Saturday, 11 July 2009

Papa Rufus!

In musical terms this is a momentous night for me. Let me explain...

I've always loved music in its multitude of forms, from my rock and pop teenage years, to my explorations of jazz, blues and country in my early twenties. I started to explore classical music and at the age of 28 I 'discovered' opera.

There's literally hundreds of years of classical music and operas to be explored and I managed to avoid listening to ANY non-classical/opera music for 12 years. My rock and pop collection gathered dust, except for the 600 LPs that my mum donated to the firemen's jumble sale. (Kids, learn from me...take your music with you when you leave home!)

At some point in 2004 there was an interview on a TV arts program with a guy named Rufus Wainwright. I'd heard the name before, but it didn't mean anything to me. The interview took place in the Royal Opera House, London, and this singer turned out to be a passionate fan of Giuseppe Verdi and opera in general. That piqued my interest! Even more so when I learnt that he was the son of Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle.

Who they, you might ask? Well, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, folky Montreal sisters, were my favourite performers from the late seventies. I had all their albums and had seen them in concert many times. If you look at the sleeve notes of their first classic eponymous debut album you'll see a credit to the babysitter for looking after baby Rufus!

Man, I suddenly felt old, but I checked out the recordings of this 2nd generation Wainwright/McGarrigle and found a fascinating artist. His sophisticated pop made constant references to classical music and opera, sometimes obvious, sometimes very subtle.

A couple of years ago the news came that the Metropolitan Opera in New York had commissioned Rufus to write an opera. Astonishingly, the relationship seemed to founder because Rufus wanted to write his opera in French, not English. (Strange, I've been to the Met several times and never heard an opera sung in English!)

Thankfully, a canny person at the Manchester International Festival stepped into the breach and offered to stage the premiere performances of Prima Donna.

I haven't heard or seen it yet, but the preview clips sound fantastic. 19th century French opera, complete with REAL TUNES!

I doubt I'll get to Manchester for a performance, but I'm pleased to see that the production is already scheduled for London, Melbourne and Toronto.

If you wondered why Rufus has sprouted a beard, I think the answer lies here, with Papa Verdi:

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Following on from Melbourne Tourist Board use, and not put off by its creepy use in The Strangers, Victoria's Secrets has used the Sprout and the Bean for the new TV ad. I like it, the filming suits the music well.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Heavy Ghost, by DM Stith


1 Isaac's Song 1:38
2 Pity Dance 4:21
3 Creekmouth 4:10
4 Pigs 4:54
5 Spirit Parade 2:23
6 BMB 2:43
7 Thanksgiving Moon 3:59
8 Fire of Birds 5:13
9 Morning Glory Cloud 3:56
10 GMS 2:35
11 Braid of Voices 5:26
12 Wig 2:35
How many things?
How many things can I say to you?
And expect shock-horror, shock-horror, shock-horror, hallelujah
To descend again in sweet oblation
Your God's a lion, recently fed, drowsy
And the body, the body, the body, the body, the body, it waits for obliteration

I'm not very good at reviewing at the best of times, but I've just encountered an album that leaves me speechless and wordless. Where the hell has this guy come from?

Baroque pop nerds, and Shara Worden fans will know the name, Bring me the Workhorse was recorded on his laptop, and if you own the album you'll see him listed in the credits. Ok, so he's on the fringe of the Sufjan Asthmatic Brooklyn posse. Perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that he comes from a musical (and churchy) family. He's musical. That much is clear. VERY musical. So the folks at Asthmatic Kitty asked him to make an album... and here it is. Possibly the most astonishing debut album I've ever heard.

It starts with an austere somewhat classical clash of piano and voice. It's harsh, confrontational, and says this album demands your attention. Put it on, and listen, damn you! So Isaac's Song, which is very much the prelude rather than a song, soon gives way to Pity Dance a tense and eerie waltz-time tune (the album's lead single), led by a picked/strummed classical guitar and one of the most effortless and effective tenor/falsetto voices I've heard since Jeff Buckley. The layering of concert-grand, electronics, electric guitar, harmonies, hand-claps sets the theme of what is to come: Lush, dark, dramatic, chilling, intriguing, never a moment when it's less than interesting.

The drama continues with Creekmouth. This song consolidates the soundscape, tribal rhythms replacing the concert piano. The ensemble voices are present again, very much the signature feature of this album. Pigs moves things along, by now you should be familiar with the complex and entrancing world of Stith. The multi-tracked background vocals are amazing.

If you find Animal Collective fine in theory but not in practice, perhaps you should try Spirit Parade a rhythmic drama, not for casual listening! After barely two minutes it yields to the gentle vocal piano-basedBMB. Bass clarinets chime in beautifully after the first verse, and a shimming string quartet adds further lustre. Then, it's as if nothing else can be said, the song rapidly dissolves into chordal shifts and dissonance.

Stith's understated but accomplished guitar appears again in Thanksgiving Moon, augmented by a meticulously charted horn section and marimba. The tune is impressive, carried by a scintillating background chorus.

Fire of Birds contains the most uplifting chorus, although I find it a little pedestrian and repetitive. "We danced like we were all on fire." goes the refrain.

Morning Glory Cloud is as close as Stith comes to a guitar and vocal style, and he transcends the form with a captivating 3/4 rhythm. This track seems to have a part-two piano section which tonally hovers in the Supertramp/Steely Dan realm for a few moments.

GMS is a Sufjaneque piano interlude, think Redmond.

Braid of Voices is one of the album's big hitters. A big, dramatic and melancholy tune...
from the back of my head tied to the back of my head tied
to the back of my head tied...
a braid of voices: david, david

Those last lines, saying his own name are chilling.

Anyone who has ever been to a classical concert will recognise the opening of Wig as Marla Hansen's viola tunes up. It's a meditative drone, and a perfect ending.

In summary, I cannot recommend this album highly enough, particularly for Sufjan fans impatiently waiting for his next installment. Buy it!

ps... and David, if you read this... nice booklet, I get the joke! Please, please, please get some signed prints to sell at your gigs, I'll be at the Dublin date.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

It's turning into a vintage year for baroque pop

More CD reviews coming soon! Debut CDs by Gabriel Kahane and DM Stith (video above).

Both of these are extraordinary in the own ways. It's taking a while to digest them, but I'll write them up in the next week.

Beyond that, May sees the release of Patrick Watson's and Grizzly Bear's new CDs, the previews of both sound awesome.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Dark Was The Night, by Various Artists


The Red Hot Organisation’s AIDS-related charity has been releasing an annual fund-raising compilation CD since the 90's, initially a grunge-orientated offering, their roster of contributing artists has always moved with the times.

The 2009 double CD, Dark Was The Night, features two hours of music by many leading indie/baroque pop artists together with some more esoteric contributions. Curated and led by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National, they have given us a surprisingly cohesive collection. The various collaborations that occur on various tracks give the album of the feel of a team effort: Feist + Ben Gibbard, Feist + Grizzly Bear, Antony Hegarty + Bryce Dessner, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) + Aaron Dessner, etc.

It kicks off brilliantly with a Dirty Projectors and David Byrne partnership, Knotty Pine. Bright and catchy enough to be a hit single. Grizzly Bear's Deep Blue Sea is a little more orthodox than much of their output but it charms. Antony's reworking of an obscure Bob Dylan song is the surprise success here. The first CD ends with 11 minutes of Sufjan Stevens wide-ranging aural assault on the Castanets' You are the Blood. If one track can be any indication of where an artist is going then Sufjan is going in multiple directions at once, a glitchy electronic start gives way to a huge band sound, trombones, guitar, keyboards and more. It also features one of the few piano cadenzas to ever appear in pop music, courtesy of the talented Gabriel Kahane! It brings to mind Rufus Wainwright's Do I Disappoint You, and Rufus might not have the field of bombastic pop to himself for much longer.

To my knowledge these recordings are all new on this collection, sometimes new compositions or covers, and a few reworkings of old favourites. It would take too long to list all my favourite tracks, but suffice to say the first CD ('This One') is very much the stronger and would be worth the price alone. The packaging, as can be seen in the picture, is a triple fold digipack with a separate informative booklet. Excellent.

This Disc
1 The Dirty Projectors & David Byrne - Knotty Pine 2:23
2 The Books feat. José González - Cello Song 3:54
3 Feist & Ben Gibbard - Train Song 3:02
4 Bon Iver - Brackett, WI 4:03
5 Grizzly Bear - Deep Blue Sea 3:46
6 The National - So Far Around the Bend 3:43
7 Yeasayer - Tightrope 3:18
8 My Brightest Diamond - Feeling Good 3:53
9 Kronos Quartet - Dark Was the Night 3:51
10 Antony & Bryce Dessner - I Was Young When I Left Home 4:55
11 Justin Vernon & Aaron Dessner - Big Red Machine 4:39
12 The Decemberists - Sleepless 7:53
13 Iron & Wine - Stolen Houses (Die) 1:06
14 Grizzly Bear & Feist - Service Bell 2:23
15 Sufjan Stevens - You Are the Blood 10:14

That Disc
1 Spoon - Well-Alright 2:45
2 Arcade Fire - Lenin 4:06
3 Beirut - Mimizan 2:42
4 My Morning Jacket - El Caporal 3:33
5 Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - Inspiration Information 4:05
6 Dave Sitek - With a Girl Like You 3:26
7 Buck 65 - Blood Pt. 2 (Remix) (feat. Sufjan Stevens and Serengeti) 3:36
8 The New Pornographers - Hey, Snow White 4:25
9 Yo La Tengo - Gentle Hour 5:31
10 Stuart Murdoch - Another Saturday Night 2:55
11 Riceboy Sleeps - Happiness 8:37
12 Cat Power & Dirty Delta Blues - Amazing Grace 3:34
13 Andrew Bird - The Giant of Illinois 4:44
14 Conor Oberst & Gillian Welch - Lua 5:53
15 Blonde Redhead & Devastations - When the Road Runs Out 3:28
16 Kevin Drew - Love vs. Porn 3:57

Saturday, 21 March 2009

What is baroque pop?

Yes, the question is asked again, and I spend far too much of my life trying to answer this trivial question. If you've ever visited Wikipedia, you'll know what a mess this topic is. No-one agrees, and the list of baroque pop artists is frankly absurd. The media (music journalists) lazy usage of the term doesn't help!Witness the currently usage of 'freak-folk'. (btw is safe in my possession :-))

So here's my latest thoughts on baroque pop:

Baroque pop is to pop music what progressive rock is to rock music.
It's a more complex form, likely to have more varied instrumentation and/or more ambitious song structures. Whilst the term baroque pop originated in 1960's music journalism during a fad for using a harpsichord in pop songs, the term as used by music journalists has come to mean something more ornate and complex than most pop music. In terms of modern artists, the two most often cited are the classically influenced ostentatious pop songs of
Rufus Wainwright, and the complex arrangements of Sufjan Stevens' music with their non-standard time signatures, instrumentation and harmonic counterpoints.

Dear readers, do you have any thoughts on what baroque pop is? interested in your views. Perhaps we can sort out the Wikipedia entry one day!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Introducing Soren Anders

Here's an artist I'm keeping an eye on.

(With liberal cutting and pasting from Wikipedia!)

Soren Anders (born John T Fischer) is an American composer, singer, record producer and instrumentalist from southern Illinois. He is the creator of the multi-award winning band Shimmerplanet.

With its string backing it fits nicely into baroque chamber pop realm. I'm not sure he's found his voice yet, the tracks I've heard seem like ambition student works, unlikely to make an impact on a larger stage, but there's certainly enough here to grab the attention of baroque pop enthusiasts.

Ander's has gained much critical success as the creator of the band Shimmerplanet has been called “a breakthrough creatively” and “brilliant”. “It takes artistic courage to be this lyrically honest and musically experimental,” wrote[2]. Awards from The Songwriters Hall of Fame, The Independent Music Awards, and Talent In Motion Magazine followed.

Anders has worked with 60s recording icon Lesley Gore, 80s recording icon Chris Stein (of Blondie), and recently scored and conducted a choir for one of his favorite bands, Menomena. The recipient of numerous awards, international airplay and critical accolades, Anders is very busy, not just with Shimmerplanet, but with various other collaborations (Darren Ockert, Carolyn Eufrasio, Molly Bea).

No commercial releases yet, but plenty to listen to on his Myspace.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Joanna Newsom's quotable lines

Some of my favourite Joanna Newsom quotes

There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road
There are some dragons who were built to have and hold
.....Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie

Your skin is something that I stir into my tea
.....Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie

dried rose petal, red-brown circles
framed your eyes and stained your knuckles

You came and lay a cold compress upon the mess I'm in

The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined and hold us close forever

Dumbstruck with the sweetness of being

Never get so attached to a poem
You forget truth that lacks lyricism
Never draw so close to the heat
That you forget that you must eat,
.....En Gallop

oh, the hills are groaning with excess
like a table ceaselessly being set
.....Monkey and Bear

And I have read the right books
To interpret your looks
You were knocking me down
With the palm of your eye
.....Peach Plum Pear

Down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender
you and I, and a love so tender,
is stretched-on the hoop where I stitch-this addage:
"Bless this house and its heart so savage."

And all that I want, and all that I need
and all that I've got is scattered like seed.
And all that I knew is moving away from me.
(and all that I know is blowing
like tumbleweed)

and in a moment of almost-unbearable vision
doubled over with the hunger of lions
.....Sawdust and Diamonds

And all that I've got, and all that I need
I tie in a knot that I lay at your feet.
I have not forgot, but a silence crept over me.
So dig up your bone, exhume your pinecone, sadie

though my wrists and my waist seemed so easy to break
still, my dear, I would have walked you to the very edge of the water
and they will recognise all the lines of your face
in the face of the daughter of the daughter of my daughter
darling, we will be fine, but what was yours and mine
appears to be a sandcastle that the gibbering wave takes
but if it's all just the same, then will you say my name:
say my name in the morning, so I know when the wave breaks?

I wasn't born of a whistle or milked from a thistle at twilight
no, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright
so enough of this terror we deserve to know light
and grow evermore lighter and lighter
you would have seen me through
but I could not undo that desire
.....Sawdust and Diamonds
(Dumbstruck! One of the most beautiful lyric sequences I've ever heard)

the difference between
the sprout and the bean
is a golden ring

When you go away
I am big-boned and fey
.....The Sprout and the Bean

Do you want to sit at my table?
My fighting fame is fabled
And fortune finds me fit and able
.....The Book of Right-on

Do you want to run with my pack?
Do you want to ride on my back?
Pray that what you lack does not distract
.....The Book of Right-on

And Jamie has eyes black and shiny as boots
and they march at you, two-by-two (re-loo, re-loo)
when she looks at you, you know she's nowhere near through:
it's the kindest heart beating this side of the blue.
.....This Side of the Blue