Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In the best hands: AC/DC's 'Rock or Bust' and the personalized canon

Yesterday, I headed into work with the notion that I'd set aside some time for D'Angelo's Black Messiah, the inescapable Event Album of the moment. I did end up playing that record through—and digging it quite a bit; I'm looking forward to further spins soon—but I didn't get around to it until the evening. That's because another recent release monopolized my attention: AC/DC's Rock or Bust.

It sounds sort of ridiculous, but yesterday was the day I realized AC/DC was awesome. I know; I know. The rest of the world has known this for, what, something like 40 years. But my response to Rock says something about the way I tend to approach rock, specifically canonical rock. For a long time, I've made a distinction—really relevant to no one other than me—between Classic Rock and rock I consider classic. It's not that I don't trust the canon; it's just that I feel an obligation to see/hear for myself why something is great. In recent years, I've come to look at the canon as a sort of I'll-get-around-to-it checklist. Some event—ranging from a splashy reissue campaign all the way down to me happening to catch a song on the radio—causes me to pay close attention to an artist or band I've known in a superficial, for lack of a better term "ambient" way (i.e., their music is simply a part of the air I breathe, as a music fan of my general age and demographic), to take a deep, personal dive into their sound, and all of a sudden I realize why that legendary-by-consensus artist or band commands the attention and acclaim that they do.

This has happened countless times during the past 20 years or so of my listening life. Bands/artists I knew only as a radio staples (Zeppelin, Sabbath, Floyd) or generally agreed upon poet-geniuses (Young, Cohen, Dylan, Morrison, Mitchell, Springsteen, Marley, Costello) or pop-cultural touchstones (Steely Dan) or my parents' faves (The Beatles, CSNY, Creedence) or even simply vaguely familiar names (The Band, Thin Lizzy, America, The Stooges, The Buzzcocks, Captain Beefheart, The Minutemen) suddenly become three-dimensional to me. Their greatness shifts, in my mind, from something that I've heard others proclaim, to something that I believe and understand. I grew up mainly as a fan of the underground—metal, punk, post-hardcore, indie rock, etc.—walling myself off, as I suspect many teenagers do, to what they see as Everyone Else's Music. I still love a majority of what I loved then, some of it as fiercely as I did, but thankfully, I've chucked—as any sensible listener eventually does—the idea that obscurity has anything to do with quality. Underground music can be great or it can be terrible, and the same goes for the canonical stuff.

Frequently, I find that the canon is absolutely on the money. Darkness on the Edge of Town? Yeah, it's fucking great. Again, something everyone else either already knew for themselves, or took on good faith from a trusted source. I guess for me, it's the "trusted source" part I dispense with. I can't stand at the back of the queue and take the word of someone further up the line; I have to wait till I get there myself and hear it with my own ears. This methodical, or maybe more accurately, stubborn approach to the classics is probably why I still have so many gaps in my knowledge of Classic Rock. Every year, I move a couple names from that mental file cabinet to the one labeled "rock that's classic," i.e., rock that I truly believe, based on firsthand experience and attention, to be great. Everyone has their own theory of listening, and this is mine: I don't think the canon is wrong; I just don't mistake its value judgments for my own. (Nor do I, for that matter, buy its narrow-minded binaries concerning the supposed mutual exclusivity of certain styles.) And thus: huge, gaping blind spots. I've never heard Exile on Main Street or Who's Next or Purple Rain all the way through, to name three examples off the top of my head. Do I doubt their greatness in the slightest? Of course not. I just haven't gotten there yet.

So in the past, AC/DC has fallen into that ambient category I described above. As with my exposure to Zeppelin prior to the point when I took a deep, full-catalog Zep-dive a few years back, I've known AC/DC's output only in a greatest-hits sort of way, which, I've found, is essentially meaningless. Knowing a band via the tyranny of Classic Rock Radio is to almost un-know them, i.e., the listener is actually at a disadvantage when it comes to true appreciation. You grow so numb to the charms of those 5 or 10 songs (in AC/DC's case, "TNT," Dirty Deeds," "You Shook Me…," "Back in Black," etc.) that you develop a kneejerk reaction to the band in question, a reaction that's easy to mistake for an informed opinion. "AC/DC, sure, yeah—I know them. Stop right there; no need to say anything more."

So maybe, as in the case of Van Halen two years back, what I needed in order to begin the process of true AC/DC familiarization, to start myself on the path of loving this band rather than simply being aware of them, was a new album to consider. I often find that new music by an old band can help in this regard. This is probably because I feel like I can come to the latest record fresh. I don't have to listen through all the noise of the canon, the hyperbolic praise that calcifies around a consensus-classic album over the years and tends to obscure the music itself; you start to think of what the critics have said rather than what the artist(s) said, and that is no good at all.

My interest in AC/DC in general and Rock or Bust particular has been slowly building. I heard Eddie Trunk spin some righteous AC/DC deep cuts a few months back; I followed the respectively insane and sad personal sagas of drummer Phil Rudd and guitarist Malcolm Young; I enjoyed typically perceptive and informed Rock reviews by Adrien Begrand and Ben Ratliff; and I gave lead single "Play Ball" an idle spin. I sought out the record itself on Spotify after its release, but when I didn't find it there, I set the matter aside and then promptly got swept away in year-end-list madness.

So, circling back, yesterday I walked into work with every intention of queuing up Black Messiah, both out of a sense of duty and out of a sense of genuine interest. And just as I was sitting down, my friend/colleague Josh Rothkopf, an outstanding film critic who also happens to be one of the sharpest and most well-informed rock fans that I know, asked me if I'd checked out the new AC/DC album. I said I hadn't, thanked him for the reminder and promptly clicked into his iTunes folder after booting up my computer.

And there it was. The glory of AC/DC. A sound I knew but didn't know. A sensation I'd registered but hadn't processed. We talk of simplicity, but we can really only know it in the moment. For the past several years, I've appreciated a ton of frill-less, anti-evolutionary music in the extreme-metal sphere, from Asphyx to Obituary. It may be that, as the aforementioned Ratliff review suggests, there is no more quintessential contemporary rock music than AC/DC's. The pleasures of their rock are so plain to hear that they're easy to miss. All of us who grew up on Classic Rock Radio (shudder) are used to taking this kind of supposedly "surface"-level brilliance, expertise, mastery for granted.

But hitting Play on Rock or Bust's opening track, titled—what else?—"Rock or Bust," I felt AC/DC for the first time. (Maybe, in the immortal White Men Can't Jump parlance, I finally heard them, whereas before I'd been merely listening.) There's something to the way the musicians introduce themselves here. The guitars enter at 0:00 (I assume that Angus and Stevie Young are playing in unison, but we could easily be hearing one of them doubletracked), sounding out a half-time riff, one of those post–"Custard Pie" stompers that AC/DC execute just about as convincingly as The Masters, punctuated with chasms of dead space; then Rudd's drums come in at 0:05, not shattering the silence so much as flicking it aside; guitar-left starts to add a little rhythmic pick chug on the quarter notes, barely perceptible but crucial to the building momentum; bassist Cliff Williams stirs in the bluesy eighth-note throb at 0:10, as the guitars switch to a minimalist B-section lead, repeated exactly four times; the original riff returns at :19, and vocalist Brian Johnson jumps in, on the "and" of beat 2, howling out a "Heeeeey-yeah!" And very soon, AC/DC, their entire glorious whole, is rocking. Sure, further flourishes enter the mix: Rudd's brilliant snare/crash accents on the 4 during the chorus (0:51, for example), beginning right as those patented gang-style AC/DC backing vocals enter; a squealy Angus lead-guitar line (1:01); an added guitar accent on the verse, echoing Rudd's aforementioned beat-4 smash (1:10, for example); a little one-beat turnaround shimmy at 1:15; a righteous Angus solo, segueing into a stylish coda riff (2:36); three final full-band jabs, and a classic four-stroke "dump" roll from Rudd. Johnson provides the running meta-commentary: "We like to shake you down / Know what we're talkin' 'bout / We turn the amps up high / The crowd's gonna hit the sky."

And so forth: Nothing happens and everything happens. This is a familiar idea in rock appreciation: A so-called smart listener/critic attunes to so-called base pleasures and instructs their readership to do the same. But we condescend to a song like "Rock or Bust" at our peril. A job, any job, really can't be done better than AC/DC do theirs on this song, during these 3 methodical, outrageously pleasurable minutes. You pick apart the mechanics; you marvel. You turn your brain off; the thing runs like a dream. Art is the concealment of art, yes. But AC/DC's art isn't exactly concealed; it's just so geared toward the conveyance of pleasure ("The crowd's gonna hit the sky," etc.) that all their slick little moves, their skillful pacing devices, cohere into to a single feeling: that of rightness. A purposeful march toward fun and groove. You toil away in the lab, i.e., practice room, for 40 years so that you can emerge with something that sounds this natural. Obsessiveness channeled into pure relaxation and composure. The driving principle behind a lot of jazz, no? And like AC/DC, jazz musicians often grow deeper and more assured, paradoxically more relaxed and more commanding, as they age. It isn't that AC/DC don't care about chops. There's as much technical geekery in "Rock or Bust" as in many Rush songs. It's just that their chops are deployed to a different end—some meticulously choreographed Rockettes kick-line sort of thing. The music is so drilled, so obsessed over down to its tiniest detail, that you can listen with complete ease. You know you're in good hands—the best hands.

And Rock or Bust holds the listener tightly in those hands for 35 exhilarating minutes. I'll spare you and myself the close read of the other 10 tracks; the whole album is a fucking blast, one self-explanatory, form-mirrors-content song after another ("Rock the Blues Away," "Got Some Rock and Roll Thunder"), songs that have no meaning, no purpose unless you happen to be listening—no, hearing; no, rocking, really and truly, which is to say, bodily, not just in some headcentric, "appreciation" sort of way—to them at that precise moment, in which case they have only meaning, all purpose.

And so the millions who know and love Back in Black and all the rest utter a collective, "Duh," and I say, "Yeah, I know; I'm late to this party, but I needed to arrive on my own schedule." And on to the next, as the Canon slowly and steadily becomes my own.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 top 10, plus

Since I've been covering music for Time Out New York, going on eight years now, I've been compiling year-end top-10-albums lists for print and/or online. This year, Time Out won't be running individual lists; in their place is this aggregate best-2014-albums rundown, chosen by and featuring contributions from various folks at Time Out Chicago and Time Out L.A., as well as me and my NYC colleagues Sophie Harris and Andrew Frisicano. A similarly styled best-2014-songs list is coming soon.

You can read a few of my blurbs in the general list linked above, but I thought I'd go ahead and publish my own personal, all-genres-in-play top 10 on DFSBP. This will likely be the same list I'll submit to Pazz and Jop, and any other general poll I happen to participate in. For readability's sake, as well as for my own sanity, I'm going to try to keep the blurbs here to a more manageable length than those on the 2014 jazz top 10 I posted recently.

One note re: the content, echoing what I wrote here: For me, the day-to-day experience of music is about songs. The records I return to most frequently are, simply, the ones packed most densely with songs I want to return to. The LPs below were extremely useful to me in 2014. I'm not trying to reduce them to some sort of service role, i.e., boiling down their value to how well they happened to integrate into my life; I'm just trying to drive home the idea that for me, directness, concision and memorability have become more and more focal, at least in terms of my recorded-music listening (a totally different phenomenon, I should stipulate, from the live-music experience). The following albums, crammed with great songs, already feel like old friends. Listen along via this 30-song Spotify playlist, drawn from the top 10 and honorable mentions below, and spiced up with a few of my favorite stand-alone 2014 singles.

10. White Lung Deep Fantasy (Domino)

This is simply a great, super-vigorous punk album that rocks like hell and features an extremely specific, consistent group dynamic. Anne-Marie Vassiliou's drums are a minimalist flattening force (kick-snare-kick-snare, ad infinitum), and Mish Way's vocals are a throaty rallying cry, somehow casual and urgent at the same time. The short songs are lousy with hooks. And guitarist Kenneth William is working out of a completely different playbook than any other rock guitarist I can think of: His lines sparkle rather than sear, spraying micro-detailed melodic glitter all over Deep Fantasy. William's lead line from roughly :48 through 1:05 in "Snake Jaw" is probably the most riotously awesome bit of musicianship I heard on an album released this year.

9. Run the Jewels Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)

As I indicated in my Run the Jewels 2 blurb for the aforementioned Time Out list, it was difficult to separate this record from its context, namely a year of race-centric tragedy, outrage and protest. And yes, that context does give the album, specifically Killer Mike's contributions, a special kind of added resonance. But Run the Jewels 2 is simply an excellent hip-hop LP, period, full of thoughtfulness, silliness, badassery, raunch and a general feeling of conscientious engagement. El-P's verses are outstanding, though the album really takes off when his harsh, dense, super-funky beats fuel Killer Mike's rhymes, as on "Lie, Cheat, Steal"; Mike's tongue-twisting "Like, who really run this? / Like, who really run that man that say he run this?" episode on that track is the apex of this brilliant—and, crucially, brilliantly entertaining—work of politicized art. P.S. I found the discussion surrounding Run the Jewels 2 to be nearly as crucial as the album itself; this NPR Microphone Check interview is essential, especially the section concerning the X-rated "Love Again."

8. Mark Turner Lathe of Heaven (ECM)

This is the album that topped my jazz-only 2014 albums list. Extensive thoughts here (scroll down to No. 1).

7. Mitski Bury Me at Makeout Creek (Double Double Whammy)

Mitski played what was maybe the single best live set I saw all year—a solo performance (loud, heavily distorted electric guitar and voice) at Brooklyn Night Bazaar on Halloween. She's excellent as the singer of Voice Coils (guitarist-composer Sam Garrett's fascinating, sui generis prog-pop sextet), but her solo material hit me in a more visceral way: The combination of sing-songy hooks and merciless severity, the latter of which came through not as much in lyrics and delivery as in weighty yet intangible presence, floored me. Bury Me, which features many of the songs Mitski performed in that live set, hits me just about as hard. It's not as harsh, concise or unrelenting as her live show—though the beginning of "I Don't Smoke" gives a good idea of what the set I caught sounded like—but it's just as assured and compositionally sound. There is so much fierce emotion packed into this record, emotion that's matched by the tightness and integrity of the actual songs. Any artist that could craft two alt-pop songs as simultaneously catchy and unsettling, and as different from one another, as "Townie" and "I Don't Smoke" is someone I'm going to pay serious attention to from now on. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

6. Cloud Nothings Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark)

As I wrote of Here in the Time Out list, this is an album with simple, straightforward indie-rock appeal. Because it's so stylistically familiar, it's easy to mistake for something average. But it's no small feat to craft a record this structurally sound, executed with such genuine, unpolished feeling. Insanely catchy songs that rock like hell. Half the time, I have no idea what the term "indie rock" even refers to, but when I hear Here, I think I know: scrappy underdog passion and outpouring of heart, pop smarts mixed with punk abandon. Here and Nowhere Else is as about good as this kind of music gets. "I'm Not Part of Me," discussed here, is such a jam.

5. Juan Wauters N.A.P. North American Poetry (Captured Tracks)

Juan Wauters's set at Baby's All Right back in February, around the time this record came out, was another highlight of my showgoing year. I've been a Wauters fan since he and his old band the Beets stopped by Time Out to play unplugged in 2011. N.A.P. fulfills every promise of the Beets' best moments. In this brilliant 2011 Beets profile, my former colleague Jay Ruttenberg described Wauters as a "nutter with a Cheshire-cat grin." That grin has only grown subtler and deeper with time; Juan Wauters's deadpan is both inscrutable and absurdly charming. (N.A.P. opens with a sort of talk-sung Spanish-folk-sounding preamble, "Let Me Hip You to Something," which begins, stunningly, "I don't like you / You're a fool / Let me hip you to something.") Here, the Uruguay-born singer-songwriter channels his droll sense of humor into a stubbornly laid-back, almost meandering album of heavily accented folk-pop, the kind of music that reminds you that being punk means, simply, being yourself. Wauters is incredibly good at being himself, and as demonstrated here, at writing deceptively casual, ramshackle pop ditties like "Sanity or Not" and "Lost in Soup." But he goes further on N.A.P., accessing more tender and vulnerable emotional zones. The quiet yearning and plainspoken soul-searching in the song "Water" breaks my heart: "Woke up early, feel that itch / What am I doing now in this niche? / Do I belong? / Who is it that I am?" (You have to hear Wauters sing this, of course.) Not bad for a nutter!

4. La Dispute Rooms of the House (Better Living)

As I've written on DFSBP before, I have a thing for the brand of ’90s (or ’90s-inspired) post-hardcore that's sometimes referred to as emo. Emo is one of the most nerdily taxonomized subgenres I can think of; I can't keep up, honestly. But I know when I hear something that mashes on my emo pleasure buttons, like Cossack (scroll down to the bottom of this post) or On the Might of Princes (RIP Jason Rosenthal) or La Dispute. What a serious album this is—that is to say, it takes itself very seriously, and as well it should, because it's hugely moving and substantial. A novelistic narrative, expressed through Jordan Dreyer's sort of talk-yelped vocals and the band's expertly controlled post-hardcore mini epics. I'm not sure how well I follow the overall story, but the emotions—regret, bitterness, fear, nostalgia, fondness, hope—come through loud and clear. Such a fierce and sturdy piece of art, the kind that makes you feel like you're attending a church you can really believe in. Sad and harrowing and raucous and rocking—in a flailing and convulsing yet tightly drilled sort of way—and just brilliant. This was the best out-of-nowhere discovery I made in 2014, i.e., an album by a decently well-established band that I knew absolutely nothing about prior to this. If you like your post-hardcore—hell, your rock, period—weighty and dramatic, and convincingly so, you need to hear this.

3. Alvvays s/t (Polyvinyl)

Another album with a super-sturdy emotional character, though in a completely different way. As I wrote in the mixtape post, Alvvays zeroes in on the best of indie/twee culture and turns it into something profound. "Archie, Marry Me" is an absolutely extraordinary single, and the rest of this album just about lives up to that absurdly high standard. Heady fumes of bookish, post-adolescent emotion, distilled into songs that zip and skip along ("Adult Diversion," "Atop a Cake") or lope and mope in pensive bliss ("Ones Who Love You," the exquisite album closer "Red Planet"). If Here and Nowhere else is indie rock done simply, magically right, Alvvays is the same, but for indie pop. Yep, you've heard this sound before, and nope, you haven't heard it done this well. I must have listened to this full album something like 40 times straight through in 2014, and I'm still obsessed.

2. Antemasque s/t (Nadie Sound)

Another one that got endless spins. Played this damn thing over and over and over. Spilled a lot of ink on it too: see here. I'm so glad Omar and Cedric are back and tapping into the song vibe with renewed vigor.

1. Future Islands Singles (4AD)

They owned the year and, yep, they absolutely deserved it. Some thoughts here and here. An artful and moving piece of work. And so consistent! I love literally every song on this record, though "Spirit" and "A Song for Our Grandfathers" are megajams for the ages. Anyone who saw Future Islands on Letterman and wrote them off as a mere collection of quirks needs to sit with this album, get a whiff of its deep consistency, confidence and composure, honed via years of touring. Future Islands were ready for their close up.


Honorable mentions:

FREEMAN s/t (Partisan)
Here, via Partisan Records, is the bio I wrote for Aaron Freeman, the former Gene Ween, in conjunction with FREEMAN, the self-titled debut by his new band. FREEMAN has its own character—resolutely chill, optimistic, ominous, trippy, tough—but in terms of the inevitable comparison, I honestly think this one ranks up there with the best of Ween. Also, in terms of the exorcising-personal-demons songwriting canon, "Covert Discretion" is a new masterpiece. That track is the standout, but the record feels sharp and inspired all the way through. Given that I worked on the promo campaign for FREEMAN, I don't feel right listing it in an official capacity, but if that hadn't been the case, it very likely would've appeared on the above list. P.S. FREEMAN, the band, is extraordinary live; see them if you can.

Cannibal Corpse A Skeletal Domain (Metal Blade)
Eyehategod s/t (Housecore)
Obituary Inked in Blood (Relapse)
In 2013, my metal consumption centered on new records by old bands. That trend continued this year. No need to make any grand proclamations about the current state of the scene; this pattern surely says more about my own personal tastes than it does metal at large. There's something about established b(r)ands, like those whose names you see above, that really moves and engages me.

These three albums all document bands simply being themselves. As discussed in a DFSBP post last week, for Cannibal Corpse, that means further refining their current Corpsegrinder-era style. These guys are besting themselves with every release, and that's inspiring to see/hear.

For Obituary, "refining" might be a misleading term. As I've written here before, this band's M.O. is decidedly anti-evolutionary; their mission is to obey their initial primal imperative, the adolescent root of their metal. From a recent interview with drummer Donald Tardy, one of the most hard-grooving, gloriously human drummers in all of metal: "It’s not like we worked for years on getting our sound; the sound came naturally because of the instruments that Trevor [Peres] plays, and just my style of drumming." (I also love this Tardy quote from Terrorizer: "Obituary isn't reinventing the wheel. We'll leave that to the other bands that play technical and crazy and try to go beyond themselves with every record. With us, we knew that fans needed Obituary to be Obituary. They don't need us to change; they just need some solid music.") So Obituary does what it does what it does, etc. The shifts between albums are miniscule—mainly matters of production style, or a difference in lead-guitar approach (while riffmaster Peres has been an Obituary fixture—and thank God for that—the band has featured several different lead players over the years).

In the case of Inked, the production was a bit of a sticking point for me at first. The band funded this album via Kickstarter—yes, I was a proud contributor; I got a shirt and a camouflage Obituary beer coozie for my troubles—and recorded it themselves. Overall, the sound is excellent: loud, mean and unfussy. But the drum production in particular took some getting used to. I almost wish the band had brought in an outside producer to help them capture Tardy's kit, because the sound is pretty confounding: super loud, uniform, seemingly synthetic kick drums, the kind that if they aren't triggered/hit-replaced—as Tardy insists in the Metal Underground interview linked above—they might as well be, paired with really rickety-sounding, near pitch-less toms. I'm nitpicking, sure, but the snare and cymbals sound so good, so live, that it really puzzles me that they couldn't achieve a natural, well-blended representation of the whole kit. But you know what? After I listened for a while, I basically stopped caring. This is another very, very good Obituary album. The riffs are memorable, Kenny Andrews's lead guitar is tastefully (read: minimally) integrated, John Tardy's throat sounds as raw and anguished as ever, and the band's patented Southern stomp is in full effect. The sense of groove on this album is straight-up monstrous, and since that's the main criteria by which I judge any Obituary release, I'll set aside my drum-nerd griping and state for the record that Inked in Blood flat-out rules.

Speaking of Southern stomp, the Eyehategod record is stunning. It's not as punishing as the band's masterpiece, 1993's Take as Needed for Pain (maybe the most disgustingly weighty album I've ever heard in my life), but as a portrait of what this band does, the elegance with which it juggles putridity with real wit and swagger, the way it greases each riff—and my God, are there a lot of good ones on here—with that special N'awlins spice rub, Eyehategod is an absolutely marvelous document. (Sorry, I know food metaphors are cheesy, but EHG's music just has a certain kind of rib-sticking appeal that's hard to convey in sonic terms alone.) Such a shame, then, that it doubles as a memorial for drummer Joey LaCaze, who died last summer. Thankfully, he appears on the entire record—and damn, does he ever appear, his inimitable dancing-through-the-muck groove enlivening every track; check that funky-as-hell LaCaze drum break, leading into a masterful lowdown shimmy, at 2:10 in "Worthless Rescue." But how sad that he isn't around to tour with his EHG brothers during a time in their career when they're getting more deserved acclaim (here's Ben Ratliff on the band's outstanding Brooklyn show from earlier this year) than ever before. Let's be thankful for what we have: Eyehategod is heaven for anyone who's ever loved this band. Incidentally, I'd highly recommend Noisey's admirably comprehensive, multipart NOLA-metal doc, Life, Death and Heavy Blues from the Bayou, to any fan of EHG or the scene that birthed them.

RVIVR Bicker and Breathe (Rumbletowne)
Erica Freas Tether (One Brick Today)
What's this? Another masterpiece from the band that made my favorite album of 2013, and an equally impressive solo dispatch from one of its key members? RVIVR's Bicker and Breathe EP embodies everything I loved about The Beauty Between. Erica Freas, represented here with "Goodbyes" and "The Sound," is one of the most galvanizing singer-songwriter-performers on earth today, and Bicker offers further proof. And as Tether, her wise, calmly heartbreaking latest solo EP, demonstrates, she's every bit as riveting in acoustic mode. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp: Bicker and Breathe / Tether.)


More 2014 faves:

Shorties re: 14 other new LPs and 4 archival releases (jazz excluded; shouted out three of those at the bottom of this post) that I loved this year

Battle Trance Palace of Wind (New Amsterdam)
Battle Trance's Travis Laplante is a genuine contemporary NYC visionary. You might remember him from Little Women; Battle Trance, his four-tenor-saxes quartet, is equally extreme, but more about meditation than catharsis, or maybe the zone where meditation becomes catharsis, or vice versa. Experimental music as sustained, prayerful zone-out. Hear this album, and see Battle Trance live at all costs. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence (UMG)
A slow deluge of concentrated atmosphere, via a caricature that the artist born Elizabeth Grant has gradually fleshed out into a complex pop persona. Ultraviolence both lays on its doomed-starlet psychodrama super thick (the title track) and makes fun of its narrator's (or narrators'?) narcissistic self-mythology ("Brooklyn Baby").

Internal Bleeding Imperium (Unique Leader)
Another great new record by an old metal band, whose specialty is a vile, unrelenting and unmistakably New York–y sort of hardcore-infused death metal, where the slow/fast juxtaposition is key. Kudos to Bill Tolley for his idiosyncratic (splash cymbals! tambourine!), unpolished, super-groovesome drumming.

Kayo Dot Coffins on Io (The Flenser)
Depending on how you look at it, Kayo Dot either made the moodiest, most decadent pop album of 2014, or the sleekest, most listenable prog album of 2014. A profoundly weird band—led by Toby Driver; like Travis Laplante, another contemporary NYC visionary—that continues to grow ever more confident, and comfortable with its shapeshifting M.O. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Mastodon Once More ’Round the Sun (Reprise)
Mastodon furthers its pop metamorphosis—shorter songs, huger hooks—with outstanding results. This album is obviously a totally different animal than, say, Remission, but it's completely satisfying on its own terms. "The Motherload" is one of my favorite songs of 2014, and most of the others are catchy as hell too.

Bob Mould Beauty and Ruin (Merge)
"I Don't Know You Anymore" is another one of my favorite songs of the year; "The War" is almost as good. I've been moderately into Hüsker Dü for a while, but I didn't become a serious Mould nut until I heard 2012's Silver Age; this album is stylistically similar and maybe even better. More loud, masterfully melodic rock music from one of the contemporary masters of the form. P.S. I also read Mould's memoir this year, and I highly recommend it.

Karen O Crush Songs (Cult)
A sad, small, deliberately sketchy album with substantial heartbreaking potency. More on K.O. here.

Nude Beach 77 (Don Giovanni)
NYC's best straight-up rock/roll band trades hook-crazed immediacy for a more patient, lived-in sound on a good-all-the-way-through double LP. A rare example of "maturity" without tedium. God, these guys write classic-sounding songs.

Psalm Zero The Drain (Profound Lore)
Two more CNYCVs (see Battle Trance and Kayo Dot above), Charlie Looker (ex–Extra Life / Zs) and Andrew Hock (ex-Castevet) join forces, producing what is, to my ears, the most compact, listenable and gut-wrenchingly affecting album in their sizable joint discography. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Raspberry Bulbs Privacy (Blackest Ever Black)
Speaking of gut-wrenching. Maladjusted midtempo goth-noise-punk filth from yet another CNYCV: Bone Awl drummer turned Raspberry Bulbs mastermind Marco del Rio. P.S. This record grooves like hell. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Say Anything Hebrews (Equal Vision)
Max Bemis proves he's still the king of confessional emo-gone-Broadway brain-/heartspew.

Sia 1000 Forms of Fear (Monkey Puzzle) 
The triumph of the megawatt human voice—many writers, myself included, overuse the word "soar" when describing music, but Sia's vertiginous vocal leaps on tracks like "Chandelier" and "Eye of the Needle" actually seem worthy of the term—and an eccentric pop mind that refuses to let fame compromise her weirdness or vulnerability.

The War on Drugs Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)
Pastel roots-pop bliss, with all the gloss and pathos of the best ’80s dad rock. "Red Eyes" in particular is an instant classic.

Yusuf Tell ’Em I'm Gone (Columbia/Legacy)
Still need to spend more time with this one, but have heard enough to know that Cat Stevens remains the archetypal pop/folk/soul troubadour.



Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young CSNY 1974 (Rhino)
The real monsters of folk. Ragged roots-rock glory disguised as ego-/drug-fueled supergroup excess. More here.

Demilich 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart)
Inspired death-metal surrealism. More here.

Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (Columbia/Legacy)
Finally, the Bootleg Series, after winding through Dylan's career in circuitous, Dylan-y fashion, gets around to the trove we've all been waiting for. Have barely scratched the surface of this, but I can tell that the vibes are thick, the camaraderie deep and the mood often refreshingly light.

Led Zeppelin reissues (Atlantic)
The best rock music, dusted off (but not scrubbed clean) and sounding huge and incredible. We're up through Houses of the Holy now—get on board if you're not already, okay?

Sunday, December 07, 2014

2014 jazz top 10, plus

Did I hear enough jazz records in 2014 to comment authoritatively on what the "best" were? Did I listen hard/long enough to those I did hear, even the ones that yielded great pleasure? I'm thinking more about that word, listen, these days, after having read my friend Nick Podgurski's recent critique/manifesto on the topic, as it pertains to processing, appreciating and writing about music. His thoughts are well worth your time.

No, I don't feel that my jazz listening this year was really adequate, whatever that means. And I think that's as it should be. Those of us who follow and respond to the arts can always do more. But in the present tense, all you can do is make note of what moved you and why. That's why I like the year-end list bonanza, simply because it's a time of celebration. And celebration is the ultimate goal, always, maybe the only goal. "Criticism"—haha. I'm a fan.

So here are some 2014 jazz records I loved. The first ten are the ones I submitted as my ballot to Francis Davis's annual survey, the results of which typically go live in mid-December. (Here's last year's round-up.) The order feels more and more arbitrary to me as I look over the list, but I'll count down backward to build in just a little suspense. All of these should be easily accessible via Amazon and/or iTunes; most of them—the ECMs and the Palmetto excepted—are streaming on Spotify. Now, on to the music:

10. Louis Hayes Return of the Jazz Communicators (Smoke Sessions)

Smoke, on the Upper West Side, is a cool club. I admit I haven't been there in ages. The recent flurry of albums from the venue's in-house label, Smoke Sessions, makes me want to remedy that asap. As Nate Chinen recently reported, Smoke Sessions has been on a tear lately, much like its downtown counterpart Smalls Records. Every Smoke disc I've spent good time with has been strong, but I admit I'm biased toward the ones that pair elder bop masters with killer younger players. (Along these lines, I also highly recommend Jimmy Cobb's The Original Mob, with Peter Bernstein, Brad Mehldau and John Webber.) As I've written here before, the intergenerational concept often makes for great jazz: conventional jazz that feels profound, not perfunctory. And that's exactly what this Louis Hayes session is. On paper, it's completely straightforward—a nice, varied set of jazz-club jazz, played live at Smoke by an all-star band. But the sound is excellent, and it allows me to focus on what I want to focus on, namely the gorgeous thump and crash of Hayes's kit, the strange, somewhat loose, rattly snare sound, the relaxed insistence of his ride-cymbal patterns. Three outstanding soloists—saxist Abraham Burton, vibist Steve Nelson and pianist David Bryant—all of whom sound so comfortable in Hayes's luxurious pocket, and in the general idiom of this music: soulful hardbop, ’50s-style, from burners to ballads, like the sort that the now 77-year-old Hayes was playing with Horace Silver nearly 60 (!) years ago. I hope I get the chance to see Louis Hayes live soon, and I thank Smoke Sessions for reminding me to catch players like him while I still can.

9. Bill McHenry, Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille Us Free—Fish Stories (Fresh Sound New Talent)

I didn't know this album existed until a couple weeks ago. I think I was searching, as I often am, for new Andrew Cyrille delights and stumbled across Us Free on Spotify. As I mentioned on Twitter recently, it's been a great year for AC on disc; for example, Syvmileskridt, a trio album led by Danish pianist Søren Kjærgaard and featuring the drummer, narrowly missed making this top 10 list and is well worth your time, as is Wiring, by the illustrious Trio 3 (Lake/Workman/Cyrille) with simpatico guest pianist Vijay Iyer. When I saw that Us Free was actually recorded in 2006, I wondered if it might have some sort of core drawback that kept it from release until now, but once you hear it, I think you'll agree that it's every bit as excellent as you'd expect given the musicians involved. As I've often written, I'm a big Bill McHenry fan; put him together with a drummer as classy, adaptable and distinctive as Cyrille (see: the current McHenry quartet with AC, Orrin Evans and Eric Revis) and an intense, unpredictable bass presence like Henry Grimes, and you've got serious potential. When I first came across Us Free, I was wondering if it would be more or less an open-improv session. I'd happily listen to a record like that made by these three, but I find Us Free's actual content—a diverse program of concise tracks, most of them originals—way more interesting.

I'm not sure whose idea this session was; it seems like a sort of collective affair, but I'm just now realizing that in many ways it's a sequel to Grimes's underrated 1965 debut as a leader, The Call. Us Free reprises three of the Grimes tracks from that session, "For Django" (just called "Django" here; not to be confused with the John Lewis standard), "Son of Alfafa" and "Fish Story," clearly the new album's quasi-namesake. Like The Call, Us Three is a trio session that runs on a sort of jittery, dancing, almost whimsical energy, and juggles gritty, deep-pocket, hard-swinging freebop with more abstract styles. In the former vein, the trio's reading of Keith Jarrett's "Shades of Jazz" (an interesting choice; I'm guessing it might have been McHenry's call, since he's the only one who doesn't contribute original pieces to this date) almost reminds me of an Old and New Dreams performance, or maybe a particularly hard-swinging Paul Motian–led track; it has that same rough, rambling, freewheeling, celebratory vibe. McHenry, Grimes and Cyrille share a deep earthiness of aesthetic, and so, a conventionally swinging performance like "Shades" or "Django" feels completely of a piece with the freer, more intuitive style of improvising heard on "Son of Alfafa." Smartly, there are plenty of moments of deep repose here: a stupendously chill version of Cyrille's "Aubade" (which I remember from another excellent, not-well-enough-known AC reed/bass/drums session, the C/D/E album from 2000), which features the sparsest and most prayerful instrumental interplay I've heard on record this year. "Vibration"—one of several tracks on which Grimes plays violin (another is a moving solo rendition of "Come Sunday")—"Fish Story" and "With You in Mind" (featuring a narration by AC) exemplify a similar sort of texture-oriented balladry that's heavenly to get lost in if you're a fan of the softer side of these three players' sounds. Any trio album featuring these three players was going to catch my attention, but the fact that this turned out to be such a thoughtful, substantial, approachable, and, I'd be remiss not to mention, beautifully recorded album was a pleasant shock. Can't wait to spend more time with this one (and, for that matter, with The Call, an album I loved years ago but haven't revisited in quite a while).

8. David Virelles Mbókò (ECM)

Like many of my jazz-writin' peers, I was a big fan of Virelles's immersive 2012 set Continuum (see here and here). Mbókò is on a different label and features a different band—percussionist-vocalist Román Díaz is the sole holdover from Continuum—but to me it feels like a sequel to that session. David Virelles's work as a leader obviously has a very strong sense of mission. In the first write-up of Continuum linked above, I discussed how that record had an air of willful mystery. "I have also been asked about the meaning of Román Díaz’ words on this recording," wrote Virelles of Continuum, referring to the untranslated chant/narration that Díaz contributes to that album. "His poetry was created in Spanish, as well as ritual languages from the three main cultural lineages of African origin of Cuba:  Karabalí, Kongo and Yorùbá-Lucumí. He uses their inherited phrases by morphing and reorganizing them, contributing to these oral traditions. His words address issues particular to each song in a code-like fashion that would be challenging to understand even to Spanish speakers." (Emphasis mine.) In this newer interview, he discusses the Abakuá secret society and its influence on Mbókò. "…some of the information is available only to intitiates," he says at one point. And in this Continuum interview, he states, "I wanted to have access to the kind of information that people like Andrew Cyrille [who appears on Continuum] have, for example. I wanted direct contact with that."

I don't pretend to understand the subtleties of Virelles's rich statements, either verbal or musical, but it's clear that his work is about communion, both with jazz tradition and with Afro-Cuban ritual tradition. And if you don't necessarily fully grasp all the references, you can still get lost in the music, feel its meditative composure and shadowy intrigue. Mbókò takes me to those same places, but to my ears, it's a less esoteric album than Continuum, more aligned with Jazz Piano proper. Part of that has to do with the fact that Díaz's verbal element is downplayed; his chant is featured, but in a less central role than it was on Continuum. I admit that this appeals to me; I enjoyed the vocals on the earlier record, and I understand their centrality to the project, but I found myself relishing the straightforward piano-bass-drums interplay the most. More than Continuum, Mbókò feels like a jazz album that has a strong Afro-Cuban ritual element, rather than an Afro-Cuban ritual album that has a strong jazz element. Some of the pieces, like the opening "Wind Rose (Antrogofoko Mokoirén)," feel like spirit-raising soundscapes, but other tracks here, like "Aberiñán y Aberisún," "Stories Waiting to Be Told" and "Seven, Through the Divination Horn" really let us hear Virelles the piano player and bandleader, as opposed to, for lack of a better term, Virelles the channeler-of-vibe. Díaz's percussion is beautifully integrated into the record's piano-bass-bass-drums fabric, and there's something really compelling about hearing his folkloric percussion set against kit drummer Marcus Gilmore's futuristic, electronica-inspired grooves on "Transmission," to name one example of how Díaz's contributions play out on Mbókò. If I had to venture a guess, I'd suspect that ECM's Manfred Eicher might have had something to do with the somewhat more conventional bent of this album with respect to its predecessor. (Interestingly, in the newest interview mentioned above, Virelles discusses how some listeners told him they felt Continuum wasn't traditionally "pianistic" enough; is Mbókò simply a response to that?) But whatever the reason for this slight shift in orientation, the important thing is that Mbókò delivers a lot of what I liked about Continuum, while telling us even more about the David Virelles aesthetic. This budding visionary clearly doesn't make records casually, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

7. Dave Douglas and Uri Caine Present Joys (Greenleaf Music)

I'm not all that familiar with Dave Douglas's enormous body of work. I've enjoyed the handful of his records I've checked out during the past few years, and there are a few back-catalog titles I remember digging many years back (including the Booker Little tribute In Our Lifetime and the Tiny Bell Trio's Songs for Wandering Souls), but I'm no expert. That's even more true re: my knowledge of Uri Caine. But Present Joys immediately felt familiar and inviting to me, and it's stuck with me since its release over the summer. I think this is because it falls into a certain category of record that I have an affinity for—not just a horn/piano duo album, but one with a powerful unifying mood, a reason for existing. There's a good amount of variety on Present Joys, but its prevailing mood is a sort of churchy somberness, stemming from the fact that several of the pieces are from the Sacred Harp songbook. And some of the tracks that aren't drawn from that source clearly take cues from this tradition. Much like Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo's similarly hued Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, Present Joys is a document of two badass jazz musicians getting together and deciding to do something other than simply play some tunes. Douglas and Caine are zeroing in on a wavelength, using their gifts to set, and burrow into, a mood, rather than just perform. As with Songs of Mirth, the album isn't all one thing; there's some nicely jaunty, bluesy, swinging, sometimes abstract material ("Ham Fist," "Seven Seas," "End to End") to season the mix. But the slower pieces seem to me to be the meat of the album. "Bethel" is one of the originals that's clearly indebted to the Sacred Harp material; it's intensely lovely and funereal. There's delicateness to the playing here and also great gravity. This performance, along with the other slow pieces, is the sound of two musicians playing a song, sitting with it and meditating on it, rather than perfunctorily stating a theme as a prelude to improvisation. I've always been a fan of, for lack of a better term, sad jazz: Booker Little's "Man of Words," Grachan Moncur's "Evolution," Andrew Hill's "Dedication" and much of the aforementioned Marsalis/Calderazzo set. If you, like me, love it when jazz slows, quiets, grows still, bears down emotionally, bares its heavy heart, then Present Joys will likely do for you what it does for me. I'm sitting here listening to the final track, "Zero Hour," and I'm feeling like I could live in this music. It's not some relaxing-background-music vibe; it's the power of jazz to embrace sparseness and patience and real reflection. A zone beyond ballads, approaching pure feeling. That's what Dave Douglas and Uri Caine achieve here.

(Incidentally, I'm curious to know what other duo albums in the vein of Present Joys folks might be able to recommend. Off the top of my head, I can think of three LPs I know of, but don't know so well, that might do the trick: Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan's Goin' Home, Hank Jones and Charlie Haden's Steal Away, and Haden and Metheny's Beyond the Missouri Sky. Now that I think about it, Haden's classic duets collections, Closeness and The Golden Number, fit the bill too.)

6. Johnathan Blake Gone, But Not Forgotten (Criss Cross)

Plenty of conventional jazz appeal on this record by drummer Johnathan Blake, another player I'm not super familiar with in general. I don't typically see promos from Criss Cross, but I sought this one out after reading Ethan Iverson's rave on Do the Math. I'll second his praise and state that I love the way this album both fulfills and subverts the paradigm of brawny, hard-swinging two-tenor jazz. There's no denying the thrill of hearing the clearly very Elvin-inspired, and sometimes (as on "Broski") beautifully bashy Blake light a fire underneath Chris Potter and Mark Turner. The former, who seems to really excel at soul-volcano catharsis, fits comfortably into this context, while Turner finds ways to match Potter's intensity while at the same time bringing his usual feeling of thoughtful composure into the mix. (Interestingly, I was just reading this Turner Ted Panken Blindfold Test, where Turner says of Potter, "I wish I could play that well. He’s totally incredible.") Blake clearly designed this as a playing date. In contrast to Present Joys, there is a feeling here of "Get the head out of the way so we can jam" on pieces such as "New Wheels" and monster opening track "Cryin' Blues." But the simple assuredness with which Blake and bassist Ben Street swing, and with which all the players solo (I'm listening to a killer Street bass feature on final track "Two for the Blues" right now) makes this record a moment-to-moment delight, whether the band is ambling or cooking.

The pianoless-quartet format yields a great feeling of openness; in that sense, this is free jazz, literally jazz that's free to do what its architect, Blake, clearly loves to do most, which is hang out in the pocket and just jam. (Not to play the pointless pigeonholing game, but I'm having a hard time placing this brand of jazz; there's a lot of hardbop in here, but the pianoless element takes it out of the realm of super-conventional jazz-club jazz; maybe you could liken the format heard on Gone, But Not Forgotten to some of the Elvin-led bands of the ’70s, including the Liebman/Grossman/Perla quartet from Live at the Lighthouse.) Blake picked the right players; as Iverson noted, he picked the right repertoire (a cool smattering including pieces by Eddie Harris, Cedar Walton, Paul Motian and Jim Hall) and he picked the right arrangements, just meticulous enough to create an appealing framework for the solos; and he clearly picked the right studio and engineer, because this album sounds excellent. I've got the Trudy Pitts ballad "Anysha" on now, and much like the Louis Hayes album, it just sounds good, in a simple, nourishing way. This is an uncomplicated jazz album—familiar though not, to my ears, particularly retro-feeling—but one with a really savvy design and a very clear, consistent appeal. I would love to see this music performed live.

5. David Weiss When Words Fail (Motéma Music)

Speaking of clear, consistent appeal, I'm really starting to recognize David Weiss's name as a mark of quality, a brand that implies a certain amount of seriousness and sophistication, and a determination to produce top-quality small-group jazz that summons an orchestral grandeur without skimping on the improvisational fire. I'm a big fan of his work with the Cookers, which released its latest robust, powerful disc this year, Time and Time Again, an album I wish I'd been able to spend more time with. Part of the reason I didn't, though, might have been that this disc under Weiss's own name really sated my appetite for that trademark Weiss sound that's so evident on the Cookers albums: big, lush, little-big-band arrangements bookending passionate solos. There's nothing particularly radical about the David Weiss aesthetic, but I do hear in his work a certain defiant spirit, an insistence that contemporary jazz ought not to shy away from being jazzy: big and bold and dramatic and flashy and hugely spirited, while taking on a range of emotions with a broadly shaded palette that clearly takes cues from the composerly likes of Wayne Shorter, an artist Weiss paid tribute to on last year's Endangered Species.

Simply put, many of these pieces (e.g., "The Intrepid Hub," "MJ") sound like they could be standards from somewhere between about ’65 and ’75—"White Magic" is actually a 1973 tune by pianist John Taylor—but the way Weiss's band performs them, they sound utterly urgent. I'm particularly impressed by altoist Myron Walden's voicelike wailing on "Aftermath." (You can sense Walden and the other sidemen's devotion to the Weiss enterprise in this promo video.) Does this jazz sound old? In a certain sense. When Words Fail makes me think of those proud, determinedly classy, brassy, swinging jazzmen of the ’70s, the Charles Tollivers and Woody Shaws, say; it's an album that asserts Weiss's unshakeable belief, expressed in Cookers liner notes I've read, that hardbop is an infinite and infinitely durable medium. So this record is not "cutting-edge" in any obvious way. What it is, though, is simply sturdy and superb and confident in its idiom and in control of its materials. Does hearing music this flawless sometimes make me want to grasp for something rawer, chancier, less pristine? Sure, but if you're in the mood for jazz with polish and grandeur and heart, and these sort of skyscraping, spirit-stirring themes—and I find that I often am—When Words Fail is an excellent bet.

4. Sarah Manning Harmonious Creature (Posi-Tone)

Like the Smalls and Smoke imprints mentioned above, L.A.'s Posi-Tone has a strong label identity, mostly orbiting around straight-ahead hardbop. While I've often enjoyed their output in the past, I've never felt as strongly about any of their records as I do about this one, and that might be because it stands so far apart from what they usually release. I have to thank Phil Freeman, a passionate Posi-Tone advocate, for turning me on to Harmonious Creature, via this interview with saxist-composer Sarah Manning. (The album ranked highly on Phil's very comprehensive and worthwhile year-end jazz list over at Burning Ambulance.) All of the albums on this list are, in one way or another, strong, individualistic statements, but to me, none of them feels as distinctive as this record. Harmonious Creature is an entire world; everything, from the makeup of the ensemble to the character of the writing, and Manning's alto-saxophone style and improvisational approach—and even the cover art/design—feels deeply personal. I can recall hearing jazz with strong overtones of chamber music, Americana or Eastern European folk, all currents I hear in this music, but there's a certain sense of fantasy, of elegant reverie, that pervades Manning's aesthetic and sets it wholly apart from any other soundworld I can think of. The themes are sturdy and instantly memorable; I'm particularly taken with the swaying, twisting, piquant "Radish Spirit" and the blazing, dervish-like "Floating Bridge." And the grouping of musicians, particularly the frontline of Manning, violist Eyvind Kang and guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, is an exemplary feat of bandbuilding. There's just such a synergy between material and format; you can tell that Manning crafted this music to be played by this band. The sax and viola solos, which often overlap, can feel like a single improvising brain expressing itself in two different voices: Manning's gorgeously liquid, almost stringlike sound—imagine Sonny Simmons's register-jumping daring combined with the calmly inspired flow of Lee Konitz—mingling with Kang's woody, super-emotive flights. Guitarist Johnathan Goldberger adds a luminous haze to the performances; he's particularly effective on the quasi-ambient ballad "I Dream a Highway" and the excellent cover of Neil Young's "On the Beach," which explodes into a blur of swimming colors.

Harmonious Creature stands apart from most jazz the way that Young song stands apart from most "roots rock." It expresses a very private vision, but also a very openhearted and inviting one, beautifully rendered by a profoundly sympathetic band. I have no idea who to compare Sarah Manning to soundwise, but spiritwise, I'm tempted to mention Booker Little, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Frisell and Paul Motian. The first two for specificity of vision, depth of affect and richness of texture, and the latter two for their championing of a deeply romantic, dreamlike vision of jazz—jazz that seems at once nostalgic and fantastical. I think Harmonious Creature embodies all of that. I love this record, and I'm fascinated to hear future dispatches from Sarah Manning's singular brain.

3. Kenny Barron and Dave Holland The Art of Conversation (Impulse!)

I came around to Dave Holland's 2013 release, Prism, pretty late. It was only a month or so ago that I really had a moment with that record, a fun, swaggery funk-fusion romp. This LP couldn't be more different from Prism. It's not anything like the other duo album on this list, Present Joys, either. In some ways, The Art of Conversation has a lot in common with the Johnathan Blake session above. Both are about providing elegant frameworks in which master improvisers can simply play—get down to business and be themselves. Kenny Barron's playing on this record is so assured, so swinging and bluesy and virtuosic, that it almost feels unassailable. I'm not sure how jazz piano could be played any better than this. Of course, there are a million more idiosyncratic ways it could be played, but Barron's playing seems free of quirk. The passion I hear in his playing is the passion of assurance; he's nailing this music and making it look easy. Holland solos too—and handles the melody statement on the exquisite Barron ballad "Rain"—but mostly, he's playing a straightforward pizzicato bassist's role on this program of originals by both men, plus a couple standards.

I truly don't mean to take anything away from this pair or minimize the album's appeal—even in a year of particularly strong jazz releases, this stood way out for me—when I say that The Art of Conversation seems like the platonic ideal of cocktail jazz. The performances are uniformly tight, pleasant and—again, I don't mean this as a value judgment—polite. The repertoire is well-balanced, from witty and urbane (Monk is clearly a touchstone; the duo plays "In Walked Bud," as well as Barron's very Monkish "The Only One") to stirring and romantic (Holland's "The Oracle," Ellingon/Strayhorn's "Daydream). And these pieces do work just fine in a background mood-setting capacity, but when you take the time to zero in, The Art of Conversation just sounds sublime. The album title is at once a) cliché and b) completely true. To listen closely to a piece like the gorgeous Holland ballad "In Your Arms" is to hear two players interlocking, exchanging, dancing together, reinforcing one another in turn.

The Art of Conversation contains a lot of music that will sound familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of jazz. It's tempting to gloss over an album like this, even if you find it appealing. It's great jazz musicians playing jazz, right? But beneath the almost casual, offhanded facade, its seeming effortlessness, is a deep conviction about how jazz ought to be done. There are obviously many more conventionally exciting and distinctive Dave Holland records than this chill and dynamically narrow release, and while I don't know the Kenny Barron catalog well, I'd guess that the same goes for him. But taken on its own merits, The Art of Conversation rewards every second you spend paying it close attention. Listen hard enough, and its straightforward excellence starts to sound almost radical. This album achieves urgency by simply being its own unassuming self.

2. Frank Kimbrough Quartet (Palmetto) 

There's an illustrious jazz tradition of building on tradition, wearing one's influences proudly, whether that's Mingus channeling Duke, or Steve Lacy channeling Monk. You tell the listener where you're coming from, and you demonstrate how you're starting there and taking them somewhere new. I hear so much loving homage on this Frank Kimbrough album. The first three tracks he selects on this desert-island list are by Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley and Andrew Hill, the latter two being former mentors of Kimbrough's. And his aesthetic, as expressed on Quartet, bears traces of all three. Like those three pianists, and I'm generalizing wildly here, Kimbrough operates at the intersection of modernism and the blues, creating radical music that's full of earth and hearty pulsation. He's a kind of eccentric/romantic—in some ways my favorite kind of jazz musician, Andrew Hill being my No. 1 example—who relishes freedom but also values rapturous emotion. The result is that you get a piece like "The Call," which opens Quartet. The performance operates in what I think of a post-Jarrett/Bley/Haden/Motian mode of free jazz, stumbling along in propulsive yet metrically free time while also embodying an intense sentimentality, so that the players enter into a kind of sweet delirium, pouring out a song as if it were so much sweat. I can't help but see Keith Jarrett's super-soulful, Afro-topped ’70s countenance when I hear much of this music, such as "The Call" or the clearly American Quartet–indebted blues-soul workout "Kudzu."

A lot of what helps Quartet transcend its influences is Kimbrough's shrewd choice of sidemen. Steve Wilson's alto work is in some ways the most appealing thing about this album. The dude absolutely soars on Quartet, drenching the pieces with sweet songfulness. And bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash do an excellent job of providing the molten rhythmic lava—not violent so much as restless, joyously multi-directional—that jazz like this so desperately needs. A performance like "Afternoon in Paris" here, essentially interpreted as free jazz (in the same sense as "The Call"), perfectly illustrates the album's blend of romance and abstraction. Like Present Joys and Harmonious Creature above, Quartet is a hugely openhearted album, a document of virtuosos getting down to meat of song. The ballad "November," with its dark, sensuous melody, might be my favorite track; it's such a delight to hear the way the band burrows into the material, scooping out all possible emotion and meaning. That goes for Quartet as a whole; the compositions are love letters to Kimbrough's forebears, and the solos are love letters to the compositions and the moods that inspired them. The effect is radiant and intoxicating.

1. Mark Turner Lathe of Heaven (ECM)

Whenever I see Mark Turner's name on an album or gig listing, I take notice. I suspect I'm not alone in this. He's been a musicians' and critics' favorite for some time. (See this great 2002 Ben Ratliff profile.) Every time I've seen him live—with several different bands, including Fly and quartets led by himself, Billy Hart and Gilad Hekselman—he's been, for me at least, the music's center of gravity. There's a composed, shaded purity to his solos, a patient, unshowy determination.

Those same qualities also apply to his bandleading, to the extent that Lathe of Heaven barely registered with me on the first couple listens. The same thing happened when I saw this particular band, a quartet with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, at the Vanguard earlier in the year; the group honestly didn't make much of an impression. But duh, it's Mark Turner, so you have to look more closely. I doubt I could describe Lathe of Heaven in a more appropriate and evocative way than Turner himself does in this video profile: "…mystery and tension"; "In a lot of these songs, you're not going to hear the whole [story] from the beginning; it's going to develop over the course of the song."

I love all six tracks on this record, but there's something about the final one, "Brother Sister 2," that has me particularly enthralled. There's a version of this track on Fly's third album, 2012's Year of the Snake, yet another Mark Turner dispatch that I haven't quite gotten my head around yet. But the Lathe reading is one of the most enthralling puzzlements I've heard on any record this year. This notion Turner mentions of not revealing the whole story from the beginning comes through strongly here, though I'm not sure he and the band reveal the whole story even by the end. A simple, bluesily melancholy horn theme—played first by Turner, then by Cohen, then by both—set against an exaggeratedly slow Gilmore backbeat, which keeps petering out, losing steam. Martin meanwhile, plays what sounds like an entirely independent line, as though he's walking his fingers along to a whole other track that's piping through his headphones. The overall effect is extremely odd, almost as if the whole band is playing in a drowsy trance. Then, right as you're starting to orient yourself to the wavelength of the piece, its strange start/stop hypnosis, the piece shifts into another theme, played in a very slow, murky 6/8 that unravels into a pool of swirling sound. Turner and Cohen begin soloing at once, with the rhythm section barely implying the pulse, really letting the music swim. (I should make it clear here that Cohen is a dream foil for Turner throughout this record; Lathe really got me excited about the trumpeter, and sent me back to his own very good 2014 leader session, Dark Nights.) If you're one of those listeners who, like me, loves to relish jazz as pure sound, this section will be a deep delight for you. I could listen to this band sprawl out in collective, controlled freedom—as they do from around 4:00 through around 6:30 in "Brother Sister 2"—all day. There are hints of abandon, but this isn't "free jazz"; it's thoughtful, listening-oriented abstraction. Then around 7:20, the original drowsy-backbeat passage returns. Joe Martin really lets go here, stretching the tempo like taffy with his weird, oblique walking pattern. Then the rhythm section drops out, and Turner and Cohen lay the piece quietly to rest.

I don't know exactly what to make of "Brother Sister 2," but I do know that it exemplifies Turner's stated objectives of mystery and tension extraordinarily well. And not in obvious or obtuse ways. It draws you in, but it doesn't tip its hand. That doesn't mean there's not an order there. The rest of the pieces on the record are somewhat more conventional, but the whole album feels, to me, sort of infinitely worthy of regard, if that makes sense. (I think I know what Ben Ratliff meant when he wrote this of Lathe: "It does something that jazz records used to do more: you might hear it, feel there’s really nothing to add, and decide not to listen to records—including this one—for, say, a week.") It creates an atmosphere, a vibe, a hazy yet super-sturdy intensity, and sustains it, just like Mark Turner solos tend to do. I particularly love "Ethan's Line"—with its slyly shimmying rhythm, complex yet catchy theme and, similar to "Brother Sister 2," daringly but not chaotically abstracted midsection—and "Sonnet for Stevie" (another version appears, along with Turner himself, on Billy Hart's very good 2014 album, One Is the Other), an extremely laid-back, balladlike piece that slowly builds up swagger during the solos. The whole record is just pure content and composure and, thus, is a perfect summation of the Mark Turner aesthetic so far. I recommend that you spend serious time with Lathe of Heaven. And secondarily, I recommend the Ursula K. Le Guin novel that gives the album its name, which I picked up after falling for the disc.


Honorable mentions:

At one point or another, I considered each of these ten albums for the above list.

Ginger Baker Why? (Motéma Music)
The fiercely individualized, incomparable-to-anything-else wonder that is Ginger Baker Playing Jazz.

Nels Cline and Julian Lage Room (Mack Avenue)
In other settings, Cline sometimes loses me with what I hear as fussy faux-weirdness, but there's a delicacy and thoughtfulness to the best material here that I find completely disarming.

Jeremiah Cymerman Pale Horse (5049)
Minimalist meditation and sinister mind control from an increasingly vital experimentalist and two expertly attuned collaborators. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Kris Davis Trio Waiting for You to Grow (Clean Feed)
One of the most formidable and formidably weird pianists on earth reaches new heights of exacting insanity—jarring and meditative in turn.

Donald Edwards Evolution of an Influenced Mind (Criss Cross)
State-of-the-art virtuoso postbop, deepened by excellent writing from the leader and an extraordinary lineup including ubiquitous geniuses Orrin Evans and Eric Revis.

Billy Hart One Is the Other (ECM)
The third album, and third straight essential statement, from one of the best working bands in contemporary jazz, featuring Turner, Street and Ethan Iverson.

Søren Kjærgaard, Andrew Cyrille and Ben Street Syvmileskridt (ILK)
A wonderful surprise, which finds a Danish pianist continuing his rich collaboration—and furthering a truly collaborative, subtly individualistic trio—with two American masters (incidentally also the rhythm team behind David Virelles's Continuum). (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Kirk Knuffke and Jesse Stacken Five (Steeplechase)
A handsome trumpet-piano companion to the Douglas/Caine above: warmth, intimacy and inspired, unconventional repertoire, via a pair whose ongoing duo project really feels like a proper band.

Rudy Royston 303 (Greenleaf)
Lush, funky, confident postbop that isn't afraid to go for big emotion or pop-friendly slickness—this one's a delight when you're in the right mood.

Tyshawn Sorey Alloy (Pi Recordings)
Deepening mystery and stubborn patience from a drummer-composer who's making a habit of demanding and rewarding sustained attention.

P.S. I feel like I should mention one record I was dying to hear but haven't yet managed to get ahold of: Tarbaby's Fanon, on RogueArt. Hope to be able to check it out soon!



I haven't spent as much time with any of these as I'd like, but I adore what I have heard of them. The first two offer further proof of what we already knew about these giants' respective genius; the latter shows us yet another facet of an unpigeonhole-able original.

Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian Hamburg ’72 (ECM)

John Coltrane Offering: Live at Temple University (Resonance)

The Jimmy Giuffre 3 and 4 New York Concerts (Elemental Music)



The 2014 jazz shows that stand out most strongly in my mind are the Ornette tribute at Celebrate Brooklyn! and Farmers by Nature at ShapeShifter Lab. James Blood Ulmer at Vision Fest was also a revelation.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Delivering the death metal: A new Cannibal Corpse LP

The death-metal band Cannibal Corpse released a new album this past September: A Skeletal Domain, their 13th LP. As with the prior two Corpse records, 2012's Torture and 2009's Evisceration Plague, it took me a second to come around to ASD. What typically happens is that I register the fact of the album release without really registering its considerable significance to me, a serious Corpse fan. I spin the record once, half-listening and thinking, "Yep, another Cannibal Corpse album" (you'll often read this sort of dismissive phraseology applied to the Corpse; Brooklyn Vegan recently wrote that ASD was "notable simply for being Another Cannibal Corpse Record"), and then I move on. Some weeks or months later, I think to myself, "Wait a minute, a new Cannibal Corpse album?!" Then I load the record onto my iPod, and the serious engagement begins. This time around, it took a couple tries. Even after I started listening closely, I wasn't crazy about ASD. But within the past week or so, something has clicked: I've been spinning ASD obsessively, and I'm now thinking it might be the best Corpse disc of them all.

As I've discussed here before, Cannibal Corpse turned a corner with 2006's Kill. In my opinion, that's when the latter-day incarnation of the band—fronted by George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher, who replaced founding vocalist Chris Barnes back in 1995—really got their shit together and began cranking out truly elite product worthy of their elder-statesmen status within the death-metal realm. I believe that, taken together, Kill, Evisceration Plague, Torture and A Skeletal Domain are the best that contemporary death metal has to offer. Not necessarily the most challenging or the most innovative, or the most extreme or harsh or thought-provoking or unsettling or what have you, but simply the best. This is death metal that perfectly balances technicality and brutality, chaos and catchiness. These are albums you can play all the way through, again and again, full of songs that sound great on record or onstage. Like most great music, the recent Cannibal Corpse output is music you can use.

A veteran band besting themselves with each album. Not just upholding a standard but pushing. This is not a common phenomenon. As evidenced by the Brooklyn Vegan quote above, it's not the sort of career arc that's going to gain you much respect outside your own die-hard fan base. But death metal is, at its core, an insular art form. I recently stumbled across a making-of documentary dealing with The Wretched Spawn, the Corpse album that preceded Kill. There are many beautiful moments here, many of them dealing with the idea of the fan/band symbiosis, and the members' gratitude at being able to do what they love for a living. At 32:45, drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz says, "That's our job: delivering the death metal." Fisher follows him up: "This music is everything to me. It's given me so much, and the fans have given me, and all of us, more than we could ever give back. But we try to give back."

I'm still somewhat iffy on mid-period Corpse, the years between when Fisher joined the band and Kill. But when I've heard each of the prior three Corpse records, I've heard exactly what Mazurkiewicz and Fisher describe above. A band giving back, delivering the death metal. Professionals doing their job. ASD upholds this standard. There is so much craft and care and love, and so little bullshit, on this record. Barnes-era Cannibal Corpse had a certain seedy grime to it. (Yesterday, I stumbled across this incredible 1994 soundboard boot, which captures that lineup in its prime.) Corpsegrinder-era Corpse, on the other hand, is all about the fury, the relentlessness, the onrushing mincing machine that is the band's riff factory / nervous system: guitarists Rob Barrett and Pat O'Brien, and bassist Alex Webster, the Corpse's three principal songwriters.

Like the last couple Corpse discs, ASD actually improves as it goes on, growing steadily more demented and adventurous. The first three tracks are total anthems—clear future live staples. The title track and "Headlong Into Carnage" up the speed and intensity and breakneck Corpsegrinder word-munching to near-absurd levels. "Icepick Lobotomy," probably my current favorite track on the record, shows off two of late Corpse's signature moves: the agonizing doom breakdown (:33) and the thrilling uptempo 6/8 rock-out (2:00). "Vector of Cruelty" is one of the grooviest songs in the band's discography, orbiting around this sort of cruising midtempo feel, while "Asphyxiate to Rescuscitate" is one of the most manic and mathy, frantically juggling five- and seven-beat clusters. The last track, "Hollowed Bodies," starts off with a needling blast-beat riff that harks back to the Barnes-era heyday of 1994's The Bleeding, and goes on to effortlessly juggle tempos and feels—there's no last-track curveball here; just more Corpse-y excellence.

Basically, you finish the album and you want to play it again. There's no drop-off. ASD is just the latest example of Cannibal Corpse giving back, delivering the death metal. There's no ceremony about it. The next chapter is built in. You know the next LP will arrive in two or three years and you know it will be humbly outstanding. You know the casual spectators will take it for granted. You know the fans will show up to the concerts. You can count on this reliable cycle, and though you might grow temporarily numb to it, you know that when you hear what the Corpse does next, you will remember why they are at the forefront of their genre, 26-plus years after they started. It's a simple matter of releasing quality product. Of evolving without losing the thread. Of balancing immediacy and cleverness. Of doing their work lovingly and with full commitment. Art and craft, craft and art. Job, done; death metal, delivered. Fans, like this one, happy as hell.