my discovery of voice-to-text dictation would have granted me a little more productivity.  I admit, though, that I spent what little quiet time I had watching and speculating on the new Twin Peaks season, and my thoughts on that experience could be its own post, if not its own blog.

So in this time, of course, much has happened.  Little O is fine, and much cheerier than his colicky older sister was at this same stage in her development.  These days, however, EJ is a super happy-go-lucky kid and is part-timing in the toddler program at a local Montessori school.  P has finally settled into a life in Denton, starting first grade at the local neighborhood school which is literally around the corner from our house.  

Marching season has started, so my days start early and end late. I still have not given up on reinventing Ethnos and pursuing a musical outlet for myself, but this endeavor is on hold, at least until the end of marching season.  I am, however, still trying to make it to the dojo a couple of times a week to train and teach. Additionally, my wife has begun pursuing a long-time goal of attaining her PhD, and I am very proud of her being brave enough to step into this endeavor. If all this sounds busy and demanding, it is, but we have surrounded ourselves with an interesting and diverse village of people to act as extra hands when needed.

Although I am usually apologetic when the busyness of life causes gaps in my blogging to arise, this time I feel more forgiving of myself. Still, it is also important to me to capture and document this time and its associated music.  This summary is particularly long this time because it includes the music I purchased with my Father’s Day gift cards, way back around the time when Little O was born, so push play below, read on, and minimize to hear the whole list.



Xylorous White - Goats: An interesting intercultural lute/drumset project that ended up being far more improvisational than I had anticipated.  The jury is still out on whether White’s restless drumming is a boon or a bane.

Roger Waters - Is This the World We Really Want?: Despite being largely up to his old tricks, Waters makes a surprisingly respectable stab at remaining relevant. Ever tenacious, he downplays melody for subversive lyrics and bleak soundscapes.

Rupert Gregson-Williams  - Wonder Woman OST:  A few years ago, I adopted Paledouris’ theme froConan the Barbarian Cas Wonder Woman’s theme song.  Gregson-Williams’ score for the 2017 movie features the same melodic strengths and warlike drumming that inspired that choice.

Talking Heads - Speaking in Tongues: While I experience most Talking Heads albums relatively free of nostalgia, Burning Down the House is very securely set in my middle school years.  Although I think it's safe to say that I would not have connected with  the album back then, I find it quite an enjoyable listen now.

Anathema - The Optimist: This album’s predecessor was a strong favorite in 2015.  There is a lot to like on The Optimist, but it hasn’t gripped me in nearly the same way. 

Tim Bowness - Lost in the Ghost Light:  Stylistically, Tim Bowness owes a lot to mid-period Genesis, and his penchant for storytelling and syrupy voice brings to mind Fish’s softer moments.  There is a sense, however, that his melodic approach is limited.

TV Eyes: A great send-up of 80’s era synth-pop by Jellyfish alumni Jason Falkner and Roger Joseph Manning Jr.  This American release has a few remixes on the album, however, that bring the whole experience down a notch.

Accordo del Contrari - Violatto Intatto: This band is nostalgic towards Italian progressive rock in the same way that Tame Impala is to 70’s psychedelia and M83 is to 80s new romanticism.  Violatto Intatto is a nostalgic distillation of all that was great about that very distinct branch of prog rock.

The Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up: While Crack-Up undoubtedly recaptures the open ambience that The Fleet Foxes have come to be known for, it also broadens the band’s scope into nonstandard songwriting.  Its an album that rewards patience and attention.

Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones: Every few years, I get another Tom Waits album, and rarely am I disappointed.  He was, and is, a musical mad scientist that can take the ugliest sounds and make them beautiful.

Contact - Zero Moment: An amazing synth-rock project that features the drummer from 2016 favorite Zombi.  The melodic material on Zero Moment is incredibly strong and executed with no small amount of intensity.

The Amazing - Gentle Stream:  This album also has a noticeable nostalgic sound, no surprise due to the presence of the guitarist from Dungen.  The Amazing is more straightforward than Dungen, but are no less entertaining.  

Shearwater - Jet Plane and Oxbow: This album came on the tails of a top twenty album from 2013.  Again, it hits a lot of the same marks but falls short of recapturing what I loved about its predecessor.

There is much more to say about these albums, but as is usually the case when I get backed up, it is hard to know where to start. If any of my readership is interested in seeing a more focused look at any of the above albums, please let me know.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Seabuckthorn's "Turns" and the Birth of O

Shortly after my last post, my son O was born.  For both of his older sisters, I thought it to be of some importance to welcome them into the world with music that was both soothing and intellectually stimulating. In the months leading up to his birth, I had been in the market for something new in this vein that could be “his,” so to speak.  The precedents, however, were hard to follow: Miles Davis, Steve Reich, Hans Zimmer, and Shahid Parvez were the standouts in a broad spectrum of contemplative music that introduced my girls to the world of sound in which they were thrown and accompanied their late night feedings in the months to follow. Along with the work of Johann Johannson, Seabuckthorn’s Turns seemed to fit the bill.  

The album caught my eye in DPRP’s weekly feature, Something for the Weekend. The mini-reviews in this feature provide some latitude for staff writers to suggest music that may not fit into strict progressive rock guidelines, but that may be of interest to fans of the genre. Turns fits into this schism.

Like most of the albums suggested in Something for the Weekend, Turns received a positive review, but the album truly invited my attention by virtue of the project’s name and its art design, which conjured the expanse of the ocean and the potentially ghostly beauty of its flora that an observer might catch if the light was just right.  It seemed that if Seabuckthorn was able to musically follow up within the boundaries of this unique imagery, Turns could be compelling listen.  It delivers.



In a very simplistic sense, Turns is an instrumental acoustic guitar album, but this superficial description in itself does it a disservice.  It presents itself as a mesmerizing meditation on the acoustic potential of natural guitar sounds.  What it may lack in clearly defined melodic material it more than makes up for in kaleidoscopic, swirling textures, made deep by the naturally beautiful resonance of vibrating strings and gentle percussion.



For weeks, Turns was in regular rotation both at home and in the car, but it was not my intention to have it playing at the moment of O's birth as some sort of grand musical design. Being a compulsive music listener, it would seem like I would endeavor to have “the” magical piece reverberating in the air to welcome my newborn children into the world, but for a variety of reasons I did not actually have music playing during either of my girl’s births.  Turns just happened to be on, however, when our OBGYN came in and said that we would have a baby “really soon.”  Fiddling around with my computer to find the “perfect song” to accompany this imminent miracle suddenly seemed really, really unimportant, so I hit “repeat” and turned all my attention to the task at hand.



Accompanied by the rippling alchemy of Turns, O’s birth went very smoothly.  In fact, unlike the general anxiety that I felt during his sister’s birth just a little over a year earlier, I felt relatively calm and confident.  No "Litany Against Fear" needed. This was due in no small part to our incredible OBGYN, Dr. Frederick Cummings.  

My normal policy on this blog is to maintain anthropological anonymity, but being in Dr. Cummings care was such an amazing experience that I feel he deserves specific mention.  He approached the entire process with the calm, confident belief that the birth would proceed without difficulty, and if something were to happen it would be taken care of easily and quickly.  Although I have met many smart, nice people in my life, I have not met nearly as many who seem as enlightened as Dr. Cummings.  His clear conviction to do what needs to be done for babies and mothers to be happy and healthy was nothing short of inspiring.  Plus he has very good taste in music.

But that is another story.  Welcome to the world, son.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Johann Johannsen: Arrival, Orphee, and the Icelandic Essence

Being a fan of heady, philosophical sci-fi, I assumed that sooner or later I would eventually see Arrival.  The love affair that I had last year with the Interstellar soundtrack had also left a void, so it seemed fitting that I should check out Arrival’s score.  In my opinion, the best soundtracks can stand on their own compositional merit without being attached to the action of a movie.  This paradigm was cultivated in, and perhaps limited by, the work of John Williams, but in recent years Hans Zimmer and Steve Reich have opened my ears to increasingly subtle uses of melody.  This increased interest in less “Neo-Classical” forms of film scoring cleared a path for me to readily appreciate Johann Johannsen’s soundtrack to Arrival.

Arrival, as a freestanding piece, is minimalistic but not minimalist, at least not in the mathematic tradition that Reich and Glass epitomized.  Melodic content is used sparingly throughout, with an emphasis on soundscapes and atmospheric textures.  This might suggest that Arrival veers towards mere ambience, but tastefully placed tension and non-orchestral timbres imbue it with a certain narrative capacity.  At its most intense, Arrival captures the austerity of Japanese Gagaku, while otherworldly murmurs and voices provides a sense of impenetrable, creeping alienness.


All of these ingredients are essential to the tone of the film and make Arrival a fascinating piece of sound sculpture.  More impressively, it sustains a narrative that allows it to work as a freestanding composition, but in a way more aligned with contemporary composition practices than the thematic leitmotif that I have often used to define a successful soundtrack.

I began to dig a little deeper and  discovered that Johannsen is quite prolific.  In addition to scoring quite a few films, he has also composed several freestanding works.  In the spirit of collecting some new music for late-night feedings, I put 2016's Orphee into rotation.  Like Arrival, Orphee is minimal but not really minimalist, using simple melodies can draw out a lot of emotion. For me, the first note of opening track Flight from the City, causes the world to slow down.  
I try the best I can to shy away from generalizations, but here is seems fitting: Icelandic musicians are able to capture something unique.  It is not difficult for me to imagine Jonsi from Sigur Ros vocalizing in his signature falsetto over Johannsen’s contemplative soundscapes.  This is not to say that Johannsen is copying Sigur Ros’ hyperbolic post rock, but that there is something essential that the two artists share, not the least of which is a tendency to blur the borders of “classical” music.  

Orphee bears this problematic label, but there are many aspects of the album that are in no way traditional.  While there are moments that pay homage to the eloquence of a Bach Cello Suite, these passages play out on a stage set by impossible background textures, buzzes, and static.  Like Arrival, Orphee seems to play with tradition and technology to widen the horizons of what “classical” music is.  The edges of these horizons will certainly be under scrutiny at 2 am when it is my turn to feed the newborn.


Which will happen very soon.  As I am finalizing this entry, I am in the Labor and Delivery room watching the birthing process slowly progress.  The birth of our son (referred to for the time being as #3), is imminent.  I cannot imagine ever receiving a more meaningful Father’s Day gift.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Dungen's Paradox, Allas Sak, and Closing Up Shop

There have been a couple of times in the history of this blog that I have attempted to capture the silent relief that hangs in the band hall after the school year has ended.  That stillness is quickly dispelled, however, by the long checklist of things that need to be done to actually wrap up the year and prepare for the next.  This list seems daunting at first, but the good news is that these are mostly solitary activities, which means I can provide my own soundtrack without fear of annoying anyone.  This year, I am blaring Dungen’s Allas Sak as I count instruments in my new band hall.

When I first discovered Dungen in 2006, I was immediately impressed with their unique blend of psychedelic, progressive, and classic rock.  They were able to evoke both dreamy wash of The Moody Blues and the muscular groove of Led Zeppelin, but effortlessly dodged derivation by way of their impressive tunefulness and musicality.  When I picked up Allas Sak in 2015 on a whim at End of an Ear Records, I was as impressed as ever.  It was more of the same great retro psychedelia that I remembered them doing.



Herein like the paradox, however, of Dungen.  There is a sense of sameness to their work.  On the one hand, it's all great, but superficially, there are relatively few surprises once the initial shock of how good they are wears off.  To get into their innovations from album to album takes investment, and sadly in 2015 I just didn’t invest.  I shelved Allas Sak with the intention of coming back to it.  This took over two years.  

Revisiting Allas Sak has reignited my admiration for Dungen, which is tempered by the guilty admission that I don’t give them the credit that they deserve.  They really do have something going on, especially on this album. If you are tired of struggling with the very real possibility that The Flaming Lips have jumped the shark, Dungen may be the cure. There are an abundance of riffs and soaring atmospherics and guitar, all of which are navigated with tasteful musicianship that rivals Pink Floyd's best work.



The elephant in the room, of course, is that when they aren't creating deeply melodic instrumentals, the band boldly insists on singing in their native tongue.  While I agree that they could be singing in total gibberish and I would still love them, I do have the somewhat selfish sense that gaining an understanding of their lyrics would deepen my appreciation for their music.  I don’t want him to sing a single word of English, however, because that would dramatically change Dungen’s identity.  Conversely, I don't really want to learn Swedish just to understand their lyrics, so I guess we are at a cultural impasse there.  



Allas Sak is echoing down the empty halls on the cusp of what has been one of the most difficult school years I've had in a long time.  Don’t misunderstand - the new job has been good.  Things are more positive in my professional life than they were previously, and there is the sense that they will get better.  Still, restarting this program has been stressful.  Still things aren't going to lighten up too much with a third child being born in a couple of weeks, but at least I won't be moving. Or trying to start a new program. Or trying to figure out how to make the program that I'm working in better. For just a few weeks I'll have a bit of a respite to really focus in on what is really important to me - my family.