Lest you all think that I only listen to Ambient and Progressive Rock music, I also listen to many other genres including Country music…wait, WAIT, don’t close the window–you won’t regret it!
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain): This new album by SS is the real deal. Great country songs about real stuff with great music, and even better the first single released is Turtles All The Way Down (with a nod in the title to Stephen Hawking) and it’s deliciously psychedelic with reverb, phasing-shifting and Mellotron. Give it a listen:
Shearwater and Sharon Van Etten – Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (SubPop): From Record Store Day 2013, I missed this single, but I found it on RSD 2014 in the back of the singles bin—aha! The A side is by Tom Petty (which I can take or leave), but the gem is Jonathan Meiburg’s A Wake For The Minotaur—it’s just plain stunning. This live version features vocalist Jesca Hoop.
Songs: Ohia – Journey On Collected Singles (Secretly Canadian): Not much I can say about the tragic loss of Jason Molina that hasn’t already been written. Thank goodness we have Molina’s musical legacy, including his last band Magnolia Electric Company—great songs and music and many of subjects of Molina’s songs turned out to be prophetic. Long before he died, his last label Secretly Canadian was discussing releasing a boxed set of the early singles of Songs: Ohia, many of them quite rare and long out of print. Unfortunately Jason didn’t live to see it. It’s a beautiful blue cloth wrapped boxed set of nine 7” singles with a separate book of the original artwork and song histories and a CD compilation of all the singles. These were available on Record Store Day 2014 and they disappeared quickly…I was very fortunate to find a copy. Here’s a video on the set. If you can find one, buy it, you won’t regret it.
Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond (Other Music Recording Co.): Bob Boilen from NPR’s All Songs Considered got me to this album. Part folk, part psychedelic and reminds me a bit of a softer Grizzly Bear (the band) at times.
Ben Watt – Hendra (Caroline – Unmade Road): I’ve been a fan of Everything But The Girl (ETBG) since their early days and then Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt put that project on an indefinite hold while they pursued other musical endeavors and had a family. Tracey has released a number of excellent solo albums and this is Ben’s first solo album—very introspective. My favorite song is The Levels and David Gilmour plays slide guitar. This is a live version:
Lee Gobbi – Purple Prose (www.leegobbi.com): Lee is a fan of Progressive Rock music and the influences are clear on his self-produced debut album of mostly original songs with guest appearances by alums of the original 1970s and 80s Steve Hackett band. There are strong shades of The Beatles, ELO and the vibe of George Harrison’s work in this album. There are a couple of covers, a Stu Nunnery tune Madelaine (remember Stu Nunnery from the early 1970s?!) and a haunting version of Nick Drake’s Parasite. A brilliant first album, and I hear that there is a second album in the works—stay tuned. I’ll post some sound samples when they are available.
John Pizzarelli – Double Exposure (Telarc): This album from 2012 is of song interpretations and some pairings by Jazz guitarist (and son of Bucky Pizzarelli) and Popular song-man. The album is largely covers, with an original by Pizzarelli and his wife Jessica Molaskey Take A Lot Of Pictures (picking up where Michael Franks left off with his song Popsicle Toes). My favorite is the soulful Neil Young song Harvest Moon.
Elaine Radigue – Trilogie de la Mort (Experimental Intermedia): When I reviewing Nicholas Szczepanik’s latest album Not Knowing, I noticed the dedication to French composer and electronic music pioneer Elaine Radigue (born 1932) and I was reminded of this 3 CD trilogy that was composed as a tribute to her son upon his death. It’s very minimal with gradual layers in parts and intense at others. Like most of her other work it was composed on an Arp 2500 modular synthesizer. Since 2001 she has composed on and for primarily acoustic instruments.
Superchunk – I Hate Music (Merge Records): This is the band that started Merge Records (http://www.mergerecords.com/i-hate-music) and if you have a chance read their book Our Noise – The Story of Merge Records. I heard FOH (stands for Front of House) just before the album was released and ordered it instantly (and then waited, since it was a preorder). Be careful, it’s raucous!
Tomotsugu Nakamura – Soundium (Kaico): I have Tench and Words On Music label’s Marc Ostermeier to thank for getting me to Nakamura’s work. He is a sound artist from Tokyo and Soundium is an album of microtones, springy and glitchy rhythms and fractional sound samples. The sounds and instrumentation are so pure—this is a great album and delightfully quirky at times. http://naturebliss.bandcamp.com/album/soundium
Lateral reference: Soundium reminds me of the absolutely enchanting album In Light by 12k label’s Small Color (and I think that everyone should buy this album): http://www.12k.com/index.php/site/releases/in_light/
Federico Durand – El estanque esmeralda (Spekk): I find this album to be Durand’s most melodic work so far. Many of his previous albums and collaborations focus on longer form field recordings combined with bells, wind chimes and other instrumentation. This album concentrates on childhood memories of places and times, presented in delightfully concise pieces . The three latest Spekk label releases are in the larger format CD sleeves and they are a welcomed change from small digipacks, jewel boxes or (worse yet) plain sleeves. The music AND the art matters. http://www.spekk.net/catalog/esmeralda.html
Celer – Zigzag (Spekk): Will Long AKA Celer is well known for his extensive ambient works and soundtracks. This is a more rhythmic (albeit subtle) electronic work. Have a listen: http://www.spekk.net/artists/celer.html
Melodia – Saudades (Kaico): Melodia is a collaboration of Federico Durand and Tomoyoshi Date. I missed the original LP on the Own Records label, so I was quite pleased that Kaico released a CD version. More here: http://kaicojapan.tumblr.com/
Opitope – Hau (Spekk): This is the first album by Tomoyoshi Date and Chihei Hatakeyama. Micro-tones, found sounds, ambient and field recordings along with instrumental (acoustic and electronic) improvisation make up Hau. The album is charmingly subtle at times and crystalline at others. The pieces are observations and explorations of places and experiences. http://www.spekk.net/artists/opitope.html
Opitope – Physis (Spekk): This is the latest CD from Opitope. The pieces are longer form than on Hau and curiously feel more like minimalist Jazz, at times. The instrumentation is more direct (recognizable), yet the environmental and visual influences are still present.
William Tyler – Lost Colony 12” 45 RPM EP (Merge Records): Unlike Tyler’s recent (and fabulous) album Impossible Truth, which is a solo guitar album, this EP is a band release and Tyler reinterprets the track We Can’t Go Home, covers Michael Rother’s Karussel and the entirety of Side A is devoted to Whole New Dude. Dude is a ramble with a meandering opening (with excellent pedal steel by Luke Schneider) and then sets off on a driving rhythm (drums, guitar, pedal steel and bass) for the duration. It’s a traveling song, heading out “there” to explore, and Tyler lets it rip towards the end. http://www.mergerecords.com/lost-colony
Orcas – Yearling (Morr Music): Orcas are Benoit Pioulard (another guise of Tom Meluch) and Rafael Anton Irisarri. This is the follow-up to their first eponymous collaboration in 2012. Yearling is part environmental instrumentals and part songs. The opening instrumental track Petrichor reminds me of Brian Eno’s The Spider and I from the 1977 album Before and After Science. I complained about the tone and mastering of BP’s most recent album, but this album sounds MUCH better. The songs are lush with vocals and harmonies by Pioulard—really nice music with oft-catchy refrains.
450 CD copies, first 15 copies signed by BP, also digital (to be released January 21, 2014)
Remix label: http://losttribesound.com
Available at: http://losttribesound.bandcamp.com/album/hymnal-remixes
CD 1 Remixes – 44:51: 1. Mercy (Fieldhead), 2. Margin (William Ryan Fritch), 3. Excave (Squanto), 4. Litiya (The Green Kingdom), 5. Homily (Cock and Swan), 6. Florid (Brambles), 7. Censer (Field Rotation), 8. Reliquary (Part Timer), 9. Margin (Zachary Gray), 10. Foxtail (Graveyard Tapes)
CD 2 Remixes – 53:29: 1. Hawkeye (The Remote Viewer), 2. Censer (Segue), 3. Knell (Widesky), 4. Florid (Loscil), 5. Foxtail (Radere), 6. Gospel (James Murray), 7. Reliquary (Benoît Honoré Pioulard), 8. Margin (Ruhe), 9. Gospel (Window Magic)
I want to note that sound quality and production are very important to me, almost as important as the music itself. So, given that statement, please read this review carefully. Comments seen as criticisms are not of the music or the writing, but largely on the choice of production methods and sound quality. I think very highly of the music penned and played by Tom Meluch (in his guise as Benoît Pioulard). With that in mind, please read on.
Hymnal – The Original
I’ve enjoyed Benoît Pioulard’s previous kranky releases as well as the more experimental vinyl EP Plays Thelma on Desire Path Recordings, so coupled with the early press accounts of Hymnal I was hopeful that it would be a great album…
I feel that there are many exceptional songs on Hymnal (Hawkeye, Reliquary, Excave, and especially Margin, and Litiya) along with some comforting drones (like Censer), but in general I feel there is a lack of presence in the recordings—they sound flat, out-of-phase and firmly entrenched in a claustrophobic mid-range (nothing at all like the sumptuous reverb of the intended muse “religious architecture”). Pioulard’s songs on this particular album are lost in a limiting boxy haze.
I’m a big fan of lo and mid-fi recordings and some musicians do it so well; East River Pipe (FM Cornog), more recently Will Samson and especially (one of my favorite albums of 2013) Bryan Ferry’s The Jazz Age (recorded in monaural with Jazz-era microphones). Granted, some artists and writers create works within strict limits and can be quite successful (shades of a single color, certain textures or excluding a specific vowel in a written work), but with all the praise I take a contrarian view on the technical execution of Hymnal. The quality and depth of recordings matter to me, unless there is a stated goal for why sound must be altered so dramatically.
I learned recently of Benoît Pioulard’s other off-label work, such as his 2011 digital EP Lyon (and in support of how I think Meluch writes some great songs). Have a listen to the gorgeous and unadorned song Tie:
It has some of the qualities of recordings by Nick Drake and Bert Jansch (think The Black Swan). I’m certainly not advocating that Pioulard chooses between one recording approach or another, I’m suggesting perhaps a sound somewhere in the middle, with the vocals higher in the mix and a fuller sound.
Hymnal – The Remixes
Original songs can find new life in covers or remixes. So, when Lost Tribe Sound announced this collection of Hymnal reinterpretations (by artists such as Loscil, Cock & Swan, Brambles, The Green Kingdom and William Ryan Fritch) I thought that some of the depth that I felt was missing in the original might be introduced or restored.
This is a really interesting collection, and the recordings in most cases have the clarity and sonic diversity that I had hoped for in the original album.
The two CDs are split loosely into two categories: 1) rhythmic with vocals and 2) more on the ambient side, largely instrumental. After a couple of listens I was quite surprised that I found myself leaning more towards the feel and sound of the more actively engaging CD 1.
As with the original album Mercy (I’ll call it track 1.1) opens the collection and it’s a bit of an assault on the ears (the original being a full-on harmonium before the vocals enter), but in the remix version the harmonium is tamed and a slow march beat is overlaid. The sound is far more spacious, as if entering a cathedral. William Ryan Fritch’s remix of Margin (1.2) is an almost frenetic orchestration compared to the original and Zachary Gray’s version (1.9), which starts off quite stark with lone guitar and vocal and gradually the instrumentation and soundstage expands—I think both are quite successful, and in Gray’s version the vocals are clear as the song develops (makes me wonder all the more why Meluch chose to shroud such a great song). Squanto’s remix of Excave (1.3) is a series of repeated fragments made into a rhythm and sounding very much like some of Peter Gabriel’s mid-career work.
The Green Kingdom’s and Cock & Swan’s remixes of Litiya (1.4) and Homily (1.5) are quite enchanting. The sound of Litya softer, fuller and more comforting than the original—the soft electric guitar and cello overlays give the track such an easy feel, and Pioulard’s largely untreated vocals weave right in, so well. I have to admit that Homily is one of my least favorite tracks on the original album and Cock & Swan have woven their unusual magic, making it an ethereal journey (supplemented with Ola Hungerford’s vocals) while maintaining some of the original grit, and I assume that the crisp nylon guitar overlay is Johnny Goss’s. Brambles transformed Florid (1.6) into a (quite unexpected) “chill dance” piece—it has a languid vibe. Field Rotation put Censer (1.7) into a time machine and it emerged from an old modular Moog during Tangerine Dream’s Stratosphere era. The original version of Reliquary is furtive and mysterious, and Part Timer (1.8) stretched this concept further with his stark (and at time minimally orchestrated) interpretation.
The Remote Viewer’s version of Hawkeye opens CD2 (2.1) and its origins are deftly shrouded, and at first I didn’t care for it much, but it has grown on me—it’s delicately fragmented with some quirky treatments (very Boats-y!) and at times it sounds like Mark Isham’s early experiments from back in his Windham Hill label days (yes folks, I’m that old). My two favorite tracks on CD2 are Segue’s version of Censer (2.2) and Loscil’s (at times, visceral) remake of Florid (2.4). Curiously, Censer is given a gentle heartbeat, which despite the motion has a rather soothing effect to it. The remix of Florid somewhat belies its connotation, elaborate in its sonic depth, but not ornate.
Widesky’s Knell is an expansive fragmentation of the cathedral bells of the original and then all is absorbed into a rather compressed package of the experience (kind of like a snow-globe)—it’s a bit edgy for my ears. Sorry, but Radere’s version of Foxtail (2.5) just didn’t work for me—too strident. James Murray’s Gospel (2.6) meanders and bends with a broad color palette and is a contrast to Window Magic’s version (2.9) that is narrower, more primary shaded.
Pioulard’s remix of his own track Reliquary (2.7) shrouds the original even further; the furtive character is diminished—a curious approach. Ruhe’s version of Margin (2.8) is an almost unrecognizable adaptation of the original with only the slightest of rhythmic and vocal fragments remaining—in kind of a trance beat.
Sometimes sequels or remakes are better than the original, and that’s how I feel in this case on the production side of things. Despite my comments on the source material, I urge listeners to purchase a copy of Hymnal and judge for yourselves—some might disagree completely with my assessment on the sound quality. I’ll continue to look forward to Benoît Pioulard’s future recordings.
This is a solicited review.