Tuesday, December 05, 2017
Music of 2017
As I began to write this post, I realized that the "jazz phase" that defined most of my music listening for the last few years, so much so that I thought it would just be a fact that would define my thirties, seems to have past. I am back to the land of song as a form of direct emotional communication from the singer to the listener. Weird jams to bring the listener into tripped out zones took a backseat to the primacy of the takeaway. Lyrics and refrains left their hooks in me and called me back. Things that are weirder, further "out," I will still include in my cataloging of the year's listening. I spent more time listening to things I could relisten to in my head, even though for whatever reason I remained more inclined to buy records of weird instrumental music.
Still, it's 2017; and to most people's ear, guitars alone sound somewhat tired. Something else needs to buttress the song's structure than this signifier of the straightforward. So when I talk about songs I like there are almost always rhythmic and textural accents defining them. Nothing I list is not made in large part by its arrangement.
Probably the number one exception to this rule, the thing I would still feel the need to include in a best of the year list, is Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked At Me. Phil Elverum's testament to his wife Genevieve, now deceased, was spare and spartan and, in my few listens to it, devastating. Last year I mentioned Anohni's Hopelessness was an incredible album that for its emotional power I could admire but didn't really spend a ton of time with, this principle applies to the Mount Eerie record this year.
So with an exception to my rule named, let's move on, to what it was I was talking about when I was trying to outline some general premises. For instance, The Weather Station released a self-titled album and while earlier records released under that alias were spare in their accompaniment, folk music through and through, here there is a rhythm section and occasionally a string quartet. The singer's voice is a fine one, but not hair-raising on its own, I don't think. Lyrics supply this feeling of urgency, or even revelation. I am grateful to her for lending an earworm to the necessary-to-be-remembered thought "You and I, we are complicit." The record never gets to actually rocking, the most aggressive thing about it is always the force of the thought behind the lyrics, the weight behind them surges them out the speakers like water gushing out a hole in a dam. Not everything is political, but everything has meaning.
Sophia Kennedy released her first album this year, also self-titled. That record's use of piano chords and a sort of grid-based rhythm structure makes her songs saunter in a way that feels to me like a John Cale record produced by Matthew Herbert. I listened to a good deal of John Cale this year. The lyrics emphasize wordplay, the rhymes adding additional jaunt to the rhythmic interplay, while still essentially seeming simple, sounding like upbeat pop music. The album was released by a label known for dance music, and some press outlets were quick to point out that it wasn't a dance record, but I feel like the uptempo numbers really swing in a way that is pretty rare.
The EMA album, Exile In The Outer Ring, really struck me, although I hadn't been taken by music of hers I'd heard in the past, which was barely anything. Here, things click into focus. Songs seem stronger melodically, and the lyrical strategies seem more primed to be used as anthems for audience identification, rather than her older music's direct address to an imagined audience. For instance, I think that as far as pop songs go, listing traits the way the chorus to "33 nihilistic and female" does, works better than saying "You were a goth in high school," to quote a line from a few albums ago. Sonically, it's weirder, less acoustic guitar where you can hear fingers moving about the frets and more hums of texture, crackling into riffs. Her voice is stronger and less strangled sounding. Everything is more confident, emphatic, and all noise elements seem committed to selling the song. The weirdo commands the stage by communicating her emotions to an audience more interested in feeling than abstraction.
I feel I can almost go without mentioning the records Angel Olsen and Circuit Des Yeux released this year. Not like those albums aren't good, but that to discuss them at length seems unnecessary. These are women I feel invested in as artists. Angel in particular has never made a bad record and a compilation of her rarities works just as well. The Circuit Des Yeux is another step forward. The same concept applies to the Colleen record: If you're not aware of these people, you should catch up. It seems more necessary for me to note that the band Oxbow, who I had never listened to before, put out a record that essentially came out of nowhere for me, although I guess I was aware enough of them for them to be on my radar, I still didn't really know what they sounded like. It seems like when people talk about Circuit Des Yeux's connection to Scott Walker they're talking about the stuff he did thirty-plus years ago, while the new Oxbow thing seems vaguely connected to what he's doing now, although that's not quite comparable: The blurb saying "like Burt Bacharach doing charts for Harvey Milk" comes closer. I've not spent much time with Scott Walker so I am referring more to an idea, extrapolated from "The Electrician" alone.
It's also exciting to encounter legitimately new bands. The Parlor Walls album Opposites is probably the thing I have listened to the most. The presence of saxophone alludes to jazz but they're a post-punk band basically, and they get me as a listener to the place of thinking "yeah, this rocks" more than any other band that released a record this year, due to the emphasis on drums, and a vocalist who screams her lyrics, but keeps them enunciated and clear. When she says "Don't you know I'm perfect?" I am convinced.
The record label that put out Parlor Walls had my attention all year. Particularly notable would be the On Fillmore record, and the Horse Lords mixtape featuring their performance of a Julius Eastman piece. On Fillmore is a group consisting of Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist Darin Gray, a Chicago dude who's done a lot of work with Jim O'Rourke. While they are the band's membership, a lot of people perform on their record, Happiness Of Living. Essentially I take it as a rhythm section working as composers recording a record in Brazil. Certain songs sound like late period Can, songs are sung in Portuguese. It is very easy to recommend, and very easy to put on and listen to, or play for other people. Other releases Northern Spy put out this year I can vaguely endorse based on scant listens include PC Worship, Ross Goldstein, and the Brooklyn Raga Massive's performance of Terry Riley's In C. Also, a few years ago they put out a record by a band called Starring that I wanted to hear but somehow never did until 2017. They are sort of like a music-school-prog band's attempt to go to some late-Boredoms/OOIOO ecstatic trance states. I did some cursory searching to try to find out if this band was still together and found the Twitter feed from one member, from a few years back, although essentially after the band stopped being active, I believe, talking about seeing Guerilla Toss and being blown away- referring to them as "Gorilla Toss" in the method of hearing a band announce themselves rather than owning a record, and also saying the band was too cool to be on Twitter. I was pretty disappointed by this year's Guerilla Toss record, but the cassette released by their drummer under the name Do Pas O, Join The Fucking Drum Circle, I can recommend. I assume it's electronically produced using MIDI or GarageBand, bright and sprightly stuff not far from the On Fillmore album's general effect but with less of an exotica sound palette.
Almost exactly between the realms of the song and the zone was the collaborative Shackleton/Anika record, which seems like the best thing either artist has done, although admittedly my experience with Shackleton's stuff hasn't really dug that deep. Anika's first record has this sort of dull industrial/militaristic vibe, working in a factory, produced by Geoff Barrow of Portishead, but here there's a deep space science fiction vibe, like alien nanotechnology is infiltrating the air to clean it. Two LPs worth of music.
The Fifth State Of Consciousness, this year's Peaking Lights album conjures up something similar, although its more earthbound in its psychedelia, more plainly dub-influenced. Their last record was terrible, seemingly an attempt to make pop songs by mixing the vocals too high, and having them say the dumbest lyrics imaginable. This feels both like a course-correction and a way of showing what they were going for, what a cleaned up version of the sound on earlier records could be. It exists in this rhythmic space that allows for a perfect halfway point between dancing and walking around, pacing.
The Eric Copeland album "Goofballs" seems similarly to come from just a place of being made by a sentient weed cloud. This is true of a lot of Eric Copeland stuff, and certainly he comes close to a general endorsement for his whole career, but he is fairly prolific and has made some records I don't need to ever hear again. This one, though, is like a techno version of a Ween record, where each song is a little too long and repetitive, but there are these pitchshifted vocal melodies that are very goofy and endearing and still conjure an atmosphere. I guess the final, bad Ween album actually had songs on it that were techno parodies but what I mean is that the Copeland record sounds like is like a highly drum-machine driven version of The Pod, widely known among those who've lived their lives inside potentially-sentient weed clouds to be the best Ween record.
Rick Weaver's cassette tape The Secular Arm, released by Hausu Mountain, feels evocative of an entire sonic world, the occasional excursions into the world of linear song making it feel more grounded than gaseous. It feels like a cartoon world, but vaguely pastoral, like the woods the wagon rolls through in Calvin And Hobbes or something. Rick's done a ton of projects, from noise-rock to acoustic folk but always on the weird side of the spectrum, always defined by some eccentricity or performance-as-confrontation. The same label released a tape by Rick's cassette-music-trio, Form A Log, that's good too, and of course the Khaki Blazer/Moth Cock stuff is always going to be a favorite. (The Moth Cock cassette Rick released on his tape label a few years back is also on Bandcamp, which I didn't realize until just now.) I feel like I am sort of out the noise loop currently, not too many shows of that sort happening in Baltimore right now, or if they are they're being put on by people I am not friends with, and this stuff, this sort of psychedelic abstraction humor music, is sort of the only thing I'm aware of that I'm even into, really. Hausu Mountain also released the Do Pas O cassette I mentioned earlier.
The highlight of the year's instrumental electronic music, though, was the Jlin album Black Origami, which will surely receive no small share of praise elsewhere. Let me weigh in to say I agree. Sounds incredible through sound systems large or small. Feels like putting the CD into a car stereo could transform your vehicle into something that walks upright. While it's rooted in footwork, it is something else, something that seems more readily danceable by normal people than that stuff.
I still tried to keep engaged with contemporary jazz. The Nicole Mitchell album is cool, Mandorla Awakening Part Two and I spent some time with older work of hers through it. It got her on the cover of The Wire, but I still felt like she should have received more attention, outside the world of music. The fact that it's a concept album about the work of Octavia E Butler is pretty interesting as a hook in itself, but for whatever clout Butler might be getting as a reference point right now, avant-garde jazz is still not really going to be discussed in more generalist venues. I had this idea I would try to write an article for a women's-focused online publication about the current wave of women in avant-garde jazz, specifically how Nicole Mitchell as director of the AACM is interesting because it's women inheriting an organization specifically designed as a way for black musicians to get more respect by controlling their own destiny but such an article should probably be written, if not by a woman, then at least someone in the city of Chicago who has more access to the people whose work I would be discussing- Nicole Mitchell, Jaimie Branch, Tomeka Reid, and Mary Halvorson. Many of these women are white, by the way. I assume all are driven by ideals of solidarity and commitment to art which is frankly utopian. Obviously it would be ideal for such an article were written by a woman, but it seems necessary it be done by someone in a position to see these people perform together, even though the records are good on their own. Mandorla Awakening admittedly has some vocals late in the game that make the record much harder to just put on and listen to than some of her other work.
Jaimie Branch's Fly Or Die was the one I was most interested in owning as a record I think, because it was a single LP. At first I was put off by how went back and forth between group settings that hit really hard and portions where it's just Branch playing and electronically processing her trumpet but now I think I'm on board. International Anthem also put out Irreversible Entanglements, where Moor Mother fronts a free jazz group delivering spoken word against police brutality.
I do not mean to neglect rap but am not sure there's anything I can mention that hasn't been praised extensively elsewhere, besides to say that about half of Future's album HNDRXX totally rules- I didn't really fuck with the self-titled at all, which seemed like a retread of the commercially and critically successful DS2 approach to diminishing returns, while the pop songs on HNDRXX seemed to rekindle a sort of romantic streak that was present on the retroactively-maligned Honest. If you put on HNDRXX, you can sort of skip straight to "Incredible," which is maybe the song of the year, and go from there. The only thing is that its tone then feels very similar to Young Thug's "Beautiful Thugger Girls" album, to a point of borderline redundancy, but Future's hooks and songwriting are better I'd argue. But honestly I feel like the way people talk about rap is so insane and focused on youth and what's new that, besides Kendrick Lamar I feel like I'm continually hearing about things I have no idea what they are and that often sound awful to me just on a level of what a rap name should be. This is how I know I am old.
More music: The Dirty Projectors record sounded great playing through the record store sound system, making architecture out of multi-layered and pitch-shifted vocal harmonies. Tara Jane O'Neil's self-titled album was spare and campfire in the sunlight warm, I want to compare it to Sibylle Baier. Obnox's Niggative Approach is great: I feel like if it had been released on CD under a different title I could've played it in-store and sold it to people buying Childish Gambino records, but as it is it's just for garage-rock obsessives I guess. I checked out the Nick Hakim record due to the Keith Rankin album art and it fucking swept through my coworkers like wildfire, although none of us got it together to see him live. Amir ElSaffar's Rivers Of Sound was a very good large ensemble jazz record. Mary Halvorson in a quartet setting playing John Zorn compositions I found very soothing. I bought Alvarius B's 2 CD set collecting 3 LPs but haven't spent a ton of time with it yet. NHK made a cool electronic records I enjoyed listening to. While listening to the new Linda Perhacs album, I'm A Harmony, I tweeted that it sounded very nice, but then came to regret that when it lapsed into silly territory, but it is in fact still good, and the fact that two songs are embarrassingly corny seems true to where she is at at this point in her life.
I stumbled across an original copy of Yoko Ono's Approximately Infinite Universe a few months before it was reissued, and it's great. More straightforward and classic rock than you might expect. Oh shit: CD and digital reissues of this include "Dogtown," the song I was originally introduced to as a Jeff Zagers cover that appears on the much later Season Of Glass. I assume this is a different, earlier version? Anyway. Pep Llopis' Poiemusia La Mau Dels Argonautes is a beautiful work of minimalism with spoken word poetry passages. I am honestly furious at how that label's follow-up, Richard Horowitz Eros In Arabia received such a small pressing as I was anticipating it hungrily. I work at a record store and we never received copies, despite me insisting on ordering it as soon as it was listed at the distributor. I have now paid for a download, and it's a masterpiece I was totally right to want a physical copy of. Editions Mego released a 2LP of Jaap Vink's work, which is a gauzy or gaseous form of pure early electronic musics that I don't normally have the patience for, but is definitely good. RVNG also did a great job with their compilation of Paulina Anna Strom recordings, overdubbed synthesizer recordings originally for the "new age" cassette market, made by a blind woman. The compilation of Alice Coltrane's 1980s ashram recordings was great.
Speaking of compilations: Soul Jazz Records put out two amazing CDs of wildly different material I would highly recommend. Space, Energy, And Light is a compilation of electronic/new-age stuff, with a Laurie Spiegel piece that wasn't on the 2CD Expanding Universe I already have. The only other person on it I'm familiar with is Richard Pinhas. They also put out a compilation called Soul Of A Nation, which opens with a Gil Scott-Heron piece but is primarily afrocentric jazz, and was mostly stuff I was unfamiliar with, despite being a big fan of Don Cherry and the Mwandishi band or whatever. There's a great song that pauses to introduce each member of the band and includes their astrological sign.
Oh also, for whatever it's worth: Superior Viaduct reissued an Arnold Dreyblatt record, Propellers In Love, and while that album is fine, this year I heard for the first time a record that dude in the nineties for Tzadik, Animal Magnetism, that is much better. It is weirdly similar to the band Horse Lords my friends are in. It is also very good music to get writing done to, I think. If I get my shit together to write a post about books I've read and enjoyed this year, the influence of Brian Evenson will hang heavy over it, for much of what I've liked he either wrote, translated, publicly endorsed, or does work that just feels similar to. In some interview with Evenson or another he talked about enjoying the quality of music where it feels like if you turn it up more, you will hear more, catch something mysterious, and this is what he likes to write to, or the sort of mindstate he finds rewarding. The Dreyblatt liner notes mention that due to the way the work is meant to work with overtones, it should be played at maximum volume. But of course, who really does that? All you can do is play it loud enough for it to do its thing but still allow you to be in the room with it.