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Monday, November 29, 2010

I Dig Her Deeply, and No Wonder

Hey! It's been awhile. But let's catch up, shall we, with that gang of superpowered misfits busily engineering the New York new music scene down in the secret underground bunker of New Amsterdam Records. I talked about the new Victoire release in my print column not too long ago, but there've been a coupla discs released since then that we really need to talk about.

For one thing, even longer than we've been waiting for that Victoire disc, we've all been waiting for David T. Little's noisy Newspeak to drop their first record, so the release of their new sweet light crude means we can finally EXHALE, and so now how is it?

Well, I'm not crazy about it, but that doesn't answer the question, since after all do I not like it because it really isn't good or do I not like it because it's just not my thing? Now THAT'S a puzzler, because there's a lot here that is Not My Thing—the sound here leans often towards the heavier genres of popular music, which are most effective when they've got that Wall Of Sound density, aren't they? Those turgid fuzzed-out textures you have to dig into to make everything out? When everything is articulated clearly, demanding instead of just allowing you to hear everything that's going on, we're falling into the genres I'm not crazy about, where the word "rock" is preceded by "prog" or followed by "opera."

But—no, it's not just that. Harmonically, melodically, these pieces leave me, for the most part, unmoved. And these genres don't always gel—there's always the hazard, when crashing all these musics into each other, of coming up with something that combines not the Best of Both Worlds but instead strays into "Most Unwanted Song" territory—nor do these pieces really hang together; I didn't feel, at the end, as if they'd added up to anything bigger.

Which is too bad, because these players are so great! In the aforelinked Victoire review, remember how I complained about their fiddler? Listen to Caleb Burhans play Missy Mazzoli's In Spite of All This and hear the difference a first-rate violinist can make. In Pat Muchmore's Brennschlu├č, Mellissa Hughes (of The Little Death) delivers her text like a total pro. How many singers can also Talk that convincingly?

Actually, of all the pieces on this program, it's Burhans's Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI that I find myself returning to the most—it's the least fussy thing on the program, and for that reason the most successful as a rock composition. (Although this is clearly reflective of my listening again, I have to say that Oscar Bettison's B&E (with aggravated assault) also holds up pretty well, as the most progg'd-out piece on the program, so, who knows.) Here, anyway, is David T. Little's title track, in a video directed by NewAm regulars Satan's Pearl Horses, which is so 90s that I think I might love it:

As always with NewAm, you can listen to all of every track before you buy the album, here.

In that same envelope, I also got a copy of the new New Amsterdam disc from janus, a trio—featuring Amanda Baker, Nuiko Wadden, and Beth Meyers on flute, harp, and viola, respectively (although they also pick up a few other instruments and speak and sing along the way)—that I really hadn't heard as much about, which is crazy, because this disc is an Incredibly good listen.

(Can I point out here that the fact that the trio is named after a two-faced god reminds me CONSTANTLY of that SNL sketch about the R&B trio called Gemini's Twin? Okay sorry, continue.)

i am not, it's called, and it was recorded by Lawson White, because Lawson White records everything, apparently. Not only did he produce sweet light crude, he recorded the Isabelle O'Connell [SP?] album (Reservoir) whose sound I was raving about that one time, and he did Katrina Ballads for Ted Hearne, which sounded so clear without seeming naked, and he did Cathedral City for Victoire, which like sweet light crude was a little too clean for my money, i am not is not just clean, it is BONE WHITE, and it's terrific. Maybe it's because the album is strung together with interstitial movements composed by White's co–So Percussionist, Jason Treuting—crunchy, savory bites of music, kind of like those little rice crackers my dad's always eating?—that the album hangs together so well despite the range of different composers' voices; at first, I wanted to credit the harp-trio format, with its limited resources, for unifying the palette, but of course with the extra instruments and electronic accompaniments they employ on this record the actual possibilities are limitless. Those resources just happen to be very, very cannily exploited.

Here's janus playing the track Keymaster by (OF COURSE) Caleb Burhans:



I know what you're thinking and yes, it's super Philip Glassy, but it has its own smarts and its own charm—I love the sound of the viola harmonics–versus–flute unison at the beginning of the piece, and the simple fact is that this kind of writing is totally native to these instruments. Cameron Britt, Anna Clyne, and Ryan Brown each turn in a lovely movement as well, and Angelica Negron of Arturo en el Barco fame contributes the especially fascinating Drawings for Meyoko. Huh? What's that you say? Arturo en el Barco does not enjoy what you'd call "fame" yet? Oh, sorry, I temporarily mistook this for a just universe ruled over by a benevolent deity! Now click here and download some free Arturo en el Barco—okay thanks—and then click here to hear & buy i am not.

And then this OTHER recent New Amsterdam release, Penelope by NewAm co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider. I'd not only heard a lot about it, but I knew Snider was a solid composer, having heard a particularly well-crafted piece of hers during her Yale days (conducted by her future husband, Real Steven Mackey!) on one of the New Music New Haven concerts; Signal is a great band, of course; and I'd loved Shara Worden's singing with My Brightest Diamond and Clogs. Still, there's no guarantee that all these parts will add up to something awesome. Is there anything more cringe-inducing than hearing an overqualified singer struggle to wring something worthwhile out of a song earnestly overcomposed by another talented musician? All the talent in the world don't count for nothin' if you can't write a ditty.

Well GREAT NEWS, y'all: Snider can, it turns out, apply her classical chops towards the creation of an amazingly solid pop record. It's seamless! Snider's hand is incredibly well-hidden here—this could be a singer-songwriter disc that just happens to have especially savvy harmonies and arrangements. Of course, it also helps that librettist Ellen McLaughlin also knows how to write a subtle refrain. And that the album was warmly, clearly produced by, OH LOOK, Lawson White again.

So I have greatly enjoyed listening to Penelope, but more than that, I have actually turned to it for when I am feeling down. It is a balm! It is tha bomb. Now, as I said, the whole album is surprisingly solid, so I really can't single out one song as being the one that you absolutely have to listen to, but also yes I can, it's this song, "Lotus Eaters," which I've been humming to myself for the past several weeks, in a weak and quavering voice, as the autumn sun descends closer and closer to the southern horizon and the days grow dark and cold:

This video I'm actually not that crazy about, despite the often exceedingly lovely photography—it just seems a bit "on the nose." BUT THAT SONG, right?? Buy it, and/or the rest of the rest of the album, here, and be glad you did.

(And remember! Now that NewAm has Naxos distribution, all of these albums are available not just at their website and iTunes but wherever fine compact discs are sold. Jinkies!)