Ben Chasny, Bendik Giske, Heron and Crane, Liam Kazar, Lily Konigsberg, Olafur Arnalds, Rodrigo Leao, Willy Mason
Album Cover of the Week
I quite liked this album cover without feeling able to explain why. It's a little sinister, but with some light and colour. It seems to be the product of dreams, not necessarily unpleasant ones. It's intriguing. What are the circles? New planets? Gathering invaders? So many questions, so few answers.
This Week's Music
You could collectively address this week's listening as The Odd Squad. That's just as well as it's the title of this week's reviews. It would have been a bit random otherwise!
As ever this week's Taster Track playlists can be accessed at https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7cSveL7NpVp1xgrKxPe4av?si=SkFlSnvySeuYFpgG0WJFmA or via the Spotify link on the Home Page. The link to the Youtube playlist is https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwV-OogHy7Eh_sy55y6i18Qj7w_Z3CQft
The Shadowplay playlists are at: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/01iU7Jy80SMvJO5QBF7Oux?si=00d9d1fb8b2f4baa and https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwV-OogHy7EjsaT8idWnNv42LqIGEGSmH&feature=share
Everything was good in its own way this week, just not sufficiently so to set me slavering recommendations in your face while staring you into submission with red, angry half-crazed eyes.
So that's all good then.
And The Rest...
The Intimate Landscape : Ben Chasny
This is a purist’s collection of neatly plucked guitar instrumentals. It’s an earnest work that may be appreciated and admired more than loved.
Ben Chasney is an American guitarist. He’s a member of Comets On Fire, a psychedelic rock band who dazzle colourfully in their performances. Ben Chasney, as a solo performer, heads straight for the opposite end of the music spectrum.
In rock and pop the guitar is so mixed up with other instruments that it can be a challenge to listen to it in isolation. It sounds more classical than pop. It’s as if it’s enhanced by the drums, bass, keyboards and brass of a band setting. Listening to it cn be akin to drinking neat alcohol rather than a flavoured gin or craft beer.
The big difference for me is that stripping a tune down to just the guitar changes it to something inward looking. The guitarist seems lost in their playing, oblivious to the audience. The audience can watch and marvel but is distanced from the performance. It’s the difference between looking at a painting and being part of the scene.
It’s a little intimidating and oppressive to be honest. As a listener you can dream that one day you’ll be on stage like the performer or you can accept that you’ll never be good enough for that. This music is the latter scenario, the scenario of deserted dreams.
There’s no doubt that this is impeccably played, a masterclass in technical proficiency. It’s music to be greeted with hushed reverence. Your attention on the guitar is so absolute that you scarcely notice additional layers that creep up on you unannounced, as on ‘Water Dragon’. Without the skill to appreciate the technical quality, the casual listener looks for melody, lightness, emotional connection and joy from the music. I found that in short supply.
It is what it is. If you like one track, you will like them all. To some ears it will be a worthy contender for Album of the Year. Others, including mine, will look for something less perfectly composed and performed but fuller of the crackle and hiss of real life.
Taster Track : Water Dragon
Cracks : Bendik Giske
This is an album of experimental, electronic, ambient jazz. If anyone is still reading, let me explain why it is worth 33 minutes of your time.
Bendik Giske is a Norwegian saxophonist who has rebelled against the conventional sound of his instrument. Skimming a couple of internet articles, it’s clear that he is using music as art, making points about LGBT in jazz, and using physicality and body image as influences on his sound. You may note that I have already stopped referring to this as music because it defied my attempts to describe it in those terms.
Listening to this is disconcerting experience. Nothing sounds quite as it should or quite as you expect. The disconcerting experience starts with the cover. Each time I look at it I first see a pointing finger, not a crooked elbow.
I’m sure Giske could provide technical explanations for how his sound came about, how the acoustic saxophone is distorted into electronic form. It’s not necessary to do so though because what seems to be important here is the response to what you hear, not how it came about.
They say that in space no one can hear you scream but if they could, it might sound like the saxophone on this record. This is a performance that seals you off from the world in a cage. It’s an exercise to experiment in the possibilities of music under laboratory conditions, an experiment to change the nature of music itself. It turns it into a presence that is not of our world. It’s unsettling but with a strange and unique beauty.
Of the track titles, only ‘Cruising’ seems to face out of this environment. It’s the centrepiece of the album - nearly 11 minutes long - and the point of departure from a more conventional form of music. Like the best electronic music it has a hook to draw you in before it mutates in various ways throughout the running time. It’s haunting and hypnotic, the sound of growing pains heard through deep space.
This is a difficult and challenging album. It’s not one I’ll return to regularly, if at all. It’s certainly not one I’ll be playing the next time we have friends round for the evening. But is it worth 33 minutes of your time to listen to something genuinely different that can stretch your understanding of music’s possibilities? Yes. I think it is.
Taster Track : Flutter
Streams : Heron & Crane
This collection of electronic instrumentals combines a pastoral tone with the kind of chilled synth pop backing that was much loved at the turn of the millennium.
Heron & Crane sound like a detective duo based on a nature reserve. In the real world, they're Americans Dave Gibson and Travis Kokas and their analog synths. On their Bandcamp page they acknowledge a debt to library music - music that is recorded and stored to be licensed or sold to production companies for use in adverts or as backing music to TV shows. I’ve seen and heard it pop up frequently recently and I guess it’s akin to the music that supported test card transmissions back in the 60s and 70s.
The influence of library music is clear here, and in places it sounds like the music that might accompany a virtual tour of an art exhibition. Unsurprisingly it is pleasant but unobtrusive, even anonymous and the very definition of background music.
There’s a sense that the tunes have grown from an electronic music workshop. They sound programmed rather than written, but with some imagination brought into play. It’s music that has come from the flick of switches rather than the spontaneity of studio jams.
There’s a little more to this collection than that. It’s a successful set of folk tunes and it sounds like a perkier China Crisis or Lemon Jelly without the voiceovers.
There are a couple of vocals amongst the instrumentals but they’re hardly necessary. The music glides and darts like birds above a meadow. All is light, like the light of an early summer morning walk before the dog walkers accumulate.It relaxes the listener with charm.
This is never going to change the world, but it might just lighten your mood. As Teenage Fanclub once sang : Ain’t That Enough?
Taster Track : Fogline
Due North : Liam Kazar
This album is an easy to listen to, and a joy. It’s crammed full of good pop songs delivered in a warm and attractive style.
Liam Kazar is a musician from Chicago who’s credited with influencing their evolving music scene. He must be in his late twenties now, but he looks younger and sounds older with his voice particularly coming from a distant musical past.
This is where MTV has led us, to a super bright, quirky, squelchy and bubbly sound. It’s said that there is nothing new under the sun, and these songs are immediately familiar in a comforting way like shepherd’s pie or your favourite childhood sweets.
It reminded me most of the solo albums released by members of the 70s biggest bands when they want to escape the constraints of the monster they’ve helped to create and rediscover their sense of fun and personality
These are songs with fun and enjoyment running through them. They’re laden with hooks that stick in your head all day, both an aural delight and a source of happy irritation when you can’t shift them! He knows exactly what he’s doing in every song, revealing a deep understanding of classic pop and an attention to detail that is exactly right. If asked to categorise it, I’d say it hits the sweet spot between soft rock and sunshine pop.
There isn’t a bad or dull track on this album. It’s a collection with warmth and melody at its core.
Taster Track : I’ve Been Where You Are
Lily, We Need To Talk Now : Lily Konigsberg
Lo-fi tunefulness filled with attitude characterises Lily Konigsberg’s romp through pop’s past, covering 11 tracks in just 24 minutes.
She crams a lot into that too. There’s a range of different styles from punk to funk via power pop and indie pop. It’s an album from someone who knows, understands and loves pop music.
In character she seems to be pushing people away, but with songs that are luring you in to listen. “Get out of my sight, but stay long enough to hear the songs.” These are punk attitudes, but her musical sensibilities are a lot broader than that.
These are simple and direct songs, buzzing with musical ideas and styles. They deliver spiky charm in abundance. Being lo-fi, some of the songs don’t sound fully realised but it’s refreshing to hear an album that makes its points quickly and then moves on.
Taster Track : Sweat Forever
The Invisible EP : Olafur Arnalds
Atmospheric strings and piano are Arnald’s stock in trade and he provides more of the same in his latest EP.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this EP which is more accessible than some of his earlier work. At least three of the tunes here- ‘The Invisible Front’, ‘Kadizonas’ and ‘Respite’ - are contenders for any career end retrospective. There are melodies in these tracks that tantalise beautifully. They’re almost within grasp, like echoes or movements in the shadows.
Arnalds is strong on atmosphere and hinting at hidden secrets and deep mysteries. But to take one example, I looked up ‘Kadizonas’ (Track 4) on Google to see what it meant or referred to, but drew a blank. It doesn’t mean anything so I begin to wonder if mysteries are being manufactured where they don’t really exist, if he’s teetered on the edge of being pretentious rather than meaningful.
There comes a time however when you ask yourself if enough is enough. What does the latest album add to the earlier works? How distinctive is it? The honest answer with regards to Arnalds is that he’s on the cusp of having fully satisfied demand. This is a lovely Arnalds album, just as his previous releases have been lovely Arnalds albums. He’s not someone to listen to every day, or for long periods of time. So when I need my Arnalds fix I have enough to call on. Without something new, or an interesting evolution in sound, there’s an awful lot of different music I can be listening to.
When all is said, done and speculated over, Arnalds serves a distinct purpose and that is to provide music that calms the soul and stills a racing mind. With this album he succeeds, perhaps even better than he has previously. And there’s hope in the final track ‘Epilogue’, which soars as if competing with Sigur Ros, of a new dawn approaching.
As an introduction to Olafur Arnalds this is an excellent place to start. As an addition to an existing collection of Arnalds’ music it’s hardly necessary but it’s still a collection that shows off his strengths and the beauty of his compositions.
Taster Track : Respite
A Estranha Belaza Da Vida : Rodrigo Leao
Don’t be deterred by the Portuguese title. This largely instrumental album from Rodrigo Leao is a lovely and evocative collection that stirs up memories and emotions.
A few days ago I met a lady in her 70s. Her name was Tina. It was just after 09:30 and she was looking for a day centre that she understood to be holding dances. She wasn’t confused exactly, more distracted and lost in her thoughts. This album could be the soundtrack to what was in her head.
The title, ‘A Estranha Beleza Da Vida’ can be loosely translated as ‘The Strange Beauty Of Life’ and that captures the misty reflective sounds of the music nicely. It’s a European sound. There’s an accordion at play on ‘A Valsa Da Petra’ and throughout there’s a feel of light German cabaret. The music conjures up reflections and memories of the past, what we’ve lost and, more recently, what we could have lost.
You only have to look at Leao’s previous collaborators, who include The Divine Comedy, Lambchop and Tindersticks, to gain a feel for the music. It has its own beauty, slightly to one side of the mainstream, but accessible nonetheless.
It has the sound of a chamber orchestra but not one that’s working from the classical canon. ‘Friend Of A Friend’ sways with a gentle rhythm, strings, woodwind and sultry vocals. The instrumentals are drenched in melodies, light but not lightweight. They’re a splash of colour floating above a rigid concrete world.
This is a collection that can, for a short while, change the way you feel about life and how you live it. It’s an album of warmth and charm. It’s music for Tina and anyone who needs to draw on the past to live in the present.
Taster Track : Friend Of A Friend
Already Dead : Willy Mason
Willy Mason springs a surprise with this album, confounding expectations formed by the album title and his earlier work. It’s musically attractive even while dealing with very dark matters.
It’s been 17 years since Mason’s debut, and I’d not listened to any of his albums since then. In my memory he sang dark songs, the kind to soundtrack Halloween. He still does. The tone is reflected in the album’s title and in track titles such as ‘Youth On A Spit’ and ‘Outwit The Devil’. The songs still wreak of voodoo, possession and the bogey man
It’s more palatable now for a couple of reasons. First, his voice has matured to become more experienced and lived in but, most importantly, it's also the voice of a survivor. Like Kurtz in Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’ or Coppola’s filmed version ‘Apocalypse Now’, he’s seen “the horror!, the horror!” but he’s lived to tell the tale. This album is the sound of tormented sleep rather than psychotic madness. And, yes, that’s an improvement.
In places, such as ‘You’d Like To Be Free’, he doesn’t so much sing, as chant. On ‘Youth On A Spit’ the stream of consciousness flow of his jumbled thoughts adds shock value to the more coherent chorus.
The second softener is that musically there’s an attractive groove going on underneath. The songs, generally, proceed at an unhurried pace. It’s a mix of folk, blues and a magic ingredient all its own.
Mason ends the album on an optimistic note with a refrain that sings “It’s worth it.” So is this album.
Taster Track : Reservation