Oren Ambarchi, Audience Of One (Touch)
Previous experiments by this Sydney, Australia-hailing Iraqi Sephardic Jewish guitarist have trended more, well, experimental, from onstage performances with Fred Frith and Ikue Mori to studio collaborations with Martin Ng and Jim O’Rourke. And while there’s little doubting his honest commitment to extreme music, the four generously approachable performances here do seem a step back from no-quarter noise and/or microtonality, in a sense serving as individuated samples of the more welcoming strands of contemporary avant-garde. Two meditative numbers rest between expansive pieces, with opener “Salt” drifting by on Paul Duncan’s weary vocals, and the lovely “Passage” setting piano, wordless voice, and wine glass harmonics over gently rising guitar. Album centerpiece and cosmic jazz epic “Knots” continues for 33 uninterrupted minutes, a drone blissout propelled by Joe Talia’s skittering cymbals and eventual full drum kit, building in circular and understated fashion towards fuzzed-out guitar frenzy only to fade out amid the popping of amplified string plonk - Popol Vuh at its most maximal and least new age, which is to say, Popol Vuh as it might have been. And Ambarchi goes out on a loving and serious cover of Ace Frehley’s “Fractured Mirror,” arranged for cascading acoustic twelve-string and soft electronic percussion, both bereft of irony and worthy of Steve Reich, quietly yet forcefully inserting classic rock grandeur into the academy. Hard to think of another post rock experiment achieving its goals so organically.
Jeremy Pelt, Soul (Highnote Records)
Comparing this 35-year-old trumpet player to Miles Davis tells you nothing - at this stage in jazz history, all trumpet players owe outstanding debts to The Prince Of Darkness. But while Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan might prove handier comparisons, there’s no denying this album deliberately echoes the mid-60s ethos of Miles’ great quintet, quietly adventurous in a post-bop / modal mood, atmospheric and sometimes slow, leaning heavily on ballads from a time before “jazz ballad” signified glop. With excellent if unflashy support from J.D. Allen on sax, Danny Grissett on piano, Dwayne Burro on bass, and the great Gerald Cleaver on drums, this is state of the art improvisational music circa 1967. But it’s hardly conservative, even if the pianist seems to hold back a bit, and even if the originals mirror old familiars (“Suite Rita Suite Part 2” is pure E.S.P. Wayne Shorter). So while acknowledging a single vocal turn from Joanna Pascale that doesn’t disrupt a largely reflective mood, rest assured that it’s the two mildly propulsive numbers here that sustain an excellent album in which the leader makes gracious room for his collaborators. Halfway through, Cleaver channels (who else?) Tony Williams to goad the band forward on “Tempest,” while penultimate Monk-like track “What’s Wrong Is Right” pushes past eleven minutes as the pianist wisely lays out to allow trumpet and sax room to surge.
Homeboy Sandman, Subject: Matter (Stone’s Throw)
Straight outta Elmhurst, Queens, this Ivy League undergrad kicks alt-rap old-school style, which means words words words. But it also means music and even hooks, like the double-tracked “mmm mmm mmm’s” that ground “Mine’s All Mine” or the sample that clips “Unforgettable” into “Forgettable,” or the spaced-out “Sweet Emotion” rip from the track of the same name. And for a brainy homeboy who’s smarter than you and smarter than me, he stays down to earth throughout these six tracks - his idea of good lovemaking involves burying his face in his partner’s armpit, his main gripe involves scratched vinyl, and one of his toughest boasts goes “my right hand’s on my nutsack / my left hand’s on my nutsack,” to which he also adds, “fuck that”. But note a tossed aside “my bank is my sock drawer”. That detail sets up the moving “Canned Goods,” an homage to charity and consumer durables that manages to cite the Haitian earthquake, Hurricane Irene, the impact of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, and the relative shelf life of Occupy Wall Street. Sure sounds better than bragging about your Moët and caviar.
The Unthanks, Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs Of Robert Wyatt And Antony & The Johnsons (Rough Trade)
This sounded a bit dicey at the outset - a Northumbrian folk outfit helmed by two sisters training their dulcet tones and string arrangements towards six songs apiece by Antony Hegarty and Robert Wyatt. And while this concert rarely rises above the realm of the art song (and rarely rises above a crawling tempo), there’s something noble about Rachel and Becky Unthank’s insistence that Antony and Wyatt are of the tradition, even if the tradition they represent is that of the eccentric outsider, if not outcast. Ultimately, the Antony songs can’t be rescued from their inherently maudlin nature. But stripping the performances of that prepossessing voice does replace melodrama with a more welcome immediacy. And removing Wyatt’s equally unique tenor highlights the lyricism and innate emotion that always lurked beneath the tricky compositions of Britain’s wisest art rocker. If these interpreters seem far more at ease with the music of their fellow countryman, well, they are a folk outfit, after all. And give the group points for keeping their between song patter light and silly: “Rockets at the ready, here’s one to make you puke”.
Windy & Carl, We Will Always Be (Kranky)
This husband and wife duo supposedly exemplify the Michigan space-rock scene, and as somebody who always preferred side A to side B of Ash Ra Tempel’s debut, I miss the rock. So, typical fare from the same Kranky label that brought you Low and Godspeed You Black Emperor! – gauzy, meandering, dare I suggest uneventful music that’s never quite as beautiful as it might be, exploiting the patience certain intelligent music fans bestow upon any mild experimentation giving off the whiff of high art. Perhaps if this project unapologetically pursued noise, or showed a firmer pop footing, I might be willing to indulge them their 19-minute closer “Fainting In The Presence Of The Lord”. Certainly boasts an oceanic grandeur. But it’s hardly transporting, which is one of the few things I ask of space-rock.
Field Music, Plumb (Memphis Industries)
Tempting as it might be to grant these pompous, busy formalists their way with a melody and an undeniable (if subtle) sense of humor, this over-caffeinated gloss on early 70s pop is simply dreadful, staggering fussily through time signatures and key changes with mathematical precision. While they no doubt would claim Todd Rundgren and Wings-era Paul McCartney as inspirations, in truth those craftsmen never played it this arch, even at their most detached or self-indulgent. A finer comparison might be Rush or Gentle Giant, or even Liszt - virtuosos enthralled by the possibility of stretching the human capacity for performance, or just studio technicians who dozed through their humanities classes.