Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Listen: Johnny Flynn - "Detectorists"

After releasing and touring behind his third studio album Country Mile last year English singer/songwriter Johnny Flynn has more or less settled down for a spell in Britain to focus a bit on his growing family and log in more acting credits (Flynn starred as Dylan in BBC4's Scrotal Recall). But music doesn't seem to be quite on the backburner for Johnny Flynn as Detectorists, a six-part series written and directed by Mackenzie Cook of The Office fame, not only makes extensive use of Flynn's music but features a brand new song as its theme and Flynn in a cameo appearance to perform it.

"Detectorists", which shares it name and subject matter with the metal detector club of the series' main characters, is pretty much standard Flynn: featuring a melodic guitar line reminiscent of "The Box" and a less growling "The Lady is Risen". While shorter than your typical Johnny Flynn tune most likely due to it being the series' opening theme it's longer than you might expect and no less affecting as Flynn delivers understated, beautiful lyrics amid swelling horns and delicate finger plucking.  It's a pitch perfect fit for the series which tends to aim not for gut-busting guffaws but quieter chuckles and pleasant smile-cracking.

Listen to "Detectorists" which is also available for download here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Listen: Jessica Pratt - "Back, Baby"

It wasn't that long ago when the news broke that San Francisco singer/songwriter Jessica Pratt's follow up to her starkly beauty solo debut was in fact a real thing coming soon and today she finally delivers another taste of what the album, On Your Own Love Again, will sound like.

On "Back, Baby", Jessica Pratt resembles not the dusty rambles of folk troubadours but more closely resembles that of a Bacharachian chanteuse but instead of the typical lush orchestrations to which they're more characteristically paired, Pratt stays true to her guitar allowing the layering of her vocals to fill much of the space. Jessica Pratt has been doggedly pursued by Summer of Love/Summer of 69 vibe comparisons and "Back, Baby" manages the impressive feat of both leaning into them and poking the necessary holes in them. Jessica Pratt's "Back, Baby" is soft-focus folk song with a nascent trace of pop.

Jessica Pratt's sophomore record On Your Own Love Again is out January 27th on Drag City.

Listen: The Dodos - "Competition"

There's no denying that Bay area duo The Dodos have settled into a comfortable groove and with their sixth full length on the way it makes a hell of a lot of sense that they would. While no longer experiencing any of the growing pains that marked the transition between their first three albums, The Dodos are still game to explore different avenues for their sound which has arguably resulted in some of the most unexpected and enjoyable parts of their latest albums. The addition of Neko Case on No Color, expansion of their tonal pallet on Carrier, and even their continued collaborations with the Magik*Magik Orchestra have resulted in refreshing changes of pace.

While there's no telling just yet what The Dodos have up their sleeve for their most recent follow up Individ, their latest single "Competition" reintroduces listeners to The Dodos they've known and loved all these years - just Meric Long and Logan Kroeber's percussive rock pop sans any flashy accouterments. The duo start at jogger's pace and show no signs of slowing down even with a shuffling B section. "Competition" shows that even without a lot of the experimentation they've engaged in over the years that the duo are still enjoyable on their own. Kroeber's drumming is still driving and articulate while never overtaking Long. Meanwhile Long pulls a sort of impressive double duty as he pairs his usual winding lyrics with some rather aggressive guitar growls and competing guitar lines. Essentially Long is still enjoying his ongoing exploration of guitar tones which results in moments that are a lot more subtly engaging. But that's more or less always been The Dodos' style - the technical hidden beneath an ever present forward momentum. "Competition" is a song with an obscured intricacy that's surprisingly easy to miss and in that way is rather reflective of The Dodos themselves. There's always a lot more going on than the duo draw attention to - you just have to listen.  

The Dodos' sixth full length album Individ is out January 27th on Polyvinyl. Pre-order is available now and includes an option for a limited edition early bird LP in red.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Listen: Jordan Klassen - "Firing Squad"

While it was a strange serendipity and the the mysterious appearance of his business card in my pocket that led to my discovery of Vancouver songwriter Jordan Klassen it was ultimately one that scratched a much needed itch for more intricately crafted chamber pop. While he's most recently been touring around his 2013 full length Repentance, next month sees the release of brand new single "Firing Squad".

On "Firing Squad", Klassen is switching things up quite a bit as he puts his subtle chamber folk flourishes on the back burner in favor of a much more pop-oriented sound. It's an exercise in ebb and flow as Klassen allows his normally gentle whisper to rise to a jarring shout to the sound of a shaker and some groovy sauntering melodies. The normal delicacy in layering is still present however, resulting in Klassen pairing together an interesting mesh of sounds to form what essentially amounts to background noise. That's doesn't reflect on it's construction, merely Klassen's delivery is so oddly confrontational that it's practically the only thing you can focus on despite the evident care Klassen's given to the song's composition.

It remains to be seen whether Klassen will continue in this more ferocious, rock-edged pop vein or if this is just a one-off single meant to keep his creative juices flowing but it firmly illustrates Klassen's pop literacy in a way that his previous works only hinted at before.

Jordan Klassen's "Firing Squad" single is out November 18th and will be paired with a cover of HAIM's "Falling".

Friday, October 3, 2014

Pitstop: Saintseneca

The path to my discovering Columbus, Ohio folk rockers Saintseneca is as nonsensical as it is winding. After seeing their ANTI- records debut Dark Arc streaming on NPR earlier this year (which I ignored for seemingly no good reason), I kept coming across them on the internet - from news articles, to show calenders, after months of hovering at the periphery of my consciousness I finally decided to give their records are spin and was delighted at them being exactly what I was in the mood for. It's been awhile since I've fawned over a good folk band and Saintseneca providing a quick solution to that problem.

Where bands nowadays are often described by what they're not doing; how they're challenging previously conceived notions of genre - Saintseneca's major strength is just being damn good at what they do. If you had to pick a thing that sets Saintseneca apart from the multitude of folk bands though it would definitely be the timbral palette that their diverse instrumentation allows them. Whether with guitars, ukuleles, banjos, or the multitudes of other string instruments the band have at their disposal, they're no doubt aided by the fact that singer/songwriter Zac Little's voice pairs astonishingly well with stringed instruments. It's not the sort of thing you'd normally notice without the context of the mass of various instruments strummed and plucked, bowed and hammered but Little's distinct voice has a unique timbre of its own - one that lends itself incredibly well to the band's full, intricate folk pop sound. Yes, Saintseneca's talent lies in its ability to align all of its various moving parts and blend them soundly without obscuring anything and speaks to the musicianship of the four musicians who fills its ranks.

That Zac Little is also an incredibly gifted songwriter also helps. Little combines Saintseneca's knack for soaring melodies and catchy choruses with an ability to affix his sincerity-tinged ruminations just so. It's almost startling precise with just the right balance of poetry and prose. Not wholly unlike Mutual Benefit's Jordan Lee. But where Jordan Lee directs his songwriting towards striking the heartstrings by means of the accessible pop medium, Little's wordiness flows with a conversation ease and those unabashedly upbeat moments a natural extension of that.

Saintseneca are one of those bands whose records makes you want to seek out their live set. Not that the recorded output isn't satisfying but the sound is so expansive, so grand that you just know that they also rule in a live setting. Luckily Saintseneca seem to be quite the fans of touring so if you don't catch them on their current North American tour, there's likely to be another in the immediate future.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Brooklyn Rider - The Brooklyn Rider Almanac (2014)

In my college years, deep in the throes of my Russian composer Alexander Borodin obsession, I stumbled upon Les Vendredis. Les Vendredis, French for Fridays, began as an informal gathering at the mansion of successful lumber merchant turned music publisher Mitrofan Belyayev of musicians to play chamber works. Later attracting many of Belyayev's in form of Borodin, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and more - the visiting composers began  creating works specifically to play at the gatherings (many of which were gathered into collections named after the weekly gathering). During much of my college career I wondered why such a thing didn't exist nowadays. Though their inspiration comes from a different source - New York based indie classical quartet Brooklyn Rider ultimately resurrected this idea at least in spirit with their latest project/album The Brooklyn Rider Almanac.

Inspired by the European artistic collective La Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) from which the quartet drew their name, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is a multi-disciplinary project that essentially explores the nature of inspiration and influence. Tapping gifted artists/musicians not necessarily known for their classical output like singer/songwriter Aoife O'Donovan ("Show Me") or Deerhoof's Greg Saunier ("Quartet, Parts One and Two"), the commissioned works draw from equally inspiring sources - jazz guitarist Bill Friskell looks to John Steinbeck, O'Donovan to William Faulkner.

Brooklyn Rider start the almanac (the recorded first installment of their project) off with a bang - "Necessary Henry!", composed by Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli and inspired by multi-instrumentalist and avant-jazz composer Henry Threadgill, is perhaps the best introduction to the project if not Brooklyn Rider in general. A driving fortissimo combustion - it's a work of charming ebbs and flows that effortlessly encapsulates Brooklyn Rider's genre fluidity. It's a piece of understated cool that tests the instrumental prowess and limits of the quartet's members - it's a mounting wave of kinetic energy that requires rapidfire changes not only between musical ideas but extended techniques. Brooklyn Rider, as always, of course tackle the challenge head on. Despite the swift perpetuum mobile feel of the piece, Kodheli and by extension Brooklyn Rider are able to keep the piece from feeling overstuffed with ideas - the saving grace being the sudden lulls in intensity with the subtler, more nuanced jazz-inflected passages.

Though Brooklyn Rider have worked outside of the confines of the their quartet setup before (their earlier collaboration with Iranian composer/kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor springs immediate to mind), it no doubt still comes as a bit of a shock when Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond's voice enters on the piece "Exit" composed by Brooklyn Rider's own Colin Jacobsen. Drawing text from Kandinsky's Klänge and taken from the Chalk and Soot song cycle which features choreography John Heginbotham but inspired by David Byrne, "Exit" is another excellent indicator of what Brooklyn Rider set out to do with their project. The piece actually resembles something more in line with art song/folk song than anything from the Talking Heads frontman himself and therein lies its appeal. Blending a wide variety of forms (and coming from Kandinsky's own rejection of form), the piece remains singularly unique. What makes the piece the most radical of Brooklyn Rider's output is purely based on the departure of form - in this case that of the traditional quartet. Even with the addition of Worden, the piece still defies easy classification - making ample use of body percussion in the form of handclaps and footstomps.

Perhaps more than ever, Brooklyn Rider are proving not only exceeding difficult to pigeonhole but actively rebelling against such attempts. While The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is a testament to the nature of homage and influence, it also does its best to and succeeds in transcending those very things. Each contributor on the almanac brings their A game and Brooklyn Rider theirs, the union pushing each to creative heights thought previously unreachable. Brooklyn Rider have endured ten years based not only on the merits of their artistic ability but their continued efforts to keep the ensemble form relevant. Moments like the rhythmic dexterity of Vijay Iyer's "Dig the Say" or Ethan Iverson's "Morris Dance" choir-vocal ending and it becomes quite apparent what separates and ultimately unites Brooklyn Rider with the multitude of chamber groups embracing and marrying classical and contemporary influences - a thrilling enthusiasm, a creative fearlessness that keeps Brooklyn Rider not only true to their artistic statement but excitedly scaling to new creative peaks. The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is a snapshot of this wonderful moment in nothing else and no doubt a placeholder for Brooklyn Rider's next unpredictable endeavor in possibly the best way.

The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is out September 30th on Mercury Classics. If the above sampler piques your interest, the whole album is available to stream until its release date via NPR's First Listen.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sondre Lerche - Please (2014)

Though the break-up album tends to be almost a rite of passage for the serious singer/songwriter, one of the greatest feats of Sondre Lerche has been to stave off such a milestone for the better part of his musical career so far. There's been an off song or two (though those were mostly on earlier albums) but nothing in the vein of a true break up record. That is until now - seven albums in and one divorce later - Sondre Lerche's primed and ready to throw his voice into the fray. My favorite break up albums tend to function as cautionary tales - a veritable list of relationship do's and don'ts that if followed might help you avoid such a painful split. Sondre Lerche's Please however upends that notion completely. On Please's 10 songs - Lerche speaks from a point of clarity and yet there's both plenty of blame to go around and no obvious culprit.

A career-defining knack for pop songcraft - perhaps the most surprising and yet not entirely when you really think about it is just how damn catchy Please is. Lerche's always maintained an image of being sensitive but no wuss, of being emotional but not a whiner and that's at play on a number of Please tracks. Or at least the ones that promise to be the most revealing; the most confessional. But for the most part Lerche plays his trademark role as the nice guy with a heart of gold and shredding guitar skills. There's an emotional distance which obscures just how much of the songs lyrics are autobiographical and which are just cobbled from the common experience, past, present, and imaginary for the sake of narrative cohesion. Songs like "Legends" and "Lucifer" offer almost playfully tongue-in-check expressions of anger and regret adrift on downright infectious melodies.

Opener "Bad Law" more or less sets the tone of the album with it's danceable grooves and playful lyricism. Lerche's a pop musician and an consummate entertainer and ultimately the thing that keeps you coming back for more. In fact "At Times We Live Alone" is perhaps the only track on all of Please that allows itself to be a full on ballad. "Sentimentalist" appears to go that route at first but there's an undeniable underlying momentum, it's a jam even if an emotively fueled one. Lerche's not going to wallow but that's not to say that he's glossing over the emotional fallout either - rather he's presenting it real or obscured though many of the lyrics even when the general nature is upbeat like on "Loss For Words". Lerche wants his voice to be heard but doesn't resort to the abrasive shout of Phantom Punch. Lerche is older and wiser; preferering to offer most of his most important points/counterpoints with a nuanced and almost conversational air. "I'm not holding onto innocence/I'm not holding onto violence/But I'll be letting go of you" Lerche offers helpfully on "After the Exorcism". Lerche's not looking to rage, he's just trying to navigate through the tumult.

Please is more than more of the same from Lerche: it manages to encapsulate what fans have responded to most about Lerche from his early love of Brazil pop and jazz ("Legends"/"Lucifer") and while pushing Lerche's experimentations forward. The power of Lerche's long awaited break up album is the direct result of his subversion of the notions of what makes a good break up record. Lerche doesn't pretend nothing happened; that life simply goes back to the way it was before married life, but neither does he dwell too much on his regret or failure. The heartbreak, heart ache, and anger don't define you and neither should they Lerche seems to posit. It's a mature point but one that doesn't arrive without reasoning. Please is, at it's core, a sort of progression through grief, bristling up against understated moments of contented acceptance before it eventually arrives there to stay.

 Sondre Lerche's seventh studio album Please is out September 23rd on Mona Records. Please is now streaming via NPR's First Listen.