Friday, 12 February 2021

David Byrne ‎– Music For The Knee Plays (1985)

Style: Contemporary Jazz, Avantgarde
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label ECM Records

01.   Tree (Today Is An Important Occasion)
02.   In The Upper Room
03.   The Sound Of Business
04.   Social Studies
05.   (The Gift Of Sound) Where The Sun Never Goes Down
06.   Theadora Is Dozing
07.   Admiral Perry
08.   I Bid You Goodnight
09.   Things To Do (I've Tried)
10.   Winter
11.   Jungle Book
12.   In The Future

Drums – Paul Humphrey
Percussion – Bobbye Hall
Baritone Saxophone – Ernie Fields, Bill Green
Saxophone – Don Myrick, Ernie Watts, Jackie Kelso, Pete Christlieb
Trombone – Dana Hughes, David Stout, Fred Wesley, Garnett Brown, Phil Teil
Trumpet – Chuck Findley, Harry Kim, Nolan Smith, Ray Brown , Rich Cooper
Conductor – David Blumberg
Arranged By – David Blumberg, David Byrne
Voice, Composed By, Producer  – David Byrne

The CIVIL warS: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down was set to be experimental theatre director Robert Wilson's most massive achievement to date. Best known at the time for his 1976 five-hour operatic collaboration with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, Wilson was leading troupes from six countries in the production of CIVIL warS, a 12-hour avant-garde opera that would premiere at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Although Wilson lost funding before staging the full production, several smaller versions of the play were individually performed around the world. "The Knee Plays", the American contribution scored by David Byrne, premiered in Minneapolis in April 1984, and had its vinyl release on avant-jazz label ECM the next year. 
"Knee Plays" is Wilson's own term, contrived to describe the connective vignettes that link the larger sections of a production, allowing for set and costume changes. Byrne signed on to produce the interstitials for CIVIL warS, and his subsequent performances have been comprised solely of the adjoining sections, which hold together rather well-- as well as one of Wilson's non-narratives can, at least. Nonesuch's current release of Knee Plays-- for the first time on CD-- adds eight previously unreleased tracks and a dense recollection of the pair's mind-meld by Byrne himself. 
In many ways, a collaboration between Byrne and Wilson was perfect. Most obviously, Byrne's work with Twyla Tharp and Jonathan Demme on The Catherine Wheel and Stop Making Sense, respectively, indicated a keen interest in similar sorts of theatre, as well as the ability to pull off a collaboration with often wonderful results. The pair's stylistic and procedural similarities run deep as well: Both Byrne and Wilson had gained reknown by mastering the use of patient, tourettically clipped and repetitive phrases and gestures; they also shared a fascination with antisociality (at times, mental illness) and the mundane realities of everyday life. They even looked similar, in a tall, geekily dashing sort of way.

Originally envisioning a Japanese drum ensemble, Byrne instead opted for music more in the vein of New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band-- a perfect fit for a play inspired by the Civil War and scored by Byrne, at this point seemingly fascinated by all art with strong cultural resonances. From the opening track, "Tree (Today Is an Important Occasion)" to the quintessentially Byrnian spoken-word closer "In the Future", the music is variously light, dramatic, authoritative, and empathetic. Byrne's ethnomusicological streak in full force, several sections of his score were adapted from traditional music: "In the Upper Room", "Social Studies (The Gift of Sound)", and "Things to Do (I've Tried)" are faithful gospel adaptations, and "Theadora Is Dozing" comes from the Bulgarian folk tradition. 
Byrne, like Wilson, treats simple behaviors with the utmost delicacy and curiosity. In the essay included with the Nonesuch re-release, Byrne discusses his decision to accompany the music with narration (by himself, of course) as part of the Dadaist and Surrealist traditions: "None of these (text pieces) was directly related to Bob's 'story' and they were certainly unrelated to the stage 'illustrate' things that are happening on stage with music or text is redundant." Anyone familiar with the liner notes to Stop Making Sense will recognize the narration over "Upper Room", for instance: "Being in the theater is more important than knowing what is going on in the movie." Similarly, "Things to Do" is a numbered to-do list ("Number 25. Putting houses next to bumpy things/ Number 26. Shaking things next to other things"), and both "Tree" and "Social Studies" approach everyday activities from the perspective of a stranger to Western culture. The most successful of these is the original closer "In the Future", on which Byrne shows off his knack at predicting technological and social trends, ending with "In the future there will be so much going on that no one will be able to keep track of it." That statement seems applicable to most any historical era, but who's quibbling? He's right. 
The most striking characteristic of The Knee Plays reflects the most overlooked quality shared by Byrne and Wilson. Both artists are deeply invested in appeals to their audiences' most basic human sympathies, yet their approaches are often misunderstood as cold by those who can't meet the work on its own terms. Extracted from its theatrical roots, Byrne's score holds up remarkably well, a testament to his unique vision at the time of its composition-- coming at the end of one of pop music's most fascinating creative streaks. 
Eric Harvey / Pitchfork

Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas ‎– III (2020)

Style: Nu-Disco, Downtempo
Format: CD, Vinyl, FLAC
Label: Smalltown Supersound

1.   Grand Finale
2.   Martin 5000
3.   Small Stream
4.   Oranges
5.   Harmonia
6.   Birdstrike

Cover, Design – Kim Hiorthøy
Mastered By – Mike Grinser
Written-By, Producer, Mixed By – Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas

In the decade since Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas released their last album, the revelatory space-disco voyage II, electronic dance music underwent several shape-shifting transformations: the explosion and fizzle of mass-market EDM, a U-turn toward classic house and cerebral techno, and fusions of ambient and jazz with global rhythms. It’s a testament to the Norwegian pair’s steadfast, forward-thinking style that their third album, III, picks up right where II left off and still sounds remarkably current. It’s as if Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Thomas Moen Hermansen had been waiting for the perfect moment to re-enter the conversation and found it inside 2020’s strange collective pause.

A joyride of heady, prog-infused atmospheres and downtempo house music, the album curves, twists, and undulates like a slow-moving river. Drifting through a series of mood-based sketches—French space pop, beach-gazing Balearia, and winding, loungey kosmische—it’s easy to lose yourself in syncopated melodies and swirling polyrhythms that, in another context, could easily have sounded like chaos. Instead, there are moments when III might double as a mood record—soothing, silky, perfectly synthetic—with infectious rhythms and enveloping arrangements that bely its compositional complexity. This is where the duo really shines; in their skilled hands, cosmic disco isn’t so much a gimmick or a goal but a technique, a way to prioritize atmosphere without sacrificing musicality. Their music doesn’t demand close listening, but it sure rewards it. It can take four or five spins to hear everything that’s going on in a song.

These tracks are less kaleidoscopic than the duo’s prior joint releases, with fewer improvisational excursions and a stricter adherence to structure and rhythm. But what’s lacking in funky, free-wheeling jamming is made up in concrete, beat-driven vibe. These are grooves you’re meant to lock into. Even “Oranges”—easily the project’s most far-out number, with coiling synths and skewed melodies that whiz and whirl past like space debris—has a steady, laid-back beat that brings it back down to earth. “The tracks that Lindstrøm sent me were almost like standard house tracks,” Prins Thomas has said, alluding to the project’s club roots. “I already had an idea of what I wanted to do, so I forced those tracks into new shoes and dresses.”

In the end, nothing about these songs is standard, from their dizzying, kitschy synths to their warped minor-major oscillations. Most of the album’s tracks push the bounds of what is considered dance music, a space that neither producer has ever fully committed to. “Martin 5000” has the most forward momentum—if there’s one track you might someday hear at a smoky after-hours, it’s this one—but retreats into meandering electric guitar and soft, tinkering piano that give it a floaty, aimless feel. “Harmonia” turns a gentle pendulum bassline into a serious, physical groove, but resists the urge to build past the half-way point. Occasionally, this hesitation can feel like a cop-out; you get the sense that there’s a little more to be explored. But there’s something psychedelic about the way these tracks avoid propulsion or release, opting instead to get lost inside themselves. Playful but intense, bite-sized yet jammy, these are inner-expedition songs best absorbed through a pair of thick headphones.

As is typical when Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas join forces, some of the project’s most exciting moments are snuck in the back door, laced into a dazzling breakdown or deep, hypnotic groove. The many jazzy layers of “Small Stream” come together so patiently and fluidly that it’s easy to miss the intricately cascading synth arpeggios. On “Birdstrik,” they transform a lighthearted, free-form piano solo into a dense and probing spell with muffled future-garage beats that shuffle underneath. It’s one of the only songs that briefly departs from its core rhythm, as the shuffle suddenly dissolves into chords, arpeggios, and air. When it does, it’s exquisite—a brief, gorgeous inhalation that feels physical and relieving, and that would surely get lost in the action of a dance floor. Seconds later, the synths return and the drumbeat reconnects, and the song spins back into orbit.
Megan Buerger / Pitchfork

Lindstrom & Prins Thomas - II (2009)

Style: Italo-Disco, Deep House, Krautrock, Experimental
Format: CD, Vinyl, FLAC
Label: Eskimo Recordings

1.   Cisco
2.   Rothaus
3.   For Ett Slikk Og Ingenting
4.   Rett På
5.   Skal Vi Prøve Nå?
6.   Gudene Vet + Snutt
7.   Note I Love You + 100
8.   Flue På Veggen

Art Direction, Design – Glossytv
Illustration– Meyoko
Mastered By  – Christopher Matthew Sansom
Written-By, Arranged By, Performer, Composed By – Hans-Peter Lindstrøm, Thomas Moen Hermansen

Mellow, smooth, relaxing: In traditional pop music lingo, these are euphemisms for "boring as hell." But traditional pop music lingo never got around to anticipating the downtempo, prog-infused strain of house music that eventually became generally known as space disco. At its best, it's music that throws you off by how calm and airy it feels on the surface, and right when you're about to be lulled halfway to inattention, the rhythms start to build on top of each other and the melodies start seeping into the forefront and you're hooked. You have Norwegian producer, studio wizard, and multi-instrumentalist Hans-Peter Lindstrøm to thank for helping space disco evolve into its current 21st century incarnation, and countryman Thomas Moen Hermansen (aka Prins Thomas) to thank for giving it a serious foothold by joining Lindstrøm on their first, self-titled collaborative album in 2005. After the two producers crafted some of their finest work last year-- the epic Where You Go I Go Too for Lindstrøm; a host of top-shelf remixes for Thomas (including a staggering reworking of City Reverb's "City of Lights")-- the timing's right for a full-length return to their partnership, even if they have some triumphant recent history shadowing them.

Fortunately, II isn't a letdown-- assuming you don't count its lack of immediacy as a disappointment. On the first Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas album, eight out of 13 tracks ran less than six minutes, and most of them gave you a pretty good idea of where they were going right away. Here, only one of the eight songs clocks in under seven-and-a-half, and the standard structure relies on slow-build compositions that stretch out, decompress, and mutate; they don't so much segue from track to track as they melt into each other. And while it might feel a little like a marathon anywhere other than the dancefloor, there's more than enough going on over the course of a track-- instruments warping themselves into new beats, new riffs, and new melodies-- to give it a certain dynamism. Listen to a song as a whole, and it'll sound like a gradual ramping-up from a simple theme into a jammy, psychedelic expansion; listen to it again and zero in on just the percussion or keyboards or guitar and that experience will be brought into a vivid, deep focus. But it still works in a way that never really overwhelms the song's driving rhythmic backbone-- light as some of it may feel, it's still dance music.

The first four tracks on II are more than vivid enough to draw the first-time listener in, even if they defy easy description. Opener "Cisco" is the track that has some people dubbing this L&PT's "rock" move, but its multi-tracked guitars chime and twang over a bongo-accented funk groove with a tone that's about as close to the Alan Parsons Project as Chic were. By the time it hits its full stride halfway through, drenched in towering synthesizers and phase-shifted fuzztones, it's a sturdy embodiment of what makes both producers such kitchen-sink auteurs. That momentum continues over the next few tracks, whirring like an irregularly-orbiting satellite around hyper-dense drums and Moroder/Vangelis atmosphere in "Rothaus", trembling and then briskly trotting beneath the wintry, shapeshifting piano theme in "For Ett Slikk Og Ingenting", and loosening its joints for the crackling energy of the shifty "Rett På", the most tightly-packed song on the record; it sounds like there's about a half-dozen different rhythmic ideas going on at once there, and they all somehow manage to sync.

The last four tracks are a little less frenetic, if no less involved. The final two in particular-- "Note I Love You + 100" and "Flue På Veggen"-- are more than  24 minutes combined, and they both hit an interesting nerve of cross-era aesthetics, particularly in how the former features a mid-70s Fender Rhodes that slowly liquefies into a burbling new-wave synth, and the latter fuses a disco drum machine with haywire analog burbles, wordless vocal melodies, and crystalline chimes. You can kind of imagine the ingredients for this album coming from a number of different sources-- prog rock, krautrock, disco, funk, MOR pop, maybe even some folk here and there-- but at this point there's just so much potential influence it's hard not to hear the whole instead. And it's a hell of a lot of whole, too: It's mellow and smooth and relaxing, sure, but it's also unpredictable and full of little revelations and turns of sound that make it one of space disco's crowning recent achievements. If Lindstrøm and Thomas ever drop a III on us, it'll have a lot to live up to.
Nate Patrin / Pitchfork