Monday, January 3, 2011

Albums of 2010, part three

(Over the next few days or, more likely, weeks--I'm not a timely person--I'm gonna be posting a paragraph or two, festooned with links, about all of the new albums I heard--and kept--this year, in alphabetical order, four or five at a time. I apologize for how shitty I am at writing about music. Most of these reviews will be very positive.)

James Blackshaw, All Is Falling
Many of those who have been following James Blackshaw's quiet, little, and wonderful career seem to be unhappy with the type of progression he's decided on for himself. As for me, I love it. His early stuff was sharp-edged and discordant, but never un-beautiful; a combination of Fahey-like guitar picking, raga structure, and electronics that was absolutely under the sway of its influences but no less powerful for it. Over time, he's phased out the edges and the discord, kept the Fahey and the raga, and added in fuller instrumentation (piano, violins, even vocals from time to time) and influences from modern classical. That last addition is of course not much of a stretch, as modern classical owes pretty much everything to the Americana Fahey worked with and to raga. The end result is a slight but unmistakable shift in the kind of beauty he creates, and, to me, a previously unforeseeable increase in the amount of that beauty.

Brain and Brain, Context
Brain and Brain, Coma
OK, these are my albums. It would be indecent for me to go on and on with my second-rate music criticism about how great they are, so I'll just say this. Context was a response to Jim O'Rourke's statement here (search in the page for the word "context"). As much as I love him, I couldn't stand that quote, so I decided to make a piece of music designed to piss him off: it's four heavily treated samples from works of his set against one another in constantly shifting combinations, so as to be always creating new contexts for the sounds. Coma was an experiment in dramatically lengthening samples that worked out much better than I expected. It was almost entirely accidental and it's even a stretch to say I was responsible for it; I'm tempted to give more credit to Audacity than to myself. If you're interested, you can listen to them here.

Glenn Branca, The Ascension: The Sequel
Branca's original The Ascension is a classic, rightly so: it's a bunch of carefully controlled, cathartic chaos, music that pushed the boundaries of what rock instrumentation was capable of and taught Sonic Youth everything they needed to know for the next thirty years (Lee Ranaldo played on it, as did, oddly, the guy who wrote "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other"). I don't blame Branca for wanting to make another album just like it; even aside from how good it was, it must have been enormously fun and rewarding to make. And I appreciate that he just went right ahead and gave this album exactly the title it otherwise would have been given jokingly in every single piece written about it.

I admit I haven't given it all that much of a chance. It's not bad music. But I don't see any reason to ever think "I want to listen to The Ascension: The Sequel" when I could just think "I want to listen to The Ascension." Again: I don't, remotely, begrudge this album for existing, and it is in fact quite excellent when you listen to it. But regardless, it's an album that already happened once and did not, particularly, need to happen again. That said, the tribute to Steve Reich is a lot of fun, if only because I spend an embarrassing amount of time making my own similar tributes.

Caribou, Swim
The world is finally catching up to Arthur Russell. This is excellent news. Even more excellent is "Jamelia." This album is inspiring, but not in the way that it's inspiring me to write about it.

Circle, Rautatie
You never know what to expect from a Circle album the first time you listen to it, aside from relative assurance that it will be great music. This album strikes me as being more in their concise Kraut-metal vein, though tweaked in a way I can't quite find words for. There are elements of prog here that are stronger than I've heard them do before, but there's more to it than just that.

No one sounds like Circle (not even Circle sounds like Circle); the elements in songs like "Pelkkä meno" aren't far off from turn of the 70s hard rock--Sabbath, Zeppelin, Bowie, maybe a bit of Stooges even--but the way they're arranged, and the way the song is structured, and the way incongruous elements like the quiet little piano line that recurs throughout play against the whole, are, if you're me, totally indescribable. As always, excellent stuff.


Richard said...

oh, man, I love Circle! Haven't heard the last few though.... will have to check this one out when I get a chance.

Also, re: the O'Rourke quote, I suppose I can see why you'd disagree with what he says there, but in some way I understand where he's coming from.

Randal Graves said...

I hate to riff on the quote, but as I'm unfamiliar with everything here but some Circle, heh.

I too see where he's coming from, but I still think the idea is bullshit. Once something's been made, been put out into the world like a newborn, that newborn is going to have a billion things acting upon it. So what?

I know where I was coming from when I wrote/composed/painted something, so the inevitability that this creation can theoretically be mutated, as inevitable as breathing or eating & drinking, well, it's almost pointless to fight it.

Artist as controller, I get it, and dig it to an extent; ex. I still buy CDs because I enjoy the care that often goes into the presentation, but music without a physical medium isn't going back inside the box.

Ethan said...

Circle, the great unifier.

Richard, if you ever feel like going into a bit of detail on where you think O'Rourke is coming from (beyond his usual grouchiness), I'd be interested. My feeling on it is essentially what Randal said, though I would put it more emphatically. I mean, hell, if someone transformed one of my works into something new--sampled, or remixed, or whatever--I would be fucking thrilled. That is, after all, what art is: dialogue. And beyond reinforcing a controlling hierarchy, I'm not sure I can see the distinction between what O'Rourke is singling out for derision and, to pick out examples of things he's done, covering a Burt Bacharach song or drawing on elements of John Fahey's style or whatever.

I'm not, if it's not clear, arguing with you! Just curious where you think O'Rourke's coming from with this.

Richard said...

Well, the remarks he made are kind of unclear (plus, it's just an interview and he is kind of grouchy). But, I didn't immediately take from them that he was opposed to transformations or sampling or recombinations or whatever. Let me reproduce the first part of it here: “You can no longer use context as part of your work,” he said, glumly, “because it doesn’t matter what you do, somebody’s going to change the context of it...."

Ok, so I was drawn to the "you can no longer use context" aspect of the line. I think, in a simple matter, he's disturbed that there no longer seems to be any way to count on a listener hearing a work at least close to how it was intended, as its own thing. A work as an entity. Now, with recorded music especially, this has always been something of a chimera (compare, say, the intention behind remastered Beatles records--improved fidelity!--to how they were experienced by most--bad hi-fis or transistor radios), but it was a plausible illusion. I get the sense that he feels the illusion has been shattered, making works more unstable to begin with. I highlight that last phrase because I'd imagine that he'd agree that works take on lives of their own, and always have, and that outside that initial contact, in its intended shape or form, it does different things in the world, inspires different responses, gets combined with or sampled from, etc.

Does that makes sense?

(Also, looking at that article again, did you notice that they misspell Alan Silva's group? They call it "Celestial Communications Orchestra", leaving out the "r" in Celestrial. [Though a Google-search can't seem to agree on the spelling. Are they different groups?])

Randal Graves said...

Richard, given your clarification (of your take), I would be sympathetic to that, the most obvious example to start with being an album in its entirety as opposed to Joe or Jane Consumer downloading a single track, thus losing the context of that piece in relation to everything else.

Being a fan of albums over songs - I can't say I've ever (that I remember) listened to tunes via shuffle. I'm in a mood, I need the whole album, all the emotions that are stirred up along with it.

Life being more fragmentary these days, perhaps I simply have a different mindset than the young kids, and that's more get-off-my-lawn than I was going for.

Ethan said...

Richard, that makes a lot of sense! When you put it in terms of an illusion being shattered, I guess that means the difference between me and O'Rourke (or, that is, the hypothetical O'Rourke who is contained wholly in that quote) is that I see the shattering of the illusion as tremendously exciting. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that to me the illusion was never that plausible to begin with. I mean, you know, O'Rourke made The Visitor one track, so when I listen to it, sure, it has the same beginning, middle, and end as he made it have--but only, for example, if something doesn't come up that makes me stop the music. And that's only the beginning, because I'm listening to it in my bedroom in Providence while O'Rourke made and listened to it in his apartment in Tokyo. In what way can my experience blasting it to cover up my next door neighbor's booming reggaeton be compared to his waiting to record until his neighbors are at work so they won't complain about the noise?

Basically, I see anything that reveals how absurd it is for that guy in Japan to tell me how to listen to music here at home as a good, exciting, freeing thing, where at least in that quote (which, considering that O'Rourke said it and the NYT quoted it, probably shouldn't be taken at face value) he's less excited at the prospect.

On Alan Silva, I didn't notice that. My copy of Luna Surface definitely says "Celestrial." Poring through the covers available on RYM reveals one somewhat later one without the R, but I'd be willing to bet that that's a typo.

Randal, it's funny--I used to be all about individual songs in the 90s and early 00s. I would tape singles off the radio, and make mix tapes, and put individual songs on repeat on my stereo, etc. But then as my listening switched more and more to digital formats (at this point I'm exclusively mp3 and vinyl), my focus switched to albums. Why? I have no idea, but it's certainly against the usual narrative we see on these things.