Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Review - Lawrence Ball: Method Music (Navona Records)
Review & Live Video – Shearwater: Animal Life (Sub Pop)
Review - Mercies: The Ballet (Self-released)
Review & Song/Video - Orcas: Orcas (Morr Music)
Review & Album Stream Link - Crushed Stars: In the Bright Rain (Simulacra)
Song - Nolan Strong and the Diablos: The Wind

So far, 2012 has been brimming with life… and death. Through the third week in February, I experienced movement where there had been gridlock and/or stagnation. January felt like September (new projects, work, socializing). There was a noticeable rise in positive synchronicity, good humor, and creativity. And when events that initially smelled dire occurred -- as with my computer crashing when I hadn’t backed the hard drive up in six weeks -- the destruction morphed into much-needed renewal. Three days later, I had a like-new computer, with approximately 90% of lost files and data recovered.

I started this installment in mid-February. Things around me (and in the lives of friends and acquaintances) seemed so amazing, I did some research into the Harmonic Convergence of 1987; wondering if there might be a correlation between it and ancient Mayan predictions re: 2012, planetary alignments, and the like. As it turns out, I’ll be skipping most of that. On February 21, a close friend jumped off the Laurel Street bridge, here in San Diego. I don’t think I need to say anything else about the experience of going through the suicide of a loved one. 

One night in February, I started noticing that I could see planets near the moon with the naked eye. Um… wow. As seen from this corner of the world, 2012’s been packed with enough material for several years. The idea for this installment that presented to me two months ago still works, thanks to the artists I’ll be covering. Other than an ambient quality, or an effect that comes close, if they have anything in common, it’s the deep profundity of their respective works. If this is what the dying world sounds like (or the world I choose to focus on; ignoring car alarms, online “chat,” and the yammer of pedestrian and in-store smartphone conversations), it seems pretty  positive. Maybe the Adishakti website, Mayan and Hopi elders (especially Nicaraguan Mayan Grandmother Flordemayo, of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers) haven’t just been rattling the chains of anyone who’ll listen when they’ve said that occurrences that feel threatening may actually be doorways into a new level of consciousness.

No, I haven’t smoked weed in over a decade, although 15-or-so years of pretty frequently not-inhaling may have some bearing on my openness to altered states of consciousness. On the other hand, the latter activity was originally prompted, at least in part, by interest in the thoughts of Carlos Castaneda, Alan Watts, and the like. So, as Sarah Palin is what she is, and Stevie Wonder (who may be God, I think) is what he is, I just am what I am, which is, at this moment, starting to go in a circle (yes, I was one of those kids who’d be out on the lawn, twirling until they fell on the grass). Ahem:

Method Music is a collaboration by Pete Townshend and “composer, improvisor, and audio-visual creator” Lawrence Ball. This is a (slightly edited) explanation from The Who’s website: “…The ideas behind Method Music arose from, and founded, Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse Project. Townshend also conceptualized and co-produced this album. They present a theoretical system of musical portraiture in which a listener’s personal data is translated into a unique composition. Utilizing the conceptual underpinning first implemented in ‘Baba O’Riley’ (a track initially part of the original Lifehouse project, and one mirrored on the opening cut of Method Music) along with Ball’s computerized compositional system; ‘Harmonic Maths,’ Townshend, with Ball and programmer Dave Snowdon, created a site called The Lifehouse Method that turned this theory into reality. While active, during 2007-2008, the site offered users the ability to instantaneously create a customized piece of music. The album Method Music evolved from the tests conducted by Ball and Townshend, which proved the viability of The Lifehouse Method system. Disc One, ‘Imaginary Sitters,' features a set of portraits showcasing the potential diversity of the Method. Disc Two, 'Imaginary Galaxies', expands the forms into larger structures with greater permutations, variables, and variety.”

I prefer Method Music’s “Imaginary Galaxies,” to its “Imaginary Sitters.”  “Imaginary Galaxies” feels like a psychic leap up a mountain. All four of my cats (one of whom is very picky) stretch peacefully; ears attenuated toward the speakers, when it’s on. The pieces comprising "Imaginary Galaxies" merge serenity with intensity; a sort of progression from some of the most transcendent interludes on Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air. “Imaginary Sitters” feels and sounds more like Steve Reich - while intriguing, with some nice moments, I find it more repetitively mechanical.

The other musicians in this installment have also, without necessarily attaining advanced degrees, credibility in/from academia, or any particular “science” to their methods (at least not that they’re telling us) come up with expressions that feel at “a higher level.” One example is Shearwater, whose latest release, Animal Life, is fueled by an almost unbearable intensity.

Here’s an edited excerpt from my Blurt Online review: “Animal Life... is stunning.  How so? The round, almost bell-like guitar tones on “Breaking the Yearlings” sound like something Robert Fripp might do. The track’s metallic percussion, nearly falsetto vocals, and breath-by-breath pacing combine the tone and execution of late’70s prog. rock (Bowie with Eno; Peter Gabriel circa his first solo album) with a more contemporary savvy and despair. That description may not succeed at explicating the intuitive spark with which “Dread Sovereign” follows “Breaking the Yearlings.” It’s an extraordinarily arresting transition. Here's "Breaking the Yearlings."

Mercies’ debut, Three Thousand Days, ended up on all of my 2011 best-of-the-year lists. I was so entranced by its mix of creativity, expression, and songwriting that I’ve been afraid of expecting too much from the new EP, which emerged just seven months after the debut.

Initially, The Ballet felt disappointing. Commissioned by the Charlottesville Ballet, the first two of the EP’s four tracks are instrumental. The other three have vocals. One of these, “In Your Mind,” isn’t as affecting as the debut’s “In My Mind” (if the former’s a reworking of the latter, I’d rather hear something else – the latter is transportive as it is).  Nor does the less dynamic version (than the one on TTD) of “Clouds” seem like something that needed to be released. But “Take You Away” has the uncanny juju that permeates TTD.  Had The Ballet preceded TTD, I might have been more impressed with it. But its atmospheric instrumentals  seem to be growing on me. The crux of the matter: Mercies hasn't abated its determined climb to the moon. I’m glad.

Breathtaking moments also manifest in the music of Orcas. Where some of Mercies’ power and potential comes from its chaos-defying mix of earthy, airy, and textural elements with emotion, Orcas merges a celestial reach with a sort of stoic gravity. The approach is akin to hearing someone hanging from the edge of a cliff with one hand. In this case,celebral and emotional winds hold Rafael Anton Irisarri and Benoît Pioulard aloft, exploring rather than being daunted by their precarious position. From the quirky, relatively lo-fi beginning of “Pallor Cedes” through the transcendent clouds of “High Fences,” Orcas ascend so consistently that I attain an Alpha state without ever having to cross my legs on a zabuton.

Orcas unveil every nuance of Broadcast's “Until Then,” which glows near the album’s heart, or center. As with everything on this debut, the sound and approach are gorgeously minimal. As nearly always, my response to minimalism is predictable:  Love.

Within the two-or-so years that I’ve known about Todd Gautreau of Crushed Stars (who’s also made waves with Tear Ceremony and Sonogram) my attitude toward his work has undergone a rapid, considerable shift. I don’t have a lot of patience for what might be called Grade-B (or lower) electronica, along with a fair amount of what gets called dream or chamber pop. Happily, like many reviewers, I’m obsessed with sound, and open to hearing all sorts of things. It’s like being a happy idiot who forgets that banging his or her head against the wall made him or her see painful (not lovely) stars. What if, this time, they’re awesome? Some of my happiest music memories involve grabbing records from cut-out bins (remember those?) to crack the shrink at home; entering worlds I’d never have known without taking a chance. Or hearing something on the radio that made me run for a pen and paper.

That’s a long way of leading into the fact that now I’m psyched whenever Gautreau pushes out a new audio baby. The latest Crushed Stars release (with help from Jeff Ryan/St. Vincent, War on Drugs; Howard Draper/Okkervil River, Shearwater;  and Buffi Jacobs/The Polyphonic Spree) is a modest stunner. When I was processing my friend’s suicide, In the Bright Rain delivered rays of light through the gloom that threatened.

(From my Blurt Online review): Much of Gautreau's output could be a soundtrack for Rene Magritte's illustrations of subconscious meanderings and emotions. Aspects of his work enlarge upon the minimalist explorations of Erik Satie, who called himself a phonometrician, or ‘someone who measures sound.’ In the future, as occurs for stretches of Sonogram’s Cubists, Gautreau may just whisper a few words in our ears before helping us onto an audio platform that hovers indefinitely in transcendence. For now, sublimity and transcendence threaten to subsume the balance of ITBR. While it can feel bathetic, the album's intermittent banality (relative to itself, not other music) may be one of the keys to its majesty. There's tension in Gautreau's variance of full, partial, and medium immersion.

Could anyone who doesn’t live on a pristine mountaintop handle an entire album of full immersion? The seven minutes of "Take Flight" are so quietly beautiful that climbing back down to what's commonly called reality can feel achingly disruptive. 

You can hear In the Bright Rain at the following link:  http://www.myoldkentuckyblog.com/?p=27150&fb_source=message

(Your) comments make my world go ‘round (scroll down to comment). Thanks so much for reading.

Navona Records/Method Music: http://www.navonarecords.com/methodmusic/

This Column is dedicated to Jason Dean Runnion. The last song (and one that only you may stick around to hear, at least in this setting) is the one that brought me to tears, the day after I heard the news - to me, it, too, is as ethereal as it is emotional and corporeal. The tears came in attendance to loss. But they also came when I realized I'd have shared the song with you, had you been around.

Off the Beaten Track: Music Reviews by Mary Leary - Ethereality
Copyright by Mary Leary, 2012. 

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