Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ember Schrag

Among the backlog I am clearing are a fair few releases from Brian Day (Public Eyesore, Eh?, shelf life). Ember Schrag is a singer songwriter from Nebraska and the Day connection is that: he designed her first 'official album' A Cruel Cruel Woman (on Lone Prarie Records); she now has an EP on Eh?; he has curated some shows at her Clawfoot House in Lincoln; and he is on a tour with her (nice blog with lots of pics here).

In common with most of the stuff I get from him, this is unpredictable - in this case a beautiful, intense, enjoyable album of songs.

Ember (vocals, guitar, glockenspiel) is supported by Gunter Voelker throughout on lead guitar, bass, drums and background vocals, and there is piano and cello on a couple of other tracks.

The sound is what I will call a type of country - acoustic guitar driven with the voice given primacy. Upbeat, opener Cupid's Bloom is a catchy toetapper, followed by a slower Two Suns. As you listen the poetry and word play of the lyrics shines, and the guitar solos are unobtrusively skillful. The cello on Nobody Can Tell adds its warm tone to sweet sad song (I feel like there's an ocean between us/ You're like a homeland for me, I'm like a refugee).

More cello and melancholy on Dark Lion Lover includes some variation in the vocal work (sort of yodeling but not) and quiet effects at the end - an interesting twist. There is a biblical theme to the strong narrative of The Philistine, and here I first noticed the subtle background vocals which add depth to the chorus - nicely understated. And again in the aptly named Sad, Sad Song with cello and piano and a sweet vocal solo.

In this short album (29 minutes - but see previous post) full of highlights, my favourite track is Iowa. It has minimal, concrete and abstracted lyrics that have a powerful mystery (I could sing about addiction/ I could sing about destructive love/ or I could sing about a red-winged blackbird in Iowa), it is the longest track (4'38"), has a rocking instrumental workout, and reminded me of Neil Young. The Course of Love has a good swing to it before another highlight - the spiritual inflected Carry Me Away driven by strong instrumentation and a hypnotic repetition of the carry-me link (Carry me away on the long soft, river/ carry me far, carry me safe).

The album closes with the title track, and moves away from the listed instrumentation with a skiffleboard and fiddle to end on a fittingly joyous climax

My touchstones for this is people such as Sarah Blasco, Missy Higgins, Dido and Norah Jones even - women who sing personal songs in a distinct voice. Ember reminds me of them but also has her own sound and approach. The 10 songs pass too quickly but hook into the mind. I can hear no reason here why this album or a successor shouldn't be a 'hit' in the mainstream (if that's what they want) and I wish them the best of luck.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Taming Power

Over the last few years I have trumpeted the focussed talent and output of Askild Haugland, who is Taming Power, and whose recordings have been released in cassette and now vinyl through Early Morning Records. Facing the realities of economics and his commitment to a less common medium, Askild has settled on an annual release cycle.

His most recent offering Twenty-One Pieces (Early Morning Records 2x12 018) is that behemoth from the vinyl age, a double album. I remember when the 80minutes of a double album were used mainly for live releases, best ofs or the occasional (often reviewed as bloated) studio album. The reality of the now is evidenced by the rerelease of the excess of the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street - seen as sprawling then but now fitting onto a single cd, offering a length that recording artist now can, and often are expected to, fill (Robert Palmer's Clues was about 36 minutes and would probably be denounced as mean - there's 80 minutes available, fill it up). Someone said 'more is less' (it is disputed but Mies Van de Rohe gets the main credit).

So what is Askild offering? In some ways it is like a best of/sampler collection and is a great overview of his methods and musics. He has balanced the four sides nicely in terms of their content (a guitar side, gong side,) and balance between dense and simple pieces.

But first the aesthetics. The overall look of the EMR is maintained - like most of the albums the cover is primarily black with a framed photo on the front (this release is mountains) while the back has a smaller photo and the frame includes the detailed details of the instruments used and the recording dates of the tracks (the reduced production rate has allowed Askild to get the covers printed rather than hand assembling). Those familiar with Taming Power from the recordings or these reviews will know he uses tapes and cassettes to delay/overdub in simple recordings, but also to layer and manipulate previous solos. So some tracks have a single date and take number, while others have multiple and nested dates and takes as material is re-produced. The most dense one is the third track on side C which has 21 dates associated with it! On these albums we have recordings from 98 to 09. I also noticed under the copyright statement it says 'the voices of time' - looking back at past recording the apothegm started with 16 (light passes undetected through the darkness) and continued into 17 (silence reigns unnoticed within turmoil).

Side A is the most varied instrumentally, and also the simplest. The first piece is casiotone notes, looped and layered to form chords. The second is a long guitar work, moving between note bending, percussion, tonal melodies and long plucked notes - a shifting and engrossing solo. Then a field recording that is a stuttering cloud (wind?)with sounds within, before another short simple guitar piece ends the side. In the guitar and casiotone pieces notes are generally clear and simple, sometimes bent, sometimes melodic and others combining more atonally, and the pace is stately, relaxed.

That track is reflected in the guitar opener to side B - the drone side - which this time includes some tape work to create backwards sounds. Three multilayered pieces using drilbu, dingsha and singing bowl produce exciting rumbling layered almost-electro, some dense others simpler, but all rolling and building in a manner seen in the last few albums that introduced these instruments (and there is some choral voice work though I am not sure about the handsaw). A guitar and casio piece is echoed looping and pulsey, before a short percussive stutter guitar piece which gradually increases in speed before a short solo at the end to fade out the side.

Side C is the guitar side: opening with 2 shorter pieces, simple and the second more atonal, before a long slow building complex work which drones and builds, ringing and hissing, transmuting under your ears, dragging them in. Two more shorter works close the side - the first a looped echoey voice and guitar and then a sitar like piece.

The final side mixes it up again. Short works for guitar and then casiotone open the side, then two more dense pieces for the singing bowls: the first seems voicelike while the second more an organ. And again, balance and placement throughout the album to give variation and narrative: a simple guitar solo with some freeform strings and then a simple casiotone closer.

If you haven't heard any Taming Power, this would be a good place to start as it covers the moods and methods of the man. It isn't a new direction but more of a contemplation of EMR17 celebrated as 10 years of EMR and 20 years of Taming Power - and the fan will know what they are getting and will enjoy this varied edition to the oeuvre.

Contact Askild at earlymrecords@yahoo. No he doesn't have a website, myspace page or any of that stuff - this is old school self release vinyl.
(and so to my confession - I have ripped my Taming Power cassettes and vinyl so that I can play the pieces in all manner of venues, not limited by having a record or cassette player. sorry Askild: but I love the artifacts and the music)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kannenberg's 4'33" variations

Audio Tour: The 4'33" Museum

I have never seen/heard a performance of John Cage's 4'33" but have read about it. My understanding is that it involves a performance - the artist/s entering and undertaking the normal activities, sitting, lifting the piano lid etc - but that not creating music in the three parts of the piece, it is getting the audience to focus on the natural and unnatural sounds that fill a concert venue which is where the work is most likely to be performed.

The latest release from Stasisfield is by John Kannenberg (the label boss) and consists of 11 versions of the piece he has been 'performing' (his inverted commas) since 2005. His interpretation is to record the eponymous time in a museum or art gallery, but without the element of performance or having those present as the audience (as far as I can tell). We are the auditors hearing the variations of the different spaces - the Rock and Roll hall of Fame is a much louder place than the Rijksmuseum, the servers in Alexandria hum softly accompanied by soft voices, most are not surprisingly subdued.

A surprise is how quickly the time passes and how the venues drift into each other - not many have the Hall of Fames defining rock soundtrack, though voices and discussions vary from place to place. The selected site within the site for the performance would have a significant impact: a recording in the foyer, giftshop or cafe would be different to one in a gallery space. The piece becomes layered as you listen in your own environment - whether natural or with human additions.

And as Kannenberg suggests, the piece also comments on the relationship between gallery/museum and performance spaces.

But in the end what remains is a series of unedited audio snapshots that offer a glimpse of place and the pleasure that listening in provides.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Steve Roden Recent

Yes, I am still around! Energy rising I am going to post - will it continue?

And where better to re-start that with Steve Roden. I am an unashamed, unabashed fan whose main regret in life is living too far away to see his shows or installations or installation-shows or concerts. I follow on his official site and the airform archives. At the moment he is treating us to some introspective retrospection on airform as we lead up to two spectacular shows (a retrospective and a new installation, hanging). Go there when you've finished here - I won't be long.

Last year - yes, sorry Steve - he sent me a host of cds and vinyl to complete my adored collection of Roden-works (many reviewed here). Some are out of print or sold out, so I won't go into details of them all. Though I would suggest you seek out the In Be Tween Noise cds (they are probably hideously expensive on eBay) as they are proto-types of his later works and also alleys he hasn't gone further down.

But to mention/describe some recent ones that I hope are available still relatively painlessly

ecstasy showered its petals with the full peal of its bells: label: ferns recordings: 3" cd
A 21 minute piece of manipulation of a single hand bell that rings in a non-bell way, scrapes and drones, layered and manipulated to create a typically engrossing soundworld. While the bell is a musical instrument, the way it is handled refers back to Roden's chair/lamp/splint trilogy where wonderful music emerged from beautifully designed non-musical instruments. Initially you are entranced by what the sounds were extracted from, but then the music itself takes over and keeps drawing you in.

a slow moving boat. label: new plastic music: 3" cd
As is often with a Roden work, the genesis is oblique. Here a recording of a ferry in Norway was used by Roden as a guide to his humming/singing. Remove the ferry, leave the voice, layered and add some bowed banjo. And you have a lilting 15 minutes of his ethereal voice combined with some subtle supporting metallic drones. It is hard to imagine it broadcast on the Staten Island Ferry - it would be lost in the environment - but we are lucky to have this beautiful piece.

stars of ice:CD, new plastic music, usa
This one might not be available (only 250), but is a longer form piece using an old 7" record of a Chinese carol, a song from a reader set and 'various other objects and instruments'. Over its 33 minutes it shifts more ground than the two 3" pieces. The first section is based around a drone, with birds singing (they carry on throughout, on the edge - I had to pause to check they weren't here). Slowly developing layers that start to include the voice (I was reminded of Gavin Bryars here - Sinking of the Titanic) sounds captured at the edge of the earspace. The vinyl clicks.In the final section Roden sings accompanied by the recorded music which becomes more guitar like - leading into a long slow dissolving fade, voices whispering to us. A finely balanced trajectory.

transmissions (voices of objects and skies): label: fresno metropolitan museum of art
Full length cd to accompany an exhibition - described on site and on disk. This work is unusual in the oeuvre in that Roden hasn't created the sounds - they are based on recordings of satellites made in the 60s-80s by amateur astronomers. Manipulated and transformed they are a distant fluttering, dolphin-like electronic fallings, sussuri and hints of sounds from elsewhere, an immersive environment from a forbidden place (they are currently baffling one of my dogs). Usually there is an organic/human component to Roden's work - either how the piece was developed, where it came from (source), or voice/instrumentation added. Here we are purely electronic, at one remove - and yet the ear extracts voices, animal calls, instruments, squeaking doors as we drift through a literal aether. This stereo workup from the multispeaker original shifts and slides around the room fabulously.

As I listen to these pieces - I have had a Roden afternoon after reading his latest blog post and once again ruing the distance to California - and look at the visual art work, the sculptures and installations I am amazed by the beauty in all the works and hope that the Armory retrospective raises his profile to the level it deserves.

Ach, enough of this gushing, you might say, but when I think about the artists I enjoy across these field there aren't really any I can think of who have achieved in such diverse areas.