I’ve finally gotten around to publishing my year-end list of albums for 2017. What an incredible year it was for me, musically speaking. There are just so many more albums in my life now that I can’t imagine being without. I explored a few different genres, including French trip-hop, Chicago blues, Finnish hippie rock, modern classical, and so on, so here I am putting this weird, incongruous list out there in the hopes that someone finds something good in it. I would be thrilled to get any comments and/or recommendations for music I should be listening to. Cheers and happy 2018 😎 Read more
Dans Dans is a Belgian trio that performs an experimental kind of instrumental jazz-rock with bass, guitar and drums. This album has been my sole introduction to their music, and it took time to grow on me, unveiling its beauty late one quiet evening (as good music often does) during what I realized halfway through was a cover of Tom Wait‘s “Yesterday Is Here.” And what a brilliant cover it is – deep, soft and rich. On this song and others, there is a lovely reverberant twang on the Western-flavored guitar with doom-laden overtones, calling to mind both the country/jazz/drone of Earth and the ambient doom jazz of Bohren & Der Club of Gore. But the pure sound of Dans Dans is less dark and weighty than those bands, and therefore appeals to a wider audience. Read more
I’ve really been digging this French artist lately. I listened to last year’s Seagulls a couple times and it didn’t really catch. It wasn’t bad, but it just didn’t make a tangible impression. At one point in passing I almost removed it from my playlist entirely. Then last week when I noticed this year’s How Are You? on Spotify, I played it, and the moment must have been right. It just grabbed me.
Maybe this album finally struck a chord because as an artist he has matured. Or perhaps his style has unconsciously grown on me so that this new release already sounded familiar. Or maybe it’s the déjà-vu effect his music seems to possess inherently. I’ve always thought it sounded like something I’ve heard before. I thought it was just tapping fragments of my memory, until my partner reported the same thing out loud when I played it for him. That’s when I started to suspect something like art.
This album is a sweet and dreamy collection of electronic trip-hop vignettes. It’s multilayered and richly textured. I love the hissy/scratchy worn-out vinyl sounds; they are like Q-tips gently swabbing the insides of my ears. And the samples are so well-chosen. There are some old French songs. He plays with vocal pitch a lot to good effect (try Love You Sweet It’s What I Do). This is music that really sets a mood. It’s electronic, but it’s very human. It’s great for working or quiet time at home.
Slowdive have released a new album?? This was the first question that popped into my head when I heard the news. The second element of surprise was that it was their self-titled album! I found it on Spotify and put it on immediately, feeling a sudden nostalgic urgency for that old dream pop sound that seems to have disappeared into the mists of time. Bands like Ride and Cocteau Twins… where did they all go? I love that stuff – I needit! I pushed play on this new album, so oddly self-titled and so incongruously 2017. And then my questions were answered, because Slowdive delivered.
Slipping into that first song like a pair of warm, rediscovered socks, Slowdive launches into their first album in over two decades as if it were nothing out of the ordinary, just them, the same as always, a shoegazing quintet with a driven rhythm that sweeps you along, and pretty voices shining demurely through the electric haze. A pleasant curtain of shimmering reverb drapes over their entourage.
Slowdive in the early 90’s
As always, their music speaks with yearning and nostalgia, like a forgotten childhood friend that comes looking for you in your dreams. It is sad, it is ageless, it is love. It’s propelled by an energy that will never run out. That is what Slowdive sound like to me. It seems fitting that Rachel and Neil, the founding members that sing often in unison on their songs, have known each other since they were very little.
This album plays beautifully from start to finish, in a short but perfect collection of eight songs. It ends contemplatively on a slower note with the repeated chorus, thinking about love… As unassuming as they ever were, this album comes and goes without even a hint of ceremony or explanation, but with the self-assurance that typifies experienced musicians who know what they want to say. People given to reflection will find something beautiful in Slowdive.
I was thinking the other day about the meaning of words. I’m in the middle of reading a rather old tale: the English version of The Count of Monte Cristo published in 1844. Because the book is old, and certain words are preserved in their native French or Italian, I have to look up the definitions of words now and then. I realized that words and their meanings are malleable, inconcrete things.
When you look up a word in the dictionary, a lot of times there is more than one definition listed, and these are listed for you (1, 2, 3…) so you can quickly find the meaning that applies to your situation. So words can have various shades of meaning. Through time and use, the meaning of certain words gets nudged in different directions depending on how people choose to use them. So words change as people change. They are not, as I have often thought of them, inscribed in stone since the beginning of time, with definite definitions. I guess my brain tends to think of them that way because I like categorizing things. I like languages because they adhere to a grammar; because they follow ordered systems that can be learned and memorized. My left brain adores this dependable structure of language, and I’ve always absorbed the definitions of words easily into my memory. Yet words are far from being concrete. Words are nothing more than empty symbols until people prescribe meaning to them, and these meanings can be as nuanced as people’s feelings. Words are our imperfect attempt to describe sensations that defy categorization.
And this brings me to the topic of genres in music. I’m not alone in my love of categorizing things. As people we like to categorize our art into so-called genres, and these genres are really just words we use to refer to an artificial grouping of things. When we talk about rock or jazz music, for example, we are using a simple four-letter word to contain what is really a vast history too complex to fit into such an absurdly small box. When we talk about rock, we’re referring to a roughly century-long tradition in music history that involves, well, a guitar. But a guitar is pretty much the only thing that rock musicians share in common. Every other aspect about their music can be widely different. What we try to do with music genres is take every individual musician that pertains to a particular style, at least to some degree, and shove them in a box and put a one-word label on it. But if we open the box and take a good look at the artists inside, we discover a world of differences between them.
In my last post I reviewed Seth Chapla’s music, which is a kind of instrumental rock. His style reminded me of Steve Vai, and Steve Vai was taught by Joe Satriani. There is a clear connection between the three musicians as you travel backward in time. But the connection is only clear because their style is singular and hasn’t been copied a thousand times by other musicians. And they are all fairly contemporary. One night I went even further down that path of music history. I found that Joe Satriani (born 1956) was influenced by Jeff Beck, the English guitarist who played with The Yardbirds (born 1944), and he in turn cited Les Paul as an influence (born 1915 in America), and from there I landed on Rosetta Tharpe, a black gospel singer from Alabama who played an electric guitar like nobody’s business, and who clearly made an impact on Elvis and probably a whole generation of musicians who picked up an electric guitar in the 50’s and 60’s and created what we now think of when we say “rock music.” I watched a great documentary about Rosetta, and it was great because she has a sensational biography. I highly recommend it. She blew me away because I had never heard of her. And I’m American and listen to a lot of rock music! Check out this great video of her playing “Didn’t It Rain” at a train station.
What’s also interesting is that she was never inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How can the curators of rock history not recognize that this rockin’ gal deserves a place in its annals?
Take any of the guitarists I mentioned above, and you will find that all of them play a different style of music. And you’ll find that they were influenced by not one musician, who was also unique in his/her own way, but many. So we can forget about the term “rock.” How can we really come up with a word that sums up a musician’s style when they are expressing themselves from the heart? I endeavored to learn about the history of rock music, but when I dug into it, I found that there was simply music. Genres are not particularly useful except to give a vague gesture toward a trend in music history, but in reality there are just people making music. We can’t create a word for what they create. But we can talk about how we feel when we hear it, and if we talk from the heart, then we are saying words that have meaning.
During the past few months, a lot of new and varied music has been crossing my radar. I love discovering new music. It’s inspiring to be reminded that there is so much creation happening in the world; so much that it’s impossible to keep up with it all. The discovery of a new artist or sometimes an entire new genre is always invigorating, both because of my appreciation of music itself as a listening exercise but also because of the intellectual exercise of opening a new window onto a piece of culture and history. And when I say “new” music, I don’t mean new in the temporal sense, but new to my ears. Regardless of when it was created, music is my connection to people and to the world.
I tend to focus on albums more than individual tracks when it comes to music. Everyone has their own way of enjoying music. My preferred method is to put on an album and let it play from start to finish, so that I become immersed in the mood and flow of it. This way I can properly engage the work as a whole, listening to the songs in the order that the artist intended, reading the lyrics, if they exist, and looking at the cover art. I think of an album as a gift from the artist; a carefully prepared package of image and sound that you sit down and devote time to. Read more