Saturday, March 02, 2013
This review originally appeared at the indispensable I Care If You Listen blog.
Among the many recent “sky-is-falling” tropes in the music world, one that has been widely circulated, endlessly repeated as if inevitable, is the notion that “the album is dead.” Maybe. When digital music distribution entered the marketplace, it was widely assumed that people would simply cherry-pick the tracks they liked, and thus ignore or undermine any web of relationships or concepts an artist might have woven between and among tracks. “We’ll never have another Sgt. Pepper!” was the panicked conclusion. Like many such notions, the unfolding reality is turning out to be a bit more complicated. In my opinion, the prospects for the album seem as promising as ever. Leah Kardos’s new recording, Machines, provides a fine argument for this thesis. From the processional opening “Incantation” to the coda of “Sleep Modes,” Kardos creates a singular musical journey.
A few months ago I bought Kardos’s debut album, Feather Hammer, and thought it one of the best of the year. I was struck by the fluid ease with which she blended compositional styles and techniques, while honing a distinctive sound of her own. That album focused on her relationship with her primary instrument, the piano. (I take the title as describing an idealized conception of keyboard touch…)
Her new album, Machines, finds her moving confidently forward in a number of ways. Her writing and playing remain extremely assured, but her production technique has soared. While both albums are comprised of thematically-related material, Machines has a more deeply-rooted organicism that makes it a remarkable achievement. Oftentimes when I get a new recording, I listen through and then bounce among the individual tracks that have caught my ear. With Kardos’s new album, I dial up the opening, hit “play,” and then continue until the end.
Despite the title, which evokes images of a cold, hard-edged musical conception, Machines is a deeply nuanced album: warm, rich and evocative, and powerfully emotional. Kardos explores notions of isolation versus solitude, how we connect (or don’t) via the internet or other electronic means, and “the cheapness of words.” Her lyrics are taken entirely from spam emails that she acquired and then subjected to cut-up techniques, via David Bowie and William Burroughs. This produces a surprisingly personal and subtle reflection on her chosen themes. (The curious may find her lyrics reproduced on her website, along with the original spam messages whence they came.)
While Feather Hammer was an entirely solo endeavor, Machines is abetted by the musicianship of soprano Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz and cellist Catherine Saumarez. The addition of the other musicians adds further richness to the sonic palette and provides more opportunities for Kardos to deploy her production skills. In Wolk-Lewanowicz she has found a superb vocalist whose ease in many styles is a perfect match to Kardos’s own genre-smashing approach. Her flexibility and range of color is such that I kept checking for additional vocal credits, not quite willing to accept that I was hearing the same singer every time.
(Above: l-r Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz and Leah Kardos)
Kardos’s sound world is one that appeals to me greatly, calling for hefty amounts of Fender Rhodes amidst more delicate sonorities like kalimba and other bell-like timbres. The purity of these sounds is nicely balanced by use of ambient and environmental material. Attempting to pinpoint her stylistic whereabouts is a fool’s errand, but I’ll mention some personal reference points. Kardos is clearly well-acquainted with the entire span of electronica history and one hears the breadth of that knowledge continuously, from earlier practitioners like Cluster and Eno, as well as more current electronica artists. A few tracks seem to have echoes of the Icelandic group Múm, but that may say more about me than Kardos. I mention these in order to throw out a couple points of musical latitude/longitude, not from any certainty that Kardos is referencing these artists, but because they share similar musical terrain and timbres.
Machines has a wholeness that is quite remarkable. But equally impressive is the manner in which Kardos conceals her virtuosity. Nothing draws attention to itself; everything is deployed in pursuit of an organic integrity. I had listened to the album several times before my attention was conscious of astonishing passages such as the intertwining keyboard lines that close “The Closeness of Distance” or the poly-temporal percussive underscoring of “Highly Active Girls.” The entire album is beautifully paced, with each individual track fitting into a larger whole. The phrase “song-cycle” is entirely apt. Many tracks stand easily on their own merits, although that’s not really how I wish to experience them, any more than I would wish to hear “Die Nebensonnen” apart from the rest of Winterreise.
In a recent article in The New Republic, David Hajdu wrote, “Electronica, the sound of our moment, has something in common with the earliest known music, which was the accompaniment to ritual: neither was made just for listening.” For me, Kardos’s Machines fits this description in the way that it attempts to create a map of our paths between the virtual and the corporeal worlds. She listens attentively to her materials and contemplates the way in which our online communications are changing our perceptions of ourselves and each other. In the age of Facebook, the meanings of words like “friend” have shifted substantially. Kardos creates an aural sextant via which to navigate this new and uncertain landscape.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
I don't pay a whole lot of attention to best-of lists, but this year I got lured into making one, and I thought I'd share it here. This is not a "this is absolutely the BEST stuff of 2012" as much as a "this is what gripped my attention this year..." sort of list. I don't keep up with new recordings like I used to, and it's gotten a whole lot harder to do so anyway. The world is filled with astonishing music and I am probably NOT the best person to consult for current information on what's going on. As I've gotten older, I've retreated into a few passionate interests. The recordings on this list are in no particular order. Clicking on a title link takes you to an approved means of purchase.
McIntire Top 10: 2012
Wandelweiser 'Und so weiter' (Another Timbre)
Here's a six-disc set that I just bought, and it'll take me the main portion of 2013 to get a real grip on it, but this is a major musical movement that you'll be hearing more about in the future. They've been around since the early '90s and have amassed quite a discography. You might as well get in on it now. My friend Andy Lee described this as a great Wandelweiser "starter set," and I think that description hits it perfectly. If you're wanting to explore the terrain that lies between "music" and the hum of your refrigerator or a slow, quiet scraping sound, this is the place to start. Don't be in a hurry.
Daphne Oram: The Oram Tapes Volume 1 (Young Americans)
Daphne Oram was one of the great early pioneers of electroacoustic music, and she's been sadly neglected over the years. I'd read about her in accounts of electronic music history, but I'd never heard any of her music until recently. Specifically, last June, when I walked into Weirdo Records on Mass. Ave in Cambridge, MA. This was the first thing that my eye focused on upon entering the store. My ears have been focused on it ever since...
Mikel Rouse: Boost/False Doors (Exit Music)
Mikel has been making compelling and ultra-smart music for a long time. Not one to get locked into a particular sound, this release finds him pairing heavy dance beats and his recent interest in slide guitar. No artist since Prince has been this good at self-production, or as prolific. If there were justice in this universe, Mikel would have won several Grammy awards by now. He'd also be on our $100 dollar bill. Check out "Hurdle Rate," or "God Said No."
Jürg Frey: Piano Music (Irritable Hedgehog)
Right, so I produced this album myself, and it features my good friend Andy Lee. Big deal. It's still gorgeous and amazing and baffling and utterly unlike anything you've heard before. Be the first person in your zip code to own one.
Captain Beefheart: Bat Chain Puller (Zappa Records)
I bought my first Captain Beefheart album in 1976. It didn't make any sense to me. I didn't think I liked it. But: I kept playing it, for myself and my friends. Eventually, the genius that I apparently sensed was there through some intuitive means, became more and more apparent. This album was recorded in '75, but through a series of unfortunate events it was locked up until this year. One of the Captain's best ever, and Zappa's production crew have mastered it beautifully.
Peter Hammill: Consequences (Fie!)
I've been listening to the music of Peter Hammill ever since I bought a Van der Graaf Generator album for 98 cents at a W.T. Grant department store in 1976. This release is somewhere around his 50th. Each Hammill album takes a particular tack and on this one it's heavily vocal, with most of the songs examining the vagaries of language, its limitations and frustrations. Fans who are hoping for a collection of rockers will be disappointed, but the songwriting is subtle and profound.
Leah Kardos: Feather Hammer (Bigo & Twigetti, via Bandcamp)
My good friend Andy Lee steered me towards this recording, and it's just fantastic. It's also a fantastic deal right now.
Can: The Lost Tapes (Spoon)
The last couple of years have seen me really digging back into a lot of the experimental rock that intrigued me years ago. The Köln group Can has been a big part of that digging. Three discs of unreleased studio material and none of it is spurious. If you're a fan of the group, you really can't miss. I blogged about it a while back, and you can read about it here, if you want to know more. Another treasure I grabbed at Weirdo Records.
Conrad Schnitzler: Rot (Bureau B)
Schnitzler was a fascinating artist who delved into all manner of media. He also helped found Tangerine Dream and Kluster. His solo albums are even more astringent than those he made with collaborators, and they're being reissued. Rot (German for "red") shows him carefully exploring the potential of the EMS VCS-3 synthesizer, also known as the "Putney." For that reason alone, he's like a brother to me.
Pere Ubu: A Ghost Town Goes Where You Want to Go (Hearpen)
Pere Ubu has been around since the mid-1970s and this live release of a show from 2006 is amazing and shows why they've remained a relevant force. Simply for the wonder of the astonishing synchrony of bass/drum team of Michele Temple and Steve Mehlman would make this a savvy purchase. Keith Moliné's guitar and Robert Wheeler's synth offer a chaotic counterbalance to the driving rhythm. David Thomas's vocals remain one of rock's perplexing oddities. I've heard him do "Final Solution" a bunch of times. This recording makes me sit up and hear it anew.
McIntire Top 10: 2012
Saturday, December 15, 2012
Friday, October 05, 2012
Thursday, September 20, 2012
A while back a discussion emerged on Twitter about composers who wrote drone pieces. My name was mentioned as a likely source of information, which was probably a mistake. But I am interested in drone-based works, and herewith share a few recordings that I have found worthwhile. It is by no means complete in any sense. And many (if not most) artists on this list, like Niblock, Palestine and Radigue, have far more recordings available than I have mentioned here. But it might get you started.
See a glaring omission? Please add your own suggestions in the comments.
Rhys Chatham: A Crimson Grail (Table of the Elements, Nonesuch)
Guitar Trio Is My Life (Radium, Table of the Elements)
Slapping Pythagoras (Table of the Elements)
Henry Flynt: C Tune (Locust Music)
Fripp & Eno: No Pussyfooting (DGM)
Evening Star (DGM)
Jon Hassell: Vernal Equinox (Lovely Music)
Four Full Flutes (XI)
Strumming Music (Sub Rosa)
Schlingen-Blangen (New World)
Triptych (Important Records)
Trilogie de la Mort (XI) Vice-versa (Important Records)
La Monte Young: Second Dream of the High-Tension Step-Down