Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Jon Hassell ‎– Aka / Darbari / Java - Magic Realism (1983)

Style: Abstract, Future Jazz, Tribal, Experimental, Ambient
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: ArsNova, Editions EG

A1.   Empire I
A2.   Empire II
A3.   Empire III
A4.   Empire IV
A5.   Empire V
B1.   Darbari Extension I
B2.   Darbari Extension II

Mastered By – Greg Calbi
Percussion – Abdou Mboup
Producer, Engineer, Mixed By, Effects – Daniel Lanois
Producer, Composed By, Trumpet, Synthesizer, Mixed By, Effects  – J. Hassell

The first time I heard Jon Hassell’s music was a kind of eureka moment: “WHAT is this?” It was his 1978 album Vernal Equinox, and I was immediately drawn in by the looseness of it all, the use of percussion (which I’m always a sucker for), and the unorthodox processing of his instrument. But despite this album being my first introduction to him, the one I keep going back to is Aka / Darbari / Java: Magic Realism (Editions EG) from 1983. It’s an extremely inspiring and lush journey into woozy experimental territories that carries me away, but also makes me nerdily curious about its creation after several listens.

It starts out with a patient build, where small fragments of melody appear and depart again. It then takes you into a slow build over a loop that wraps you in atonal warmth, before the first percussive elements come in on the track “Empire III” and Hassell’s beautiful, airy trumpet melodies grabs a hold of you. It’s just so hypnotic and free, all done with such few elements: the percussive rhythms with the occasional bass-y pump, the melodic journey of the trumpet, and a very subtle high-frequency sample that weaves in and out.

Then comes the dubby and loopy “Empire IV.” From what I’ve read, this album was made using a great deal of digital sampling and processing with the Fairlight CMI — a new technological development in music production at the time. This must have really opened a lot of doors in terms of possibilities and surprises in the recording process. I would have just loved to have been a fly on the wall during the making of this, to see how he made use of this new technology to further his already well-developed sound.

“Empire V” is my favorite track on this album; I find myself imagining drifting in a small boat on a river surrounded by purple skies and Birds of Paradise, with the waves rolling and lapping against the hull of the boat. Talk about magical realism. This is what I love about music — that an idea or sound can develop from nothing and become so full of life in the ear of the receiver. And that the composer, performer, and instrument are merely a vessel, yet the only possible vessel for this new life.

Which leads us in to another epic trance-inducing moment: the meditative, almost 14-minute “Darbari Extension I.” The trumpet softly flies over the warm percussion and fragmented samples that add to the seasickness, never allowing it to settle into a repetitive space. On “Darbari Extension II” we hear echoes of the samples used on “Empire IV,” again going into an almost freeform dubby territory. The journey ends here — for now — like we’re in some multi-colored, shiny cave waiting to find out what’s next.

We can hear Hassell’s influence across so much music, including some of the most explorative and rule-bending stuff being made today. It’s impossible to pin down geographically, and is timeless — a gift to us all. It’s also taught me a lot about freedom in process, making a lot with few elements, and about letting the idea take hold without restrictions.
Carmen Villain / Self Centered

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Steve Reich ‎– Music For 18 Musicians (1978)

Style: Post-Modern, Minimal, Contemporary
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: ECM Records

1.   Pulse – Sections I-X – Pulse

Cello – Ken Ishii
Clarinet, Bass Clarinet – Richard Cohen, Virgil Blackwell
Marimba, Maracas – Gary Schall
Marimba, Xylophone – Bob Becker, Glen Velez, Russ Hartenberger
Marimba, Xylophone, Piano – David Van Tieghem
Metallophone, Piano – James Preiss
Piano – Nurit Tilles, Steve Chambers
Piano, Maracas – Larry Karush
Piano, Marimba, Composed By, Liner Notes – Steve Reich
Violin – Shem Guibbory
Voice – Elizabeth Arnold, Pamela Fraley
Voice, Piano – Jay Clayton
Mixed By – Rudolph Werner, Klaus Hiemann, Steve Reich
Producer, Recording Supervisor – Rudolph Werner

Music for 18 Musicians makes no efforts to obscure the methods behind its construction. As such, it reveals a wealth of mysteries never notated on the printed page. The piece is scored for violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones and metallophone (vibraphone with no motor). With his characteristic attention to detail, Reich utilizes these instruments not necessarily for their evocativeness, but for the unique and varied ways in which their timbres can be blended in a nearly hour-long wash of sound. Calling this “minimalism” would be unfair both to Reich and to the musicians among whom he makes this demanding journey. There is a sense of movement here that is both linear and multidirectional. I say this not for the sake of verbosity, but because Reich’s notecraft commits to its own agenda while latching on to so many others along the way. 
The piece begins with a seamless blend of piano and mallet instruments threading its full length like a living metronome. Joining this is a chorus of breaths from human voices and winds. The interweaving of these substantial strands reinforces the compositional density, like marrow and nerves cohering into a spinal c(h)ord of decidedly aural design. At the risk of belaboring this analogy, I venture to see this piece as one active body in which each instrument writes the genetic code of its musical biology. This dynamic is further heightened by the presence of vocal utterances. Although these function as egalitarian extensions of manufactured instruments, they lend fragility to the underlying spirit of the music at hand. These voices rise and fall, slowly replaced by clarinets as if one and the same. 
Sudden changes in rhythm serve to reconfigure our attention to the intervention of the composer’s hand: just as we are being lulled into a sense of perpetuity, akin to a natural cycle studied from afar, we are reminded that what we are listening to has been contrived at the whim of a single human mind. Far from undermining the piece, this awareness invites us to share in its re-creation through the very act of listening. Like much of Reich’s music, Music for 18 Musicians is nothing if not accommodating. Rather than patronize or proselytize, it lays itself bare. This brackets Music for 18 Musicians off from much of the histrionic art music in vogue at the time of its creation (1974-76). One could argue that it is scientific in its approach to structure. I prefer to see it as simply honest. 
The recording quality of this album is ideally suited to its subject matter. There is a sense of “clusteredness” throughout, so that the performers never stray too far from the nexus of their unity, while also providing just enough breathing room (the performers’ lung capacities determine the length of sonic pulses throughout) for individual elements to shine. Most of the mixing, as it were, is done live through the sheer skill of Reich’s assembly of dedicated musicians, and requires meticulous attentiveness on the part of the recording engineer to highlight that complex interplay without overpowering the core. A beautiful and compelling landmark achievement.
Tyran Grillo / ECM Reviews

Steve Reich - Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman ‎– Music For 18 Musicians (2015)

Style: Post-Modern, Minimal, Contemporary
Format: CD
Label: Harmonia Mundi

01.   Pulses
02.   Section I
03.   Section II
04.   Section III A
05.   Section III B
06.   Section IV
07.   Section V
08.   Section VI
09.   Section VII
10.   Section VIII
11.   Section IX
12.   Section X
13.   Section XI
14.   Pulses

Composed By – Steve Reich
Vibraphone – Peter Martin
Violin – Olivia De Prato
Cello – Lauren Radnofsky
Clarinet – Ken Thomson, Bill Kalinkos
Ensemble – Ensemble Signal
Maracas – James Deitz
Xylophone – Owen Clayton Condon, Robert Dillon
Voice – Martha Cluver, Caroline Shaw, Mellissa Hughes, Kirsten Sollek
Marimba – Doug Perkins, Bill Solomon, David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, James Deitz, Brad Lubman
Piano – David Friend, Lisa Moore, Red Wierenga, Peter Martin, David Skidmore, Thomas Rosenkranz,
Ensemble Signal Project Producer – Lauren Radnofsky
Produced By, Mixed By, Mastered By – Michael Riesman

In May, New York’s Ensemble Signal released one of a very few commercial recordings of Music for 18 Musicians, composer Steve’s Reich’s seminal work of minimalism from the mid-’70s. Signal, founded by Lauren Radnofsky and Brad Lubman in 2008, have toured the world, released five recordings, and received wide acclaim for their vitality and precision. Here, the group reproduces fellow New Yorker Steve Reich’s 1978 release on ECM with impeccable fidelity. The work contains eleven “Sections”, bookended by two movements called “Pulses”. The orchestration comprises of violin, cello, female vocals, pianos, maracas, marimbas, xylophones, metallophone, clarinets, and bass clarinets. Based wholly on an eleven-chord cycle, the work explores the pulsating auditory sensation caused by the onset and location of the various pitches in space. Built on meticulous repetitions, the work concerns itself only with what’s pure and right, musically speaking. 
While most music assumes the task of finding home -- that note or chord that ties things up and makes the makes the whole journey worthwhile --Music for 18 Musicians finds home at the start, and never leaves. Every subsequent movement comes as a resolution you never knew was needed. Any purer, and you’d be listening to an infinitely sustained, spectrum-spanning major chord played by a million hand-holding citizens of the world. While the work cannot be described as devoid of conflict, it tenses and relaxes so subtly that even the tension is relaxation by the standards of most other music. Like Terry Riley’s In C, a minimalist masterpiece of a decade prior, layers are added and removed with such care that any change at all is given the utmost respect. In the first notes of “Pulses”, the work materializes with stunning clarity. Instruments come into focus immediately, sounding like a team of archers firing a single target: sometimes they all hit a single spot, other times in perfect, geometric formation. Other times still, one arrow splits another, cleanly and silently: a perfect and an instantaneous arrival coupled with a quiet and unassuming departure. 
Over the first few sections, the piece builds from meditations on single notes and chords, its passages formed by simple addition and subtraction, crescendo and decrescendo. It’s music that couldn’t offend your sensibilities if you wanted it to. Baths of harmonies cycle over and over again; melodies slowly grow longer and stronger through the many cycles, never over- or under-asserting themselves. Instruments claw their way in from beneath to emerge and eventually subsume others, briefly take their turn as lead, and blend back into the mix. Bright and airy, the vocals blend seamlessly, and the bass clarinets saw gently as if tracing a fine piece of wood. With “Section 5” comes a more prominent change in the form of a wonderful new piano theme, and with “Section 11”, a welcome variation on an original theme, simultaneously foreign and strangely familiar. Throughout the hour-long experience, the piece never once grows uncomfortable with itself, never falters or questions its path: “The way is straight and true. Just follow yourself,” a sign tells you. “Okay, sign, I will,” you say to yourself. And you do. 
The whole thing feels very universal. It blends musical styles and cultures to the point that Music for 18 Musicians transcends style and culture. At the roots of this work are patterns, the very musical traditions of earth: the frameworks of folk, pop, and classical musics. This music is easy to appreciate because its experimentation remains firmly within the bounds of structure and intuition. Objects interact in compositionally governed ratios, instantly clear and recognizable—the perfect soundtrack for a child as he or she lays awake, pondering what it is to become someone. 
In a sense, the ensemble’s work is a difficult one to evaluate. With such an immensely challenging piece to perform, the ensemble deserves commendation for even trying, and indeed, its rendition adheres to the original miraculously—no need for creative embellishment. In this sense, there’s not much to say about Ensemble Signal’s particular recording, except that it’s flawless—in pitch, in volume, in timing. Furthermore, given the technology of the day, Signal produce an even cleaner recording than 1978’s. And perhaps here lie both its strength and weakness. It’s tempting to describe Music for 18 Musicians as otherworldly or inhuman, but perhaps it’s just not about anything human. It conveys a message neither political nor social but rather scientific and aesthetic. It’s music about patterns, and here, that’s quite refreshing.
Noah Harrison / popMATTERS

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Khruangbin ‎– Mordechai (2020)

Genre: Rock, Funk / Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Dead Oceans, Night Time Stories

01.   First Class
02.   Time (You And I)
03.   Connaissais De Face
04.   Father Bird, Mother Bird
05.   If There Is No Question
06.   Pelota
07.   One To Remember
08.   Dearest Alfred
09.   So We Won’t Forget
10.   Shida

Lyrics By – Speer
Lyrics By, Artwork, Design – Ochoa
Music By, Producer, Performer – Khruangbin
Performer, Drums – Donald Johnson, Jr.
Performer, Electric Bass – Laura Lee Ochoa
Performer, Electric Guitar – Mark Speer
Recorded By, Producer, Mixed By – Steve Christensen

Alive act at heart, Khruangbin performs at the leisurely pace of experienced improvisational musicians, while their songs are judiciously pared down to playlist-friendly lengths ideal for your local Starbucks. But the Houston rock trio’s output can hardly be categorized as “easy listening.” Khruangbin’s homage to eclectic musical traditions from around the world demands close attention. The band’s third album, Mordechai, coalesces the balmy Southeast Asian-influenced rock of 2015’s The Universe Smiles Upon You and the baroque Iranian psychedelia of 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo, injecting it all with a generous helping of funk. All the while, the ornamental, unhurried grooves maintain Khruangbin’s signature air of reverence and abundance, ensuring that each song unfolds organically. 
The album’s opening track, “First Class,” launches the album into a dreamy stratosphere, as the band—whose name means “airplane” in Thai—details the opulence of a first-class flight over shimmering guitars. This euphoric yet playful tone permeates much of the rest of the album, which unlike the group’s past efforts, incorporates vocals into all but one of the tracks. Lead single “Time (You and I)” offers an Edenic proposition, smokily sung by bassist Laura Lee: “We can play like children play/We can say like children say.” She beckons us to shed the concerns and judgments of adulthood and rediscover the world through the eyes of a child. 
Having gained renown primarily as an instrumental band, Khruangbin mastered the dimensions of their sonic blueprint early on. Propelled by drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson’s tumbling backbeats, Lee’s meandering bass often provided the heartbeat of each of the band’s songs, while Speer’s guitar, laden with brambly hammer-on passages that evoke Middle Eastern rock, served as a lush accent. This interplay spared little breathing room for vocals; the rare mantra-like chant would be a word or phrase sung by the trio and sustained, as if the vocal were itself another instrument adding to the mix.

By contrast, there’s only one true instrumental on Mordechai, the pensive “Father Bird, Mother Bird,” and half of the album’s tracks boast entire verses and choruses. What was once implied is now overtly articulated. Lee’s ruminations on memory surface on “Connaissais de Face,” a Thai surf-rock jam interspersed with a conversation between two old friends. One remarks to the other, “Time changes everything,” a truism that seems hackneyed until it’s put into relief with the friends’ struggle to reconcile the old and new versions of themselves. 
On the tender “Dearest Alfred,” Lee gives thanks to a loved one after receiving a letter that transports her to their shared past: “Can you imagine the joy/When I received your wonderful letter?/Your letter is the best gift.” For Khruangbin, the act of recollection entails articulating past emotions. Language, be it a bittersweet heart-to-heart or the scribbled thoughts of a letter, enables us to historicize the past—the closest we can ever come to reliving it. 
Armed with this special regard for memory, the band confronts the impetus of the present with open eyes and arms. The Spanish-language “Pelota” is a playful jaunt situated at the intersection of Iranian rock and Afro-Colombian cumbia. Lee compares herself to a ball of soot traversing life’s peaks and valleys, at once acknowledging her smallness and the immensity of the chaos surrounding her. Still, she adopts a stance of acceptance: “Pero quiero amar el desastre/El desastre que es mío” (“But I want to love the disaster/The disaster that is mine”).

This effort to appreciate the present before it slips away into the recesses of memory forms the album’s foundation. While past Khruangbin albums risked coming off merely as studied tributes to the microcosms of Thai and Iranian rock, Mordechai finds Khruangbin coming into their own, thanks to the band’s lyrical development and the honing of their fusion of intercontinental influences. As the adage goes, there’s nothing new under the sun, but Mordechai makes a case that maybe there just might be.
Sophia Ordaz / SLANT

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Kassa Overall ‎– I Think I'm Good (2020)

Genre: Hip Hop, Jazz
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Brownswood Recordings

01.   Visible Walls
02.   Please Don't Kill Me
03.   Find Me
0.4.   I Know You See Me
05.   Sleeping On The Train
06.   Show Me A Prison
07.   Halfway House
08.   Landline
09.   Darkness In Mind
10.   The Best Of Life
11.   Got Me A Plan
12.   Was She Happy (For Geri Allen)

Mastered By – Mike Bozzi
Mixed By – Daniel Schlett, Josh Giunta, Paul Wilson, Xander Knight
Producer – Kassa Overall
We live in a golden age of storytelling, however chaotic it may feel. Despite social fractures, amoral media platforms, and historical blindness (willful and otherwise), more individuals are telling their stories—in audio, video, words, images, sounds, computer programs, and new combinations—than ever before. Challenging assumptions about who is empowered to tell these stories and how, a more thorough picture of the world emerges, including truths that long lay unacknowledged. With access to a growing range of narrative tools and methods of distribution, the floodgates of rumination have opened—algorithms, copyright restrictions, and genre quarantines be damned. 
So it’s hard to imagine Kassa Overall’s I Think I’m Good as the product of any other age but this one, yet it’s also a timeless tale. A high-gloss, trap-jazz, Auto-Tuned singer-songwriter cycle about multiple consciousness, it’s a fragile diary of a young artist’s escape from the comforts of fear, aided by an incredible community of musicians who have his back. More broadly, it’s a kaleidoscopic cut’n’paste opus that bypasses prior, drier conversations about jazz and hip-hop sharing space—even Overall’s masterful 2019 debut, Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz—to express something much more personal, yet also universally relatable. 
Some of the greatness of I Think I’m Good comes in the blending of its design and function. The story that 36-year-old Kassa tells, integrating his own lifelong mental-health struggles with the incarceration and subjugation of black America, is in many ways completely novel; even more so is the way he tells it, in expansive song-rap compositions that have the intimacy of bedroom indie-folk murmurs. Until recently, Kassa’s rep rested on being a great young jazz drummer (with an overflow of credits—Geri Allen, Christian McBride, and Arto Lindsay, to name a few—and a stint in Jon Batiste’s band on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert). He also dabbled as a rapper and producer, including collaborations with Francis and the Lights and Das Racist. But his desire to synthesize collective improvisation, electronic production, and rap vocals has been the core of his recent live residencies at New York’s Zinc Bar and the Jazz Gallery, and Go Get Ice Cream approached the jazz/hip-hop discourse from this holistic live-playing-with-rapping-and-electronics direction. It also featured a great song called “Prison and Pharmaceuticals” (chorus: “What’s the best stocks?”) that is a direct thematic harbinger of I Think I’m Good.
Piotr Orlov / Pitchfork

The Colours That Rise ‎– Grey Doubt (2020)

Genre: Electronic, Hip Hop, Funk / Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Rhythm Section International

01.   Red Dawn
02.   Home Time
03.   Opacity
04.   Hyper Lace
05.   Orion’s Belt and Beyond
06.   Interlude Sly: 2009
07.   The Juice
08.   Get Away
09.   If I was God
10.   Ghost in the Forest
11.   Atmosphere
12.   Interlude: Interlude
13.   Deep Space
14.   Interlude: Until Next Time
15.   Deep Space (Radio Edit)

Executive Producer – Bradley Zero
Mastered By – Noel Summerville
Project Manager – Emily Hill
Written By, Performer, Recorded By – Nathanael Williams, Simeon Jones

Three years ago, producer duo Simeon Jones and Nathanael Williams put out their first official release as The Colours That Rise, a cosmic-jazz four-track that hurtled towards a subject matter that, in 2017, looked like quite an underwhelming maiden voyage in time-travel: the year 2020. Vindicated though the once-reserved futurists may now be, the 2020 EP was a release that locked them firmly as ones-to-watch within the well-documented burgeoning London jazz world. Future sounds from experimental electronic to ambient and dancefloor were the bookends for an amalgam of nu-jazz and old funk, bounding three years forward and forty years back with musical ease. A record deal with Peckham mainstays Rhythm Section International later, and their debut full-length is enough to justify the excitement. 
Grey Doubt is a “secret history” about black people who live on Mars. “This is a documentary,” opening track ‘Red Dawn’ says sincerely, “about black people living on UFOs… extraterrestrials that actually was black.” Whether TCTR are simple conspiracy theorists or peddlers of a cosmic truth one rung or two up from Murdoch’s most honest publication, what follows is something that cuts out the equanimity from the basement jazz club. Easy-access dub and celestial jazz seep through the live instrumentation and analogue synths, whilst chromatic sax riffs and breakbeat percussion glare with a neon shimmer more akin to Roy Ayers than Charlie Parker. Whiskey and bitters are furloughed for tequila, while Jones and Williams sit above their new civilisation with space suits and jetpacks.  
As with all good documentaries, Grey Doubt thrives when other voices become involved. Features from London’s leading lights Yussef Dayes and Mansur Brown morph ‘Home Time’ into meditative funk, extended through the downtempo Balearic mantra of ‘Opactity’ and pulsing ‘Hyper Lace’. Vocalists Andrew Ashong and Yazmin Lacey are some of the real highlights; gospel-tinged ‘The Juice’ leads the way for degraded Madlib beats, wiry, fuzzed-out funk, ending with uncannily soothing soundscapes of ‘Atmosphere’, into a collaborative dimension where we shouldn’t really be calling this jazz anymore. Playing with reality’s fabric through half-truths and post-truths, TCTR’s Grey Doubt is an afrofuturist wake-up, on which even a 48-minute journey to Mars doesn’t feel too out of this world.
Tristan Gatward / LOUD AND QUIET

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Dee Dee Bridgewater ‎– Afro Blue (1974)

Genre: Jazz
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Trio Records, Mr Bongo, All Art, Muzak, Inc.

A1.   Afro Blue
A2.   Love Vibrations
A3.   Blues Medley (Everyday I Have The Blues / Stormy Monday)
B1.   Little B's Poem
B2.   Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head
B3.   Love From The Sun
B4.   People Make The World Go Round

Arranged By – Cecil Bridgewater, Horace Silver
Bass – George Mraz
Drums, Bells – Motohiko Hino
Piano – Roland Hanna
Tenor Saxophone, Cowbell, Other [African Castanets, Vibra-clap] – Ron Bridgewater
Trumpet, Kalimba – Cecil Bridgewater
Vocals – Dee Dee Bridgewater
Producer – Takao Ishizuka

Before she made a name for herself with a string of killer disco, jazz-funk and fusion records in the late '70s and early '80s, Dee Dee Bridgewater was a rising star on the global jazz underground. This period of her career is best exemplified by 1974 debut album "Afro Blue", a fine vocal jazz album recorded in Tokyo with a backing band made up of husband Cecil (a top trumpeter) and high-quality Japanese session musicians. As this reissue proves, the album has lost none of its allure. There's much to set the pulse racing throughout, from the breezy soul-jazz shuffle of opener "Afro Blue" and the emotive "Blues Medley", to the superb slowed-down jazz cover of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" and blissful "People Make The World Go Round".

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Brian Eno ‎– Thursday Afternoon (1985)

Style: Abstract, Ambient
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: EG, Polydor, Virgin, Astralwerks

1. Thursday Afternoon

Mixed By – Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Michael Brook
Performer – Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Roger Eno
Written-By – Brian Eno

An ‘ambient masterpiece’ ― but what does that mean exactly? Can something with so little regular music be thought of as essential, masterful music? Of course it can ― trust in Brian.   
Writing about ambient music presents a mild conundrum: there’s actually very little to write about. Might as well wax lyrical about Lou’s Metal Machine Music for all the twangy metaphors or onomatopoeic riffs one can draw from it. But in the case of Thursday Afternoon one can actually formulate relevant things to say; one can talk about Eno and His Strategies in collaboration with Lanois, and the new CD format for which it was mixed, and the video project for which it was the soundtrack. {For the technical review details I’d suggest looking up the album’s Wikipedia entry.} 
I’d start by saying that Thursday Afternoon is the peak expression of Eno’s ambient aesthetic and methodology. It’s his best ambient album: a sonic idea of detailed, layered background music given the full stretch of CD canvas. It runs just over 60 minutes. It’s calm, sonically uneventful, and ‘an even-textured, spacious and contemplative piece in which several musical events appear and recur more or less regularly’ according to Eno’s liner notes. It is, according to his dictum, eminently ignorable and yet curiously detailed down to the subsonic level. 
There’s a piano riff that’s been slowed down and repeated at staggered intervals; there’s a calm sea of synth washes that shimmer and roll like curtains of light. There’s a warm modal sense to the music that never clamours for attention; and it is certainly calm and gentle in a non-pretentious way. 
Technically, that’s all there is to be said. As a work of art it has a subtle, low-key and delicate and almost painterly beauty. As music it is dangerously close to the fairy end of New Age dreck. As conceptual gambit it begs to be ridiculed (after all, one man’s formal experimentation is another’s pure surface). But it is still his best ambient disc, and one of the great pinnacles of the genre. Actually, strike that ― there are no peaks or pinnacles in ambient music, only wide open spaces and valleys. Ambient doesn’t get purer or clearer than this, and it’s of a calibre, a subjectivity far above so much other ambient music. It succeeds in execution. 
And, it is an album I want everyone to have. It does something to me. It might have something in common with the abovementioned dreck because it seems to replicate the brain’s alpha-wave frequencies ― surely by design. But in a broader sense it is music on a frequency that I can tune into very easily. It has something of Miles’ In a Silent Way in that these musical frequencies seem utterly congruent with the act of thinking, with the modality of thought. It gives a cerebral buzz that’s entirely in keeping with the texture-driven focus of the music, in the sense that you can listen and give Thursday Afternoon as much or as little attention as you want and the music never becomes boring, an endlessly repeated blah of space and sound. It has enough detail and randomised change to keep it interesting and still be eminently ignorable. It is a comfortable place for the mind to inhabit, and absorb, and think about the act of consciousness. And it’s about as far away from regular song structure values as you could hope to get while still feeling like music. Cue the meditation master with his ponytail. 
It works best when played at low volume ― it becomes a part of the room. It sits at the periphery of attention and yet you’re aware of it, thinking similarly, slowly permutating. And so it is like meditation in a way. This master is (famously) bald. 
You can treat it like a joke or an arty wank, but I think it’s one of the great explorations of what’s conceptually possible in music ― and where music crosses into pure subjectivity. It is pure texture and spatial analogy, and yet strangely engaging. Anything with such a positive affect can’t be all crap and pretentiousness. It works as a finished piece of art, framed and exhibited. 
And the last seven minutes to fade-out present the most uncanny analogue of a setting sun ever committed to tape. The sense of fading light, of imminent rest…
Rino Breebaart / The Slow Review

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Moses Sumney ‎– græ (2020)

Style: Soul, Funk, Neo Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Jagjaguwar,

Part 1
01.   Insula
02.   Cut Me
03.   In Bloom
04.   Virile
05.   Conveyor
06.   Boxes
07.   Gagarin
08.   Jill/jack
09.   Colouour
11.   Neither/Nor
12.   Polly
Part 2
13.   Two Dogs
14.   Bystanders
15.   Me In 20 Years
16.   Keeps Me Alive
17.   Lucky Me
18.   And So I Come To Isolation
19.   Bless Me
20.   Before You Go

Mastered By – Joe LaPorta
Mixed By – Ben Baptie
Vocals, Arranged By – Moses Sumney

Moses Sumney has spent his life on the margins, living in the in-between spaces that defy simple categorisation. His groundbreaking debut, 2017’s ‘Aromanticism’, a genre-less album that blurred 1970s-inspired soul with alternative jazz, was well-received but saw the musician widely labelled as an R&B artist – much to his dismay. 
His parents are Ghanian and Sumney grew up in California (at various points he lived in Riverside and San Bernardino) and he’s often asked to describe his heritage in singular terms, erasing part of his identity. He recently told NME: “People always look to define you to understand you, but my identity is this kind of patchwork. It’s not something that can be – or that I want to be – defined.” 
And with his second record, ‘græ’, a sprawling 20-song double-album released in two parts (the first arrived back in March), Sumney emphasises this message more overtly. In one of the album’s standout spoken word segments, an assertive voice tells us: “I insist upon my right to be multiple.” 
In keeping with Sumney’s manifesto, the album is often impossible to define and only loosely recalls jazz, art-pop, spoken word and avant-garde. As with Bjork, David Bowie and Prince, attempts at categorisation often feel useless because Sumney’s music exists so pointedly outside of any boundary. While the songs link thematically, few link stylistically – in fact, most are polar opposites: there’s sci-fi futurism next to sprawling orchestrals and even scatter-gun trap beats paired with swirling electronica. 
Spoken-word opener ‘Insula’ sets the album’s inquisitive tone. An androgynous, futuristic voice repeatedly reflects upon the meaning of the word ‘isolation’, before it abruptly asserts: “Here we go into the grey.” It’s underscored by a sparse, unsettling bassline from jazz-funk superstar Thundercat bass and distorted synths from producer Oneohtrix Point Never. This menacing opening is a distinct comment on the dangers that come with narrowly defining yourself and others. 
Sumney takes us on a journey from his childhood to now, mapping out his path from isolation to freedom. The album bursts into life with ‘Cut Me’, which features his altitude-defying falsetto and lyrics that convey his outsider status as a “true immigrant son”. His fractured identity is reflected by sporadic piano and trumpet bursts held together with shimmering harmonics. Sumney’s falsettos are layered until they reach a piercing crescendo, which coincides with him singing about using pain to block out pain: “Masochistic kisses / Are how I thrive…. Might not be healthy for me but seemingly I need / What cuts me.” 
This theme continues on the gut-wrenching, skeletal ‘Neither/Nor’, an acoustic track about the isolation that comes from existing on the margins; he recalls being ignored as a child due to his difference. “Who is he?” a voice recalls before the devastating response arrives: “Nobody”. At school Sumney’s quiet, effeminate nature clashed with traditional definitions of masculinity, leading to yet more othering. Album standout ‘Virile’ sees him thrash against the status quo: “You’ve got the wrong guy / You wanna slip right in / Amp up the masculine / You’ve got the wrong idea, son.”

Each of theses songs shifts from sparseness to maximalism, from a feeling of helplessness to defiance; it’s a common pattern on the album. On ‘Virile’, gentle harps and soft flutes are overwhelmed by thunderous beats and clashing synths; ‘Neither/Nor’ swells from scant, fingerpicked guitar to swirling orchestration. There is a great deal of defiance here. On the album’s second spoken-word segment, ‘also also also and and and’, which arrives halfway through the album, he’s more assertive still: “I really do insist that others recognise my inherent multiplicity / What I no longer do is take pains to explain it or defend it.” On ‘Boxes’, he takes it further: “I truly believe that people who define you control you.” 
The first half of ‘grae’ simmers with devastating rage, while the second evokes something close to peace for Sumney, who accepts his multiplicity by defining himself as “me” for the first time across multiple songs. And he implores others to do the same. He also makes pleas for honesty – sometimes with moments of startling humour. On gentle acoustic ballad ‘Polly’, he bluntly asks a potential lover, “am I just your Friday dick?” 
The spoken-word segments allow the record to breathe and break up the density of a record which can, at times, be overwhelming. Yet this is an album that – fittingly – rewards multiple listens. With ‘græ’, Sumney calls for a world that doesn’t expect easy answers and doesn’t judge or restrict individuals. This is a brave, vulnerable and ambitious work that asks us to recognise and celebrate our own grey areas. It’s an album full of possibility and startling scope, and which, ultimately, finds peace among the pain.
Elizabeth Aubrey / NME

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

SPK ‎– Digitalis Ambigua, Gold And Poison (1987)

Style: Synth-pop, Industrial, Ambient, New Wave
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Nettwerk, Animalized, Regular Records

01.   Breathless
02.   Mouth To Mouth
03.   Sheer Naked Aggression
04.   Crack!
05.   The Doctrine Of Eternal Ice
06.   Invocation
07.   White Island
08.   Palms Crossed In Sorrow
09.   Alocasia Metallica
10.   The Garden Of Earthly Delights

Voice – Karina Hayes, Sinan
Instruments, Programmed By, Voice, Written-By, Recorded By, Producer – Graeme Revell

Somewhere between the industrial noise of the early years and his later soundtrack work, Graeme Revell was in a period of transition. Digitalis Ambigua, Gold and Poison (often shortened to simply Gold and Poison) carried on from the noisy but danceable electro-funk of Junk Funk, but smoothes out the edges. In fact, the album shifts gears partway through, going from slick and almost throwaway dance music to moody atmospheric instrumentals. It's a jarring change, but it ultimately saves the album from being a waste of time, and serves as a document of Revell turning a corner in his musical career.
Sean Carruthers / AllMusic

Monday, 15 June 2020

The Necks ‎– Three (2020)

Genre: Jazz
Format: CD, FLAC
Label: Fish Of Milk, Northern Spy, ReR Megacorp

1.   Bloom
2.   Lovelock
3.   Further

Recorded By, Mixed By – Tim Whitten
Mastered By – Doug Henderson
Bass – Lloyd Swanton
Drums, Percussion – Tony Buck
Piano – Chris Abrahams
Written-By – Abrahams, Swanton, Buck
Producer – The Necks

Live performances by Australian free-improvising trio The Necks typically take the form of a single, slowly growing and morphing mass of sound. On recordings the musicians give themselves permission to sculpt the sound, so it is not a real-time document. Nevertheless their two previous albums Vertigo (Northern Spy Records, 2015) and Body (Northern Spy Records, 2018) both presented a single long track apiece, paralleling their live practice. This time the program is broken into three parts, each with its own distinct atmosphere. 
The set begins at a gallop with "Bloom." But Chris Abrahams' piano plays melodically in half time: eventually a synthesizer line becomes more prominent, sometimes in time with the rhythm section, sometimes floating above it. Like many of their improvisations it somehow manages to be busy and static at the same time. "Lovelock" begins sparsely, with Tony Buck's cymbal rolls, piano arpeggios and Lloyd Swanton's bass pedal point. It ebbs and flows (with snare rolls building to climaxes that never quite materialize), and organ chords thicken the texture. 
In traditional terms, it is the ballad of the set. "Further" introduces a moderato modal feel, with a calm bass ostinato and melodic piano. The background texture includes organ and guitar. So it is the densest and most varied selection timbrally. A conventional album structure would have swapped "Further" and "Bloom:" moderato, slow, fast. But The Necks are rarely conventional, and Three makes its point in the band's own inimitable way.
Mark Sullivan / All About Jazz

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Jeremy Cunningham – The Weather Up There (2020)

Genre: Jazz
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Nothern Spy

01.   Sleep
02.   1985
03.   All I Know
04.   It's Nothing
05.   The Breaks
06.   Hike
07.   Elegy
08.   Return These Tides
09.   The Weather Up There
10.   He Pushes Up

Trumpet – Jaimie Branch
Cello – Tomeka Reid
Drums– Jeremy Cunningham, Makaya McCraven, Mike Reed, Mikel Patrick Avery
Electric Bass – Matt Ulery
Electric Bass, Keyboards, Mellotron – Paul Bryan
Electric Guitar – Jeff Parker
Tenor Saxophone, Synth – Dustin Laurenzi
Vocals, Electronics – Ben Lamar Gay
Drums, Electric Piano, Percussion, Vocals – Jeremy Cunningham
Alto Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, Electric Piano, Mellotron, Synth – Josh Johnson
Producer – Jeff Parker, Paul Bryan

The complex landscape of human emotions is still vastly uncharted, but every true work of art adds a little piece to the puzzle. This can be done in many ways, but it is rare that an album connects emotion with complex layers of memory, interpersonal relations, politics and societal structures. Nevertheless, this is what drummer and composer Jeremy Cunningham's album does. 
In a statement, Cunningham explains the background: "I wrote The Weather Up There to confront the loss of my brother Andrew to gun violence, who died in a home invasion robbery some 10 years ago. My brother was a kind soul, and I used those warm memories of him to illustrate his life as a counterpoint to the pieces that confront his tragic end. Recorded accounts from my family and friends appear throughout the album to show just how far the ripple effect of gun violence extends through a community." 
The album begins with "Sleep" where Cunningham's mother is heard telling about a dream in which Andrew comes to say goodbye. The music is a celestial haze of electronics and soft brass voices that give way to a singing saxophone and buzzing cello and then the rhythm and melody emerge with contrapuntal lines. The beginning makes it clear that the record is just as much about warmth, hope and gratefulness as it is about sadness, despair and senselessness. 
Grief is shown as a process that transcends simple categories and it's the same way about the music: it's both standing still and moving, bleak and full of light, a thread to the past and a link to the present, dreamy and relentlessly raw. It's also an important aspect of the work that the subjective point of view is transgressed as shown on the track "Elegy," a touching minimalistic tapestry of voices, tinkling bells, soft cymbal sounds and rising rhythms delving into the details of the case and the pain it caused for everyone involved. This collective loss is seen in the bigger political perspective of how gun violence can affect a society. 
The different voices heard on the record emphasize a narrative that goes beyond a single person, but Cunningham's own voice can also be heard on "Return the Tides," a reflection on memory and loss and how to move on. Using a drowsy acoustic beat and Ben LaMar Gay's soulful background vocals, the music reflects the state of being half-awake with Cunningham saying: "I'm sleepwalking while the whole world is on fire." 
While Cunningham conveys the feeling of being isolated on "Return the Tides," he isn't. He is helped by a strong team of musicians, including co-producers, bassist Paul Bryan and guitarist Jeff Parker, and other Chicago luminaries like saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi, cellist Tomeka Reid and trumpeter Jaimie Branch. They help create a dense musical painting that is far from the quick, numbing newsflashes of television and simplified headlines. This is a deep story of grief, protest and reconciliation told as a narrative that includes such an irresistibly funky tune as "Hike," with Parker spinning his signature lines on the guitar. 
Taken out of context, "Hike" could sound like an instrumental hit on a compilation of the new Chicago sound, but here it becomes so much more: a bright, bouncy moment in a story that refuses to be one-sided. Instead, The Weather Up There broadens the perspective of grief and invites the listener to meditate on the meaning of guns. Violence is essentially the end of language and communication. This record is the beginning of a complex conversation.
Jakob Baekgaard / All About Jazz

Friday, 12 June 2020

SPK ‎– Machine Age Voodoo (1984)

Style: Industrial, Synth-pop, New Wave
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: The Town House, WEA, Elektra

1.   Machine Age Voodoo
2.   With Love From China
3.   High Tension
4.   One World
5.   Flesh And Steel
6.   Metropolis
7.   Metal Dance
8.   Seduction
9.   Crime Of Passion

Band, Instruments – Graeme Revell
Band, Vocals – Sinan
Bass – Phil Scorgie
Composed By – SPK
Guitar – James Kelly
Keyboards – Jeff Bartolomei, Phil Scorgie, Sam McNally
Saxophone – Graham Jesse
Vocals – Mary Bradfield-Taylor
Written-By, Arranged By, Producer – Graeme Revell

SPK's third album features another leap toward dance-rock and away from the group's industrial past. The fusion of '80s dance and more experimental electronics is certainly prescient, with vocals still on their way from the rigidities of mechanistic synth pop to surprisingly emotional.
John Bush / AllMusic

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

The Staple Singers ‎– Turning Point (1984)

Genre: Funk / Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Legacy, Epic Associated, Vogue

01.   This Is Our Night
02.   Slippery People
03.   Bridges Instead Of Walls
04.   The Turning Point
05.   Right Decision
06.   H-A-T-E (Don't Live Here Anymore)
07.   On My Own Again
08.   That's What Friends Are For
Bonus Tracks 09. Slippery People (US Club Version) 10. Slippery People (Instrumental) 11.. Slippery People (US Single Edit) 12. H-A-T-E (Don't Live Here Anymore) (US Single Edit) 13. Can You Hang (Non-LP B-side Single)

Arranged By, Producer – Gary Goetzman, Mike Piccirillo
Producer – Henry Bush, Pervis Staples

Among the soul music cognoscente it's generally felt that the Staple Singers' golden years were their recordings (from 1968-1974) for Stax Records and that their later albums, as they moved away from the Southern soul flavourings of their Muscle Shoals recordings to more sophisticated R&B arrangements they creatively lost their way. But such a view isn't strictly true, as this 1984 album proves. For although I'd be the first to admit that there aren't any tracks on this 1984 album, lovingly re-issued and expanded by Soul Music Records, which are quite on a par with stone classics like "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" there are indeed one or two superb tracks here. The absolute prime cut is the Staples' version of Talking Heads' "Slippery People". Mavis' breathtaking gasping, whooping, growling voice when heard over a delicious funk groove (with Heads' David Byrne himself providing the guitars) makes this denouncement of the ducking and diving of some people essential listening if you like dance funk. Possibly thinking of the barrage of criticism some churchgoers gave the Staples for recording "a rock song" Pops Staples once said in an interview that "Slippery People" was "nothing but a gospel song [that talks] about church people." The Staples clearly had a liking for the best songs penned by David Byrne. They recorded another one, "Life During Wartime", on their 1985's 'The Staple Singers' (again, now re-issued and expanded by Soul Music Records). Alongside the "Slippery People" gem 'Turning Point' also contains tracks like "Bridges Instead Of Walls", penned by the group's old Stax compatriots Homer Banks and Carl Hampton, which delightfully blends the old Memphis sound with new wah wah guitars and Fairlight programming while "Right Decision" features downhome philosopher Pops pondering the meaning of life. Overall, this album stands up well 28 years on from when originally released. The Expanded Version brings to light some more tracks of which the full 12 inch version of "Slippery People" is essential and the radio edits unnecessary while the 'B' side single "Can You Hang" is pretty good. With excellent, informative sleevenotes this is well worth getting as long as you're not expecting the raw gospel of their Vee Jay years or their Stax-vintage soul tracks.
Tony Cummings / Cross Rhythms

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

SPK ‎– Auto-Da-Fé (1983)

Style: Abstract, Industrial
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: The Grey Area, Walter Ulbricht Schallfolien, SMS Records

01.   Contact
02.   Germanik
03.   Mekano
04.   Retard
05.   Slogun
06.   Metal Field
07.   Walking On Dead Steps
08.   A Heart That Breaks (In No Time Or Place)
09.   Another Dark Age
10.   Twilight Of The Idols
11.   Culturecide

Compact Disc Edition Planned & Supervised By – B. Lustmord

As a compilation, this is a somewhat odd proposition:  the first half consists of singles dating back to before the release of Information Overload Unit, the latter is post-Leichenschrei, but pre-Machine Age Voodoo material, so essentially sandwiched between their zenith and their nadir.  With early material vacillating between noisy textures and punk trappings, and the later tracks showing hints of their synth-pop direction, there's a definite dichotomy here, but both halves excel greatly in what they seek to do. 
Walter Ulbricht/Mute 
Opening with material from their confusingly early singles, "Factory," "Mekano," and "Meat Processing Section" (all of which shared tracks between them), "Contact" and "Mekano" both use abstractly processed and effected guitars with what sounds like metal barrel percussion and rather naked vocals to create something that’s closer to "punk" than "industrial," to attach genre terms, but fits into neither pigeonhole well.  "Germanik" amps up the dissonance, with the guitar sounding as if it is piped in from another room while metal percussion and barked pseudo-fascist German vocals become the norm. 
Once we get to the middle portion of the album the dissonance is ramped up.  The previous three tracks come across as downright quaint once "Retard" starts.  Different from the Information Overload Unit track of the same title, the combination of extreme high and low frequencies rival TG's "Subhuman" for pure obnoxiousness, and the lyrics discussing the autopsy of a 12 year old girl is anything but pleasant.  I honestly have problems sitting through the entire song just due to the high pitched whistling noise that never relents. 
But, of course, there is "Slogun."  I think an entire book could be written on both the track and its legacy in various forms of aggressive music.  An unidentifiable morass of electronics, guitar, distortion, and what sounds like power tools blast for over six minutes, underscored by an overdriven, rudimentary drum machine beat.  Probably most well known is the vocals:  manic shouts from both Neil Hill and Graeme Revell barking the slogan of the original Socialist Patients Collective, "Kill for inner peace/bomb for mental health/therapy through violence." Words can't do "Slogun" justice:  it is a visceral, physical experience that never stops.  I’ve never heard any other piece of music from any genre that hits on such a somatic level.  I cannot disagree with the masses that sing the praises of this song:  most of SPK's career was great, but this is the perfect culmination of their work, and perhaps the definitive song of the era. 
There wasn't an attempt to do a "Slogun 2" after this, on either Information Overload Unit or Leichenschrei, nor should there have been.  The remainder of Auto Da Fe is a selection of studio and single tracks from 1982 and 1983, taking the song-oriented direction that was hinted at on Leichenschrei (i.e., "Despair," "Day of Pigs"), but strip away much of the noise and distortion, revealing a sparse, dour proto-pop that is quite different from what they did before, but not entirely out of character either. 
"Metal Field" keeps many of the pieces from Leichenschrei:  synthetic and metal drums, analog synths, and vocals, but it’s more restrained and subtle.  Revell is actually singing, though in a flat, emotionless monotone, and the synths are sequenced into actual melodies and bass lines.  It is ostensibly danceable electro, but has this cold, detached feel that makes it anything but conventional. 
Similarly, the more upbeat "Walking on Dead Steps" puts together many of the same pieces, but even with its faster tempo and higher energy, lyrics like "fascism is in fashion again" show it wasn't an attempt to gain commercial success.  The material from the Dekompositions EP that rounds out the album is comparatively more atmospheric, channeling the mood of their darker work, but with notably more polish and poise.  
"Culturecide" and "Another Dark Age" sound less aggressive compared to other tracks, but are far from danceable, instead beautifully capturing a depressive, bleak mood throughout, even without the layers of grimy distortion and feedback. 
It should also be noted that this is not a complete collection of early SPK, and a fair number of things were left off.  Somewhat understandably, "Factory" was left off, as it's just a different take of "Mekano" with alternate lyrics, though I would have liked it to have it included for completeness sake.  "No More" also comes from these early sessions, but is at its core rather amateurish, high schooler punk rock.  It's not bad per se, but it doesn’t fit in with any of the other SPK material either. 
The "See Saw/Chambermusik" 7" is also excluded completely, likely due to the fact that Revell was not part of the sessions:  he was away in the UK recording Information Overload Unit, while Neil Hill, and Hill's wife recorded these tracks in Australia.  They actually aren't far removed from what Revell and company were doing at the same time, so their exclusion seems to be more about Revell not participating in the sessions, or perhaps licensing/legal issues. 
I think we all know the story after this point:  Revell and Leong recorded their attempt at pop music, Machine Age Voodoo, which always struck me as trying too hard.  The stiff attempts at funk and conventional pop vocals made the last remnants of the "old" SPK that were there: the metal percussion, feel like an attention-seeking novelty rather than an asset.  Coupled with the stereotypical, almost offensive Asian influenced sound, it was an unpleasant piece of generic pop.  I'll shamelessly admit that I have the entire Pet Shop Boys discography and actually like Ministry's With Sympathy, but Machine Age Voodoo was simply too much. 
Afterward, Revell went on to record Zamia Lehmanni as SPK, paving the way for his current career in film score.  That album I can certainly appreciate, but barring "In Flagrante Delicto," it never grabbed me like their early stuff.  The slight reprise of pop that came with Gold and Poison I actually found pleasant, if innocuous and vanilla. 
But obviously, their catalog up to Dekompositions is what represents their strongest contributions to adventurous music, and it all has held up well over the years.  While Leichenschrei is their most cohesive, singular work, I probably show Auto Da Fe some favoritism because it has such a varying sound to it.  It actually excels in its disjointedness, and the fact that it has "Slogun" on it doesn’t hurt either.  I don't think that any these three albums can be separated though, as they all have their own strengths and contributions to experimental sound art.  While I personally only been exposed to them for a bit over a decade, they have lost none of their impact on me, and continue to be as brilliant as ever.
Creaig Dunton / brainwashed

Elvis Costello And The Attractions ‎– Imperial Bedroom (1986)

Style: Alternative Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Rykodisc, F-Beat, Columbia

01.   Beyond Belief
02.   Tears Before Bedtime
03.   Shabby Doll
04.   The Long Honeymoon
05.   Man Out Of Time
06.   Almost Blue
07.   .... And In Every Home
08.   The Loved Ones
09.   Human Hands
10.   Kid About It
11.   Little Savage
12.   Boy With A Problem
13.   Pidgin English
14.   You Little Fool
15.   Town Cryer

Composed By – Elvis Costello
Producer – Geoff Emerick

After years of furious parrying with his obsessions in a long ride that’s taken him from arsenic tinged punk psychodramas to gin-mill country & western weepers, Elvis Costello has made his masterpiece. Imperial Bedroom doesn’t make its point by hurling bolt after bolt of hard-rock epiphany; rather, its intensity is cumulative, the depth of feeling evident in the hard-won wisdom of Costello’s lyrics and his extraordinary attention to musical detail. 
He begins with an axiom — “History repeats the old conceits/The glib replies, the same defeats” — sung from the inside. Having cast this deterministic nod to the unchanging order of human affairs, Elvis Costello ambitiously sets out to bring new wisdom to old rituals. Casting fresh light in hidden places, he throws open the double doors to the imperial bedroom, that private arena wherein romance burns hot, and then burns out. Costello plays the canny spy in the house of love, sifting through smoldering embers for clues; twisting clichés and commonplaces, and finding truth in their ironic reconstruction; making his passion felt with the most varied and committed music he’s ever played in his life.

When Elvis Costello hit these shores in 1977 for a club tour that coincided with the stateside release of My Aim Is True, he was already more into the razor-edged material of his then-unrecorded second album, This Year’s Model. I have an indelible image of him sweating clean through a rust-colored suit by the third or fourth song; his palpable anger ignited the audience, but there was a distance there that wouldn’t allow him to connect — that is, share a conspiratorial sputter — with his zealous following. His guard was up, and his rage precluded communality. But even the bitterest alienation seeks eventual relief, and Costello, after writing countless volumes on the subject (twenty songs on a single album — twice?), gradually got happier. With Trust, the faint trace of a smile crossed his face, and on Almost Blue, he paid loving tribute to country music. With Imperial Bedroom, he’s opened the door to his heart even wider. On “Town Cryer,” this LP’s closing number, Costello sings: “Maybe you don’t believe my heart is in the right place/Why don’t you take a good look at my face.” He could well be offering a rebuttal to those who’ve consistently and wrongly judged him to be only venal, spiteful and vindictive. 
While there is nothing overtly “country” in the sound of Imperial Bedroom, it evokes a pair of C&W classics — Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and George Jones’ The Battle — in its thematic concerns. Imperial Bedroom‘s fifteen songs paint a sometimes droll, ofttimes grim picture of love eroded by the inevitable procession of time and temptation. Even a marriage vow isn’t sufficient glue to hold two people together. Like his C&W mentors, Costello has become an expert storyteller; he now knows that the accusing finger can often be pointed in both directions, and this has given him a newfound generosity of viewpoint. Witness “The Long Honeymoon,” in which he describes the sorrow of a woman who knows only too well what’s keeping her husband out after dark: 
Little things just seem to undermine her confidence in him 
He was late this time last week 
Who can she turn to when the chance of coincidence is slim? 
‘Cause the baby isn’t old enough to speak 
The lesson of “The Long Honeymoon,” almost a throwaway line, is that “There’s no money-back guarantee on future happiness.” With the deck so hopelessly stacked, the only reasonable emotions would seem to be pessimism or rage — and, indeed, Costello has generally embraced the latter. This time, though, there are glimmers of vulnerability, unexpectedly candid admissions of yearning and need, as when the lonesome protagonist of “Human Hands” — stuck at home with only his TV set and shadows on the wall for company — blurts out, “All I ever want is just to fall into your human hands.” 
Imperial Bedroom is not all doleful lamentations, however — not by a long shot. Though its narrative preoccupation with scenes of domestic blistering recalls the oeuvre of Jones and Nelson, it’s got a potent, articulate musical kick that summons the heady spirit of such seminal Sixties rock masterworks as the Who’s Tommy, the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow and, yes, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Like those records, Imperial Bedroom achieves depth and resonance by presenting a stylistically varied musical program rich in ingenious arrangements and strong melodies. Thus, the glib barroom singalong of “Tears before Bedtime” is juxtaposed with the sobering judgments of “Shabby Doll,” whose jazzy, staccato piano chords and wandering bass give the song a disembodied air. Four songs on side one are linked by a frantic segue — amphetamine guitar and wordless screaming from Costello that sounds like the howl of the id, the rage beyond words that lurks in the upstairs of the psyche, counterpointing the deliberate, rational voice of those numbers it interrupts. And the eight songs on side two brim with an effusive vigor that takes some of the sting out of Costello’s more rancorous lyrics. 
Due credit must go to Steve Nieve, who orchestrated many of the songs and whose keyboards predominantly color in the sour d. Mention should be made also of Geoff Emerick, whose full-bodied, wide-screen production gives Costello ample room to sow his plangent visions. The paramount instrument, though, is Costello himself: he makes his voice over into a hundred voices, from reverberating chest tones to plaintive wailing at the top of his range. He cajoles, pleads, remands; turns passionate, then contrite; whispers a confidence, rails at betrayal. In one of the album’s most telling moments, he drops the mask of insolence and revenge to confide, “So what if this is a man’s world I wanna be a kid again about it.” 
Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom is really a mansion, each of whose rooms is decorated with painstaking care and detail by the artist. In every aspect of this masterfully wrought, conceptually audacious project, he’s managed to bulwark his emotional directness with vision and clarity — and to make an album that lingers and haunts long after the last note has died out. Like a long, episodic novel — or a long, episodic relationship — you can look back when it’s over and measure how far you’ve traveled.
Parke Puterbaugh / Rolling Stone