Joe Frawley, How They Met Themselves

frawl_htmtIn my past encounters with Joe Frawley, I have been taken to surreal, waking-dream places where altered vocal samples stand in for fragments of other peoples’ memories, where no sound is left well enough alone and exist only to be torn, chopped, and reconfigured as the musician sees fit. On How They Met Themselves, although the music in places retains that I had the weirdest dream feel, Frawley focuses more than usual on his role as contemporary composer rather than sound surgeon. Which is not to suggest he offers us a dish of vanilla this time. As ever, his penchant for quirky construction, complex interplay, and affecting beauty is in place. But the clean simplicity of the opening track, “Aubade,” does come as a bit of a surprise if you’ve listened to Frawley before. This solo piano piece is certainly as close as he’s ever come to a New Age sound. It took me a few listens to stop waiting for it to get the usual treatment. Now I just let its softness and story wash over me. He revisits this emotional space later on “The Ruins of April.” Edged with a hint of sadness, it is flecked with arpeggios that spatter like a light rain. As much as I enjoy my stranger Frawley pieces, the solo songs reveal a musician with an elegant, nuanced hand who needs nothing more than his instrument to tell a deep and involved story. There are, of course, places where things do get less straightforward. On the title track, piano and xylophone hold a dialogue, tumbling and tangling. The xylophone rolls and trills; the piano plods pleasantly forward. The mix is delightfully dizzying at times. With “Un Salon Fantôme” we smoothly shift into a dreamier territory…even if that dream is a little dark. Frawley takes the voice of frequent collaborator Michelle Cross and cuts it into slivers, which he then floats, appropriately ghost-like, across the scene. The piano gets dosed in reverb, and strange sounds slip through in the background. “What the Wind,” which follows, is softly haunted by the whispering of said wind, backward echoes, and long, quiet string draws. A standout track for me on this excellent album is “The Waxwork Heart.” With a blend of sounds, from strings to voice to piano to an unexpected roll of thunder, over a syncopated rhythm, it is charming and fanciful. Something in its central piano phrase puts me in mind of Jobim’s samba “Waters of March.”

Joe Frawley’s music has fascinated me since I first encountered it. He is a storyteller at heart, and his medium is normally a wonderful cut/paste/reimagine collage motif that’s powerful intimate and loaded with vision. On How They Met Themselves, we get a look at the foundational elements of his narrative sense, often in pristine, simple expressions. It’s a bit of an exercise in soul-baring, and it adds one more thick layer to my appreciation of this superb artist.

Available at Bandcamp.

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Secoya, The World Is Yours

secoya_worldI remember when a friend introduced me to Eno’s Music for Airports. I was struck by how deliberate each note seemed, how unhurried and yet placed precisely where it needed to be. I had never experienced anything quite so purposely slow but still capable of holding–at times, of course–my attention. I hear that deliberateness again in The World is Yours by Secoya (George Robinson) and the effect, the mesmeric draw and the emotional effectiveness, are quite the same. The World is Yours is something of a sad album, or at least seems to spend much of its time on the verge of tears, and it brings the listener into that same space. It is beautiful and slow-moving, graceful and thoughtful. Ambient washes, warm low string tones, and vocal pads applied with a gentle hand greet the listener on the title track. It’s an intimate space, with the focus on the strings, and then Robinson opens it up with the introduction of another breathy, low element. It’s a simple but effective change in tone, the unfolding of wings you weren’t aware you had. The sensation of being visited by the spirit of Eno comes to me me most strongly first in “Saturated,” where crystalline tones float and peak over more vocal pads and a patient piano line. This is not to say it’s cribbing directly from Music for Airports; but its spatial elegance, its careful placement of notes, create that mental waypoint for me. It carries into the next track, “November Dusk,” with a beautifully melancholic piano lead. A very moving piece. For even deeper melancholy, head to “Nothing,” a light blend of pads and piano that takes ample pauses before speaking. There is some brightness here, mind you. “Towers” starts with glistening tones, and although there is a touch of thoughtful sadness to the piano, it retains an essence of hopefulness throughout.

The World is Yours is a very beautiful album, gentle and pensive, that will politely drill down into your emotional core to see what you’re hiding there. It Eno-esque patience and uncluttered nature lend weight to that. Each element’s voice is heard clearly, its place in the blend, distinct. A perfect end-of-day album when you’re feeling reflective, or any time you need to just quiet down and listen to something with a true touch of elegance.

Available at Bandcamp.

Erik Scott, In the Company of Clouds

scott_cloudReaders who follow me on Facebook may know I often take my review listens in the company of wine. Sometimes I also refer to music in terms of wine. For example, I have unrepentantly referred to some lighter New Age as “Chardonnay music.” In listening to Erik Scott’s In the Company of Clouds, I find myself thinking that for me it’s like a Riesling. I enjoy it although it sometimes borders of being a little too sweet, but under the right conditions and in the right mood it’s perfectly refreshing. On this beautifully produced album, everything is built around two dominant sounds: the sensual, round tones of Scott’s bass guitar and the saucy drawl of pedal steel guitar from John Pirruccello. If you’re not a fan of pedal steel, you may want to take this album in smaller sips, because it’s everywhere. It swaps between its familiar heart-tugging country-music feel, as in the opening track, “Nine Lives” and the closer, “The Long View,” and something a bit more bouncy and island-flavored, as on “Waves” where it comes in like an ocean breeze. Scott rolls in a host of side players, including ambient guitar maestro Jeff Pearce, who appears on “Breathing Room,” a piece that shimmers and yawns beautifully against a backing of light hand percussion. The players get their moments behind the bass and steel, and every track has a rich and full ensemble feel thanks to superb mastering and production from Tom Eaton. Chris Cameron brings piano lines that skip from the swelling romance of neo-classical to the riffs and trills of borderline honky-tonk on “Open Door.” Cameron and Scott swap phrases over big clouds of string pads. A lovely piece. Scott’s bass takes on a lyrical voice on “Seven Veils,” and I fall totally into the complex lines of his incredible playing. I can just envision his fingers zipping across the strings as he pulls this speaking/singing quality out of the instrument. I’m a sucker for good bass to begin with, so this lands precisely in my wheelhouse. The speedy joy of “First Cup” loads up on feel-good to get the heart racing. A tapping, dopplered percussion line adds character and keeps the pace up. I do have to say that not all of In the Company of Clouds is entirely to my liking. The “ooo-ooo” vocals on “Women of Avalon” are where this charming Riesling ups the sugar content a bit too much for me, and there’s an odd moment in it where we’re suddenly thrust smack into the middle of an Ennio Morricone western soundtrack. As much as I dig its sound, I could have used a break from the steel here and there. Plus, between the steel and the bass track after track, there are points where the album can suffer from a touch of sameness.

In the Company of Clouds recently nabbed Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album of the year at the Zone Music Reporter Awards, a prestigious competition in the New Age/ambient world. So my opinion, that it’s not superlative throughout, clearly comes with a few pinches of salt at the least. I enjoy it very, very much under the right circumstances–which is to say, mixed into my playlists, where I can enjoy Pirruccello’s fantastic and emotive steel without taking in too much at once and I don’t notice the sameness. I want to say that New Age fans should definitely have this in their collection, but that pigeonholes this refreshingly unique album. Rather: people who enjoy good, well-produced, catchy, engaging contemporary instrumental music should absolutely own this.

Available from CD Baby.

Arrocata, Man in the Maze

arroc_mazeMy initial impression of Arrocata’s Man in the Maze is that it is exceedingly quiet. Not just ambient quiet, but whisper in the middle of a desert night quiet. Robert Straub apparently does not want to rouse you whatsoever as you slip through this 48-minute offering. Long, underplayed drones melt across breathy pads and everything gets coated in a light glaze of hush. Let me correct myself: there are occasional moments where the sound rises up briefly, like the start of “Looking Back,” but it almost instantly and somewhat apologetically quiets back down. For the most part, these pieces feel delicate. They never speak loudly, choosing instead to just course by. This becomes, paradoxically, both a strength and a weakness. Certainly, its lowered voice fortifies its contemplative nature, which is at its best in “The Gift.” Built on string pads and a hiss of rain, it seems fairly simple on the surface, but the mix of sentiment and sound effect create a vivid image and a true emotional core. “Day Break,” which opens the album, establishes the overall tone and also welcomes the listener with a familiar set of synth sounds. Grumbling low end pads and glittering higher notes waft easily past. “The Passage” shifts into a moodier, twilight-shaded space, but again never rears up, never does much more than pull its sonic thread slowly through your ears. “Rising from the Depths” is the most active track, as Straub laces in squibs of curling electronics and some breathy flute sounds. Straub’s music has tended in the past to have that Southwestern sort of flair to it, a light touch of tribal/shamanic influence, but outside of this track, Man in the Maze tends to keep away from that.

As far as this quietness being a weakness… If it was Straub’s intent to create a very restrained album, then he’s succeeded. I do wonder if this might make it too light or thin for some listeners. I’ve been struggling with the question of whether there’s really enough here for me. On one hand, if there was enough, I wouldn’t have to ask. And yet as I have let Man in the Maze‘s low sounds walk me through their vistas over and over, I’ve never quite felt like, okay, that’s enough of that. There is an attraction for me in that restraint, in that resistance to needing to do something more or bigger, but said attraction has had a tendency to waver a bit. In the end, what this kind of music strives for is a visceral response from the listener. That much, this album gets from me. Find a quiet moment, add Man in the Maze to it,  and see how it works for you.

Available from CD Baby.

Tim Story & Hans-Joachim Roedelius, The Roedelius Cells

tshr_cellsI am hoping it is not too presumptuous of me to suggest that the musical chemistry between Tim Story and Hans-Joachim Roedelius borders on legendary. Each of their collaborations comes to us with a new variation of brilliance, a new way of playing with or discovering sonic expression, a fresh redefinition of the borers of composition. On The Roedelius Cells, we have Story taking piano improvisations by Roedelius and re-imaging and re-configuring them into new shapes and thoughts. Treating pieces of these solos as “found sounds,” Story─who came across them some time after they were originally done─set about making his own music out of what had been Roedelius’ music. So here we get the flowing, almost romantic lyricism of the originals, paired with a funkier, more playful cut-and-paste approach as Story isolates a few seconds’ worth of notes and blends them back together. In some pieces the stitch-work is not all that obvious. You hear it as a  slight stutter in “Cell One,” the briefest of pauses between phrasing─just enough to catch your ear. It hides again in “Cell Four.” A slight click seems to mark the juncture, but there is also a perceptible sudden stop, an eye-blink of silence, in this pastoral stroll before the main phrase repeats. It’s also hard to detect in the surprisingly fast and vibrant “Cell Seven.” This jubilant piece feels virtually untouched, but listening closely reveals the interplay between its various loops, and it’s spectacular. At its core, it has the heart of minimalism, but feels so much richer and less rigid. A heftier sense of being in Steve Reich territory comes through when Story brings his strong but short repeating elements more forcefully to the front. “Cell Three,” especially in its waning moments, carries this vibe quite clearly. In among all the piano sounds, Story also drops vocal tidbits and “accidental sounds.” In “Cell Three” we catch moments of studio conversation, from variations of someone saying “I can’t hear…” to Roedelius’ charming “Ooh la la!” The use of vocals is even more effective in “Cell Six,” where Story sprinkles them among piano passages that seem to only barely match, harmonically. It’s a challenging piece, perhaps the most so of all the works here, so adding one more unusual element into something that’s already daring you to keep up is a fantastic touch. (Story notes on his web site that this piece “contains well over 450 … separate audio ‘events’”…) The final track, “Cell Eight,” shows off small, curling burbles of a signature sound that instantly call to mind the duo’s earlier collaborations, such as Lunz and Inlandish. One choice I quite enjoyed is the change of tone on “Cell Five.” Although still rooted in piano sounds, Story draws the instrument’s voice out, stretching and folding it into synth-like shapes. Placed in the middle of the album, it arrives as an unexpected but immersive ambient-style break.

The Roedelius Cells manages to be intriguing, challenging, and charming, not just in turn, but in marvelously complex variations of all three. Roedelius’ playing is full of soul and softness, and Story keeps that in mind as he develops each piece. This is no simple pastiche or remix; this is the loving reassembly of inspiring music, designed to amplify that inspiration in a fresh and respectful language. Another completely engaging set of ideas from a duo with unmistakable chemistry,

Available from CD Baby.

Chris Russell, Spectra

russ_spectChris Russell recorded Spectra after taking a hiatus from creating music. Getting back into the art again, he notes, “I  decided to allow myself to merge with this project and just record a collection of vignettes to capture what manifested in the moment.” Russell has always been an artist who looks to explore fresh vistas in his work, and Spectra, by its exploratory nature, covers a fair amount of ground as it shifts through shadow and light. The opener, “Anake,” greets you with a dark wind and a sound like spatters of rain on a koto or zither, punctuated with sudden glissandi. Russell underscores this moody, slow-moving piece with crackles of static for texture. Things brighten considerably on “Vegha,” with pads that rise up shining, yet in spots have an interesting, almost industrial metallic feel. The gentility carries into the smooth and spacey flow of “Domoos.” It whispers its way past on crossing, nicely layered pads, matched for ambient style only by the even softer “Gada.” That track takes you into a dreamy cluster of warm, breathy pads to shut down your ability to have conscious thoughts for 10 minutes. A beautiful, fully immersive piece of classic ambient. Toward the end of the album, Russell heads directly toward the darkness. “Kadium” takes you down a coarsely paved path, edged in thick, immovable shadow. Sparse and grim, it’s an attention-getter, especially coming right after “Gada.” It gives way to “Keon,” which takes an almost minimal approach, building off a repeating bass thrum. There’s more excellent, almost indescribable textural work here, and the whole thing is anchored with a breezing drone beneath it all. The only minor misstep on Spectra for me is the title track, where Russell opts for a lead sound that reminds me too much of an electronic doorbell. It’s not a bad track, but that sound wears a little thin on me.

Spectra shows a few sides of Russell’s considerable talent. Give this a listen, remembering that this is him just taking hold of inspirational moments and following the thread to wherever it leads him. From deep-space drifts to edge-of-darkness forays, it all works quite well, and is another solid addition to an already strong canon of work.

Available from Earth Mantra.

Howard Givens & Madhavi Devi, Source of Compassion

hgmd_sourceHere is a deep-breathing exercise in sonic form, and a firm reminder of why we enjoy meditative ambient. With calming, mantra-ready flows mixed with dancing bits of sequencer and hand percussion, Howard Givens and Madhavi Devi (Cheryl Gallagher) bring together an album that’s ready to be looped for blissful hours on end. More often than not over many listens, I have put Source of Compassion on quietly to play, then went about my business, letting it work its dream-inducing magic in the background, politely requesting my attention in various spots as it went along. However you choose to listen to it, there’s simply no escaping its embrace. The opener, “Intention,” gets the flow going with long pads and a slowly repeating melodic phrase. It rises into a pulse that softly massages your brain. Close your eyes and pay attention to how many layers are at work here, crossing and weaving. From there the album moves into what has become my favorite stretch, the combination of “Emergence” and “Omkara.” The first is a gliding, hushed ambient offering that unfolds itself over and over as you listen. A perfect 10-minute meditation, a butterfly wing of sound. The second carries that softness, then laces in a percolating sequencer line. Once again, the energy is subtle, more a suggestion of movement than an outright command to do so–but move, you will. The title track again immerses us in warm sound-clouds to accompany our deep breathing–which, by this point in the album, is pretty much unavoidable. “Pathless Passage” provides another nice dose of old-school thought, with a simple sequencer line going unobtrusively through its paces over a spacemusic framework. It picks up some vibrancy midway through the piece from a glistening arpeggio set just a bit to the back of the scene. “Connected Space” closes the album with the gentlest of hands at the controls. It comes on like dusk and fades gracefully into a quiet and reflective evening.

I am not usually prone to doing track-by-track reviews, but Source of Compassion is one of those albums that compels me to say something about everything on it. Truth be told, that could have been captured thus: Everything here is superb. Everything here is what you love in ambient music. Everything here is what you need to hear. Deeply beautiful, incredibly calming, and perfectly constructed, Source of Compassion is easily one of the best albums I’ve reviewed this year. Get this now.

Available at Bandcamp.