Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 61)


PICKS

Alexei Lubimov, Claude Debussy: Preludes     (ECM New Series)

Difficult to claim a composer dead since the final days of World War I constitutes much of anything “new” outside a classical world in which a fetishization of the past helps cover up popular disappointment with the supposed twelve-tone present. Yet pianist Alexei Lubimov seems the type of musical ambassador who’d never be caught dead slumming at a Mostly Mozart festival, having premiered works by Ives, Boulez, Cage, Schoenberg, and Terry Riley in Soviet Russia before the authorities swooped in on him for one too many dalliances with the Western canon. And Debussy himself was more from than of the 19th Century - even if plenty of grandiloquent and/or romantic runs within these twenty-four preludes remind listeners of a bygone era, this quote-unquote impressionistic music seems worlds away from immediate predecessors Chopin and Liszt. More to the point, this is modernism as no doubt certain quarters might prefer it, more Prufrock than Finnegan, couching its radicalism within familiar forms even as the proud Frenchman worked hard to phase out Germanic influences. One wonders whether these Gallic, anti-Wagnerian tendencies allowed commentators to overlook his dissonance and ambiguity in favor of such relative vagaries as “mood” and “color,” the curse of mere evocativeness that partially defines him to this day. Not that the composer’s legendary floating chords aren’t on full display, both within the relatively brief meeting with Alexei Zuev midway through in which originally orchestral pieces become dual piano arrangements and throughout the two books of preludes bookending that meeting, in which Lubimov alternates between a vintage Bechstein and Steinway, the latter offering slightly softer tones and deeper resonance for the second book’s decidedly avant-garde directions. Yet a century removed, Debussy’s rejection of Bach-dictated rules concerning patterns of all twenty-four keys seems an inevitable step in musical maturation. And New Music skeptics can always consider the rich legacy he bequeathed to jazz - hints within “Brouillards” and the ersatz ragtime “Minstrels” alone suggest his talent for synthesis. Then consider the impressionism of Ellington’s upside-down arrangement for “Mood Indigo, ” Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance”-inversion of “Danseuses de Daphes,” Bill Evans lifting an ostinato to anchor both “Peace Piece” and “Flamenco Sketches”.

David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant     (4AD)

By far the strangest criticism of this meeting between two rock outsiders is the accusation neither artist is playing to their experimental strengths, as if Byrne hasn’t proven this agreeable in decades and as if Annie Clark has literally never been better, despite the fact her guitar angularity has been pushed to the margins (a few rowdy moments on “The Forest Awakes” aside). A fairer critique might center around Byrne’s ongoing status as elitist demagogue, as full of ideas as Marshall McLuhan, wishing he could immerse himself within the televisual drugs of the common people the same way he once gaped without comprehension at the undifferentiated emptiness of the big country below. Yet in either example, an elitist struggles for empathy, acknowledging, say, his belief in television’s democratic principles even while mourning his own inability to slip inside communities defined by the paradox of entertainment conglomerates - hence the wishful thinking “I’m blending in here / yes I am”. Throughout, Clark provides welcome relief from Byrne’s perpetual anxiety, no less arch but also not necessarily being obtuse when she claims to be “the optimist of 30th Street”. And by all accounts, the imaginative horn arrangements defining this album’s sound - ranging from funky to mock-baroque - were her idea, including the decision to compose songs around pre-existing brass/woodwind figures. If either artist’s outsider status leaves you cold, be assured those horns lilt and swing. Plus, these voices of dissent speak plenty in the way of uncomfortable truth, from Clark asking “who is an honest man?” to Byrne encouraging dinner guests to cower behind sofas in a Buñuelian update to “Life During Wartime”.

NEAR PICKS

Pet Shop Boys, Elysium     (Astralwerks)

Neil Tennant’s voice has accrued the kind of cultural capital more common to pop stars of decades past, a mere phrase or two effortlessly conjuring up time and place, uniquely warm and soothing yet catty and wry. And Tennant and Chris Lowe remain notable pop craftsmen - “Winner” and “Give It A Go” easily find a place within their impressive pantheon of melodies. Still, these eleven songs seem prematurely autumnal, and not solely due to a musical setting that pulses rather than throbs, which after all seems age-appropriate. True, a series of backward glances at days past dominates proceedings, and their nostalgia-free examinations of lives lived onstage remain preferable to anticipatory hymns of elysian slobber. Yet let’s not read too much into that album title, which as Tennant himself notes references a Dodger Stadium-adjacent park in the Los Angeles both call home and lovingly explore in concluding track “Requiem in Denim and Leopard Skin.” Maybe what buoys that number while sinking the London Olympics anthem “Winner” is the former’s acceptance of faded glory while the latter basks in of-the-moment certitude, tipping the duo’s balance away from its Steely Dan yin towards a Eurodisco yang. Or maybe denying Tennant his clear-cut victory is too cruel. After all, he manages to cheerfully promise “our love is dead” before exploring the career disappointment trajectory that is “Early Stuff,” which despite all its telling details turns on the most cutting query any pop star can field: “hey/what’s your name?” 

Four Tet, Pink     (Text)

Nothing more than a selection of (mostly) previously released vinyl-only 12” singles from the past year or so, in which Kieran Hebden resurrects the best parts of prog -  cheesy electronic noise capable of imparting wistfulness, for one - and weds them to rhythms easily conversant with both funk and jazz. Much of this is silly, sometimes to the point of tedium, as see the previously-unreleased and no-great-shakes “Lion,” the five-minutes-of-a-few-ideas “Ocoros,” the excessively-vocal-sampled “Pyramid”. But cheesy wistfulness is on fine display throughout the multi-structured “Jupiters,” and closer “Pinnacles” simply smokes, a jazz-funk beast boasting a stand-up bass line that runs the disco down. 

BOMBS

Antony & The Johnsons, Cut The World    (Secretly Canadian)

Acolytes and apologists claiming Antony Hegarty’s nearly eight-minute spoken word monologue isn’t the centerpiece of this live-in-Denmark recording shouldn’t put up the fight - if Hegarty hadn’t wanted “Future Feminism” to dominate proceedings, it wouldn’t have been placed conspicuously four minutes into the album. Whether musings over lunar cycles, menstruation, and the fact that humans are “over 70% water” cause you to lean closer or click “skip”, there’s no denying Hegarty comes across as thoughtful, gently radical, charming, a bit daffy, and even funny, that final attribute rarely if ever apparent in his funereal music. But while most of us could stand to learn something about patriarchal hegemony and the fluidity of gender, Hegarty could stand to learn something about why it’s kind of appalling to bemoan ecological collapse because it means he won’t have anywhere to be reborn. In such matters, then, Our Visionary differs from superstitious types like Orrin Hatch only in the damage caused by their respective knowledge gaps. Antony’s a far deeper and kinder human being than Hatch, to be sure. But his theology helps contextualize songs like “Epilepsy Is Dancing” - wishful thinking that decodes science as the problem and foists nobility upon any condition, medical or otherwise, that helps distinguish one from the rest of the patriarchal monotheists. Which is why I believe Antony when he moans he “always wanted love to be filled with pain”. 


Toy, TOY     (Heavenly)

If once only the cool kids were down with Amon Duul and Neu!, these days having a rhythm section that’s into krautrock means almost less than nothing. Unless utter indistinguishability means something, which maybe it does. And, ooh, backwards guitar solos. Haven’t heard those in a while.