Sunday, May 17, 2009
The Darling Buds of May – 2009 So Far
Can you believe that the year is already over a third done? It feels like only a few weeks ago we were just getting 2009 underway. An even more frightening thought – in about six weeks from now we’ll be standing at the year’s halfway mark. So before those darling buds of May get beaten down by the summer sun, and too much more of the year slides away from me, I thought this would be a good time to cast an eye over what’s come out this year so far, and pick out a few releases that have really struck a chord with me.
It’s a little strange for me to think of DJ Sprinkles’ ‘Midtown 120 Blues’ as a 2009 release – it dropped internationally in January, but I picked it up in a Tokyo record store in August last year as Mule often releases its records in Japan quite a few months before the rest of the world. I can’t help but feel it was a mistake of Mule to hold off the international release in the case of this album – in many ways ‘Midtown 120 Blues’ can be read as a direct response from Terre Thaemlitz on the deep house revival of 2007/2008, and a 2008 release would have made the international appearance of the album extremely timely. (I saw Thaemlitz perform a live set of much of this material in April of 2008, so it’s clear that he’d been crafting his response to the deep house revival for a while.)
Of course, the timing of the release doesn’t change the quality of the album a jot – and the quality is very high indeed. Thaemlitz serves up well over an hour of beautifully lush deep house (almost entirely instrumental, I might add – the only vocals are a handful of monologues and looped vocal samples), shot through with twinges of melancholy and sadness. If you care to read more of my ravings about this album you can read a review I did, but to save you time I’ll repeat here the final paragraph of that review:
‘Midtown 120 Blues’ is an incredibly deep album – not just in terms of the “deepness” of the house on offer, but emotionally and intellectually so, as Thaemlitz maps out the sound in a deeply personal way. A meditation on the “meaning” of house, a critique of the recent deep house revival, an exploration of one man’s personal relationship with the sound – ‘Midtown 120 Blues’ is all of these things, not to mention being some of the best deep house you’ll hear in a very long time.
Without a doubt, this is absolutely one of my favourite albums of the (this? last?) year, and one that I hope won’t be forgotten by the year’s end.
(By the by, long-time ssg readers are probably no doubt well aware of our fondness for Terre Thaemlitz. However, those who are either new to the blog or Thaemlitz may want to check out a lengthy interview fellow ssg Pete did with Thaemlitz back in March of 2008 that is both revealing and a great read. Pete also recently did a review
of ‘Dead Stock Archive’, for those interested in acquiring absolutely everything Thaemlitz has ever done.)
Another January release that I hope won’t be forgotten come December (well, late October, ‘cos that’s when everyone puts together their “best of” lists) is Intrusion’s ‘The Seduction of Silence’. I get the feeling that Stephen Hitchell’s contributions to Echospace are often overlooked – with Rod Modell having such a strong hand in Echospace’s sound signature, it’s easy to think of Hitchell as “the other guy” (particularly if you’re not familiar with his solo work as Soultek). ‘The Seduction of Silence’ puts paid to this, with Hitchell crafting over an hour of extremely warm and mellow dub-techno with a hint of reggae. It’s a soothing, enveloping album that I find incredibly calming – yet there’s a lively pulse here too that keeps the album grounded and earthy, instead of drifting off into the coldness of deep space. When the album ends I find myself feeling not only calmed, but also positive.
(It’s also nice to see that Hitchell gives Japan’s 2008 Labyrinth festival a shout-out with the track “A Night To Remember”. Also, I see in the intro text for Hitchell’s Intrusion podcast over at RA that he’s working on an interpretive album of material by Brock Van Wey – better known to us as ssg favourite Bvdub. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing that.)
The amazing run the Raster-Noton label had last year continues into 2009 with Alva Noto’s ‘Xerrox Vol. 2’ Reading the blurb for Carsten Nicolai’s second Xerrox outing over at the label website is interesting, as it claims that ‘Xerrox Vol. 2’ is an exploration of the New World while Vol. 1 referenced the Old World “with its tradition deeply rooted in classical music” – yet I find the music on Vol. 2 is far more orchestrated and symphonic than Vol. 1, with clearly discernable strings on quite a few of the tracks. In fact, I’ve never heard Nicolai be more, dare I say, musical. But none of this should be read as criticism – it’s a very exciting direction for Nicolai to take, and the results are fantastic. The three central tracks that form the album’s emotional core (“Xerrox Sora”, “Xerrox Monophaser 1” and “Xerrox Monophaser 2”) are some of the best things I’ve ever heard from Nicolai – “Monophaser 1” in particular is astoundingly beautiful with its delicate strings accompanied by a distant rumbling that summons up images of cracking arctic ice.
That said, there are still signature Alva Noto moments of bracing white noise; “Xerrox Meta Phaser”, the album’s fourth track which is the really the climax of a single piece in four movements, builds in power and intensity before falling away into silence. These moments of power combined with moments of delicate beauty make listening to ‘Xerrox Vol. 2’ an experience that is involving, emotional, and rewarding.
(By the way, I haven’t gotten around to hearing the other major releases on Raster-Noton this year so far by Atom TM, Pixel, and SND, but I haven’t heard a bad word said about any of them.)
I lost faith with Kompakt’s Pop Ambient series a few years ago – since I discovered the series with the exceptional ‘Pop Ambient 2002’ (which introduced me to Donnacha Costello’s ‘Together Is The New Alone’) I bought each instalment every year without fail, but eventually I found the Pop Ambient sound becoming tired. Artists stuck a little too closely to the formula, and the results came closer and closer to aural wallpaper. ‘Pop Ambient 2009’ however, is a rather striking return to form – it’s clear that the formula has been shaken up a little here, with the inclusion of some new non-Kompakt artists (The Fun Years, Sylvain Chauveau, Tim Hecker), and the resident Kompakt artists introducing a slight edge to their contributions, making proceedings a little bit darker than usual. Special note needs to be made of Sebastian Meissner in his Klimek guise – he’s at the top of his game here, turning in the highlights of a very strong compilation; “The Godfather (For William Basinski & Snoop Dogg)” is 10 minutes of chilly choral ambience that hovers very close to a lot of dark ambient stuff I used to listen to. I’m really looking forward to the Klimek full-length that Meissner has said is coming out this year. Great stuff, and highly recommended (and furthermore, the vinyl version comes bundled with a free copy of the CD version – in my local record store for exactly the same price as the CD version alone!).
I’m actually surprising myself a little here by not putting the new Junior Boys album ‘Begone Dull Care’ in this list. I thought ‘Last Exit’ was great, and I practically obsessed over ‘So This Is Goodbye’, so I’m slightly shocked to find that I’m not clicking with the new album, despite giving it quite a few listens. I suspect this is a case of, “it’s not you, it’s me”, because I know a lot of people out there really love ‘Begone Dull Care’. Actually, perhaps the reason I’m not clicking with it is revealed in the title – the touch of melancholy and heartbreak that inhabited the first two albums is largely absent here (begone!), and perhaps that misty-eyed aesthetic is what endeared me to the Junior Boys.
Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive list of the best stuff that’s come out this year (thus far). There’s heaps of stuff that I literally just haven’t gotten around to listening to – there are CDs that have been sitting on my desk for weeks that I haven’t even taken out of the plastic yet. (I’m really looking forward to giving these proper listens sometime soon, with stuff from Tim Hecker, Mokira, Pan American, The Sight Below, Hildur Gudnadottir, Jacaszek, and William Basinski) You’ve also no doubt noticed that I’ve only been talking about full-length albums here – there’s been so much great stuff coming out this year that I haven’t even been able to keep track of EPs and remixes. (That said, I think Donnacha Costello’s ‘The Only Way To Win Is Not To Play The Game’ and Ancient Methods’ ‘Third Method’ are both amazing.)
So, how about all you ssgs out there? What’s really grabbed you this year? Let us know about your favourite full-length, or EP, or track/remix in the comments section.