Saturday, March 02, 2013

Leah Kardos: Machines

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

Pere Ubu: Lady From Shanghai

[Update: I've corrected the David Thomas quote below, which I'd mangled slightly. I've also added a clarifying sentence and changed a word or two.]

"I think it's dangerous, Max, Videodrome... —Because it has something that you don't have, Max. It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous." Masha, speaking to Max Renn, in Videodrome.

"The truth hurts, just not bad enough." David Thomas, singing on "Lampshade Man"

I've always found the above quote from David Cronenberg's Videodrome to be the most significant line in the film. The film baffled me when I first saw it and it has continued to do so, as I suspect it was meant to do. I'm still trying to understand a lot of it. I'd say it's Cronenberg's most prophetic work, although I'm not sure "prophecy" was really what he was going for when he made it.

I mention the movie and the quote because I feel that one of the reasons that Pere Ubu remains important and relevant ("dangerous," in the parlance of Videodrome) nearly four decades after their inception, is because they have a philosophy. You have to have your feet firmly placed on a standpoint. Nothing of significance gets done without that. I do not claim to fully understand the creative process that has yielded the legacy of Pere Ubu. But I can surely appreciate it. And I'm still trying to understand it. Their new album caused me to reflect on this anew.

First off, this is an astonishing assemblage of musicians, and perhaps the band's most powerful lineup in their history. A blasphemous notion for many long-time listeners, but I think it's true. The core of this group has been together for approaching twenty years, the newest member having joined in 2006 (guitarist Keith Moliné), with David Thomas being the only original member at this point. Bassist Michele Temple and drummer Steve Mehlman play with a synchrony that is actually frightening. Moliné and synth player Robert Wheeler deliver chaotic, complex and intricate textures, soundman Gagarin dances in the digital, and David Thomas's voice remains one of the most peculiar and evocative instruments in all of music.

The sound is dry, astringent, almost desiccated at times. Thomas declares the album to be "dance music, fixed," which makes some sense. There's definitely an electronica dimension present here, though evoked indirectly, mostly. The presence of the EML synthesizer, which is one of the keynote sounds of any Ubu production is still here, but abetted by a wider palette of electronic colors. And the beats produced are calibrated to produce befuddlement on most club dance floors.

Pere Ubu abandoned the policy of printing lyrics in their albums a long time ago, though they can be read at their website. But in an unusual gesture (and concurrent with this release), Thomas published a small book, Chinese Whispers: The Making of Pere Ubu's Lady of Shanghai (cover shown below), which offers some insight into the band's methodology and recording practice, as well as compiling some of Thomas's other writings. I would not say it's necessary to read it to understand the album, but it makes for a useful and provocative addendum.

I tossed one of Thomas's quotes from the book onto a Facebook posting the other day and was immediately bombarded with a flurry of energetic (if not infuriated) responses. I'm contemplating using this in my teaching for that reason. In a manner somewhat akin to John Cage's writings, Thomas hammers down some outlying fenceposts, and provokes you to figure out your own position in relation to these. I think that's a healthy thing. The territory that Thomas marks off is one that few could reside in comfortably, but that's OK. "I'm on the outskirts of Nowhere," Thomas sings in "Mandy," indicating he's well aware of his remote address.

My friend Jay Batzner just tweeted on an unrelated matter, about striving to "sit with discomfort" rather than respond in a reflexive and unthoughtful manner. This is hard to do. And I think this is actually a neat summation of Pere Ubu's discipline. They've learned to sit with discomfort, and embrace that action. In describing the evolution of the track "Lampshade Man," Thomas was clearly not enthused with the germinal musical idea presented by Keith Moliné: "Working with the demo recording, which is the basis of what appears on the album, drained away my will to live as I listened to it over and over at Suma in the early stages of figuring out what to do with it." But Thomas remained unflinchingly present with the discomfort, and forged an astonishing track. The entire album works this way.

And Lady From Shanghai is that nearly-extinct creature, an honest-to-goodness ALBUM. I really find it hard to discuss individual tracks easily. I've been listening to it from beginning to end, and I really hear it as a single musical statement. Your own reaction may differ, but that's where I'm at. Pulling up to the outskirts of Nowhere.

Interesting place. I may want to stay here a spell.

Addendum: only in retrospect did it occur to me that all the various viewpoints that I'd shoe-horned into this posting were all produced by persons named David. I'm not sure that means anything. But it might.