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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Watch: Sondre Lerche - "Legends"

If you haven't already I strongly recommend giving a listen to Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche's seventh full length studio album Please which began streaming on NPR's First Listen earlier this week ahead of its release date next week. If you have, I strongly recommend listening again. And again. And then again after that.

The video for album standout "Legends" directed by Evan Savitt, functions as a sequel (or even a prequel) to the earlier released "Bad Law" video. Where Lerche played a gradually spiraling party guest there, "Legends" sees Lerche removed from the judgement of others but not from his fiesty dance moves. Facing the sobering light of morning (which had little to no effect before), Lerche rubs the sleep/sleepiness from his eyes before continuing his dancefloor gospel. While bits of the "Bad Law" video featured glimpses of the morning after and park jaunt - the "Legends" video doesn't have the same relationship with perspective. The focus is unflinching on the present. Or in a version of the present where Lerche has a quartet of uniformed backup dancers to share in his post-debauchery celebratory dance party. What starts out as a potential dream sequence becomes somewhat unclear as the dancers interact, aid, and enable Lerche in his continued (possibly still inebriated) dance-fueled rampage.

Watch Sondre Lerche's video for "Legends" directed by "Bad Law" director Evan Savitt:

Sondre Lerche's upcoming seventh album Please is out September 23rd on Mona Records. Preorder available now on digital and CD/LP.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Listen: yMusic - "Music in Circles (Excerpt)"

While New York City based chamber group yMusic certainly earned their stripes with the release of their debut album Beautiful Mechanical back in 2011, the excitement I felt upon the announcement of their follow up Balance Problems was undoubtably leveled up when it was revealed that had Son Lux signed on to produce it. While yMusic certainly toed the line of indie classical and something wholly other on their debut, Ryan Lott's involvement behind the scenes seemed to portend an additional desire for the sextet to continue to sidestep genre labels. 

While on Beautiful Mechanical, yMusic teamed up with several notable indie artists/composers, Balance Problems goes a more traditional route of having yMusic align less with band fronters/artists that happen to be competent composers and more with those notable for doing just that. That's not to say a couple crossovers aren't present a la Sufjan Stevens. Through taking to commonplace definition, yMusic's core concept is illuminated further - by tackling the pre-established norms in classical music, yMusic set out to ultimately transcend them.

The first single from the new record, "Music in Circles" is an excerpt from a two part piece written by Andrew Norman. The most notable part of Music in Circles" or rather, the excerpt yMusic offer as a taster - is just how long it takes for clear melody to formulate. Beginning with far more percussive leaning strings paired fragmented glancing blows in the winds, Norman offers up merely hints at melody that builds - the spiccato strokes and ricochet go from merely functioning as a percussive effect to forming a part of harmonic vertebra. "Music in Circles" is built from the ground up not from the layering of melody and harmony but from the incorporation of each instruments' own advanced techniques. The most pleasant surprise is how easily everything coagulates into beautiful harmonic moments. "Music in Circles" resembles at its most simple a modal work where each instruments' part ingeniously syncs up. However Norman and yMusic by extension make you work for those moments - much of the piece spends its time gently layering towards the sync only to either snatch it away at moment you expect everything to coalesce or to deconstruct it immediately when melodic fluidity becomes the norm.

"Music in Circles" is a challenging, subversive piece that breaks down the very notion of expectations while offering wonderful moments of beautiful, almost happenstance like harmony that gives yMusic ability to really flex their technical chops. Norman draws attention to the nature of melody, which through his suspension of it, makes the moments when it appears all that more arresting, and the momentous climbs toward its establishment perhaps more intriguing and important.

yMusic's second full length Balance Problems is out September 30th on New Amsterdam Records.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Listen: Sondre Lerche - "Sentimentalist"

                                                 (photo by Eric Ray Davidson)

After the groovy dancefloor filler that was "Bad Law", Norwegian export Sondre Lerche's offering up a much moodier number far more befitting of the breakup album that seventh studio album Please is rumored to be. While the lyrics of "Bad Law" were no doubt rather dark, there's no denying the rather upbeat presentation obscured them a bit - not quite a celebration, but not quite an admonishment either. While it remains to be seen exactly what kind of album Please will end up at the end, "Sentimentalist" sees Lerche optioning a different shade. There's no doubt that Lerche's best songs are the unflinchingly honest, heartfelt gems in his catalog and "Sentimentalist" has all the makings of those without exactly drawing from the same well.

Lerche's most recent dips into experimentalism for The Sleepwalker soundtrack have clearly stuck as his vocals are submerged into a cold bath of reverb. Lerche's trademark melodic clarity is set directly at odds with an ominous, lurking haze that threatens and eventually does consume everything. One of Lerche's greatest strengths has been an ability to spotlight the fallout of negative emotive turns without a sense of wallowing and "Sentimentalist" is crystal clear example of that. It's a song tinged with the specter of regret but never quite giving in to it - at least not lyrically. Instead of riotous pyrotechnics of a relationship at its end, Lerche instead paints a picture of a gradual fade - almost completely at odds with the passionate fervor addressed in "Bad Law". "I'll be damned if I fight, I'll be damned if I don't" opines Lerche before offering a very telling "In the end, would it count?" 

"Sentimentalist" strips Lerche of all his trademark charm to his great benefit. There's no rights or wrongs presented, no appeals for the listener to take a side, instead Lerche presents his own measured evaluation that makes it clear he's removed from the emotional fallout. It's almost jarringly in its neutrality, but commendable that Lerche avoids the viable but cheaper option of playing victim or villain. If Please ends up being a break up album, songs like "Sentimentalist" will be its saving grace - rising above the standard tropes to offer a smart but still enjoyable and still relatable take. 

Sondre Lerche's seventh full length studio album Please is out September 23rd on Lerche's own Mona Records. Preorder for digital as well as CD/LP are available now.