Over the last few months I have done dozens of short CD reviews articles here, here and here. I continue to get great feedback about this ‘Quick Review’ format, so I plan to keep using it as a way to give a brief overview of a number of new releases all at once.
Last time I changed things up a bit by looking at a couple of not-so-good releases. Fortunately I have some great stuff to review this time – but am changing things up again! Did you notice the title doesn’t say ‘Quickie Jazz CD Reviews’? That is because I have Jazz, Pop and Classical music included here!
So, with that … time for another quick look at some recent CD/MP3 album releases!
Summary: I already described this as the coolest CD release of the year, but that was as much about the fact that it is a fully self-contained musical experience as it was about the music itself.
The first thing you will think is ‘oh crap this is annoying!’ and turn it way down. That is a simple matter of the physics of sound – everything here is pure square/triangle/sawtooth/sine waves, without all of the smoothing and filtering we are used to in modern music. Anyone who has listened to early electronic music will feel right at home. The compositions here utilize several 1-bit wave generators to play the notes.
Ah – the compositions. This is a five part piece, and while it is thoroughly modern in most ways, you still have moderato, allegro, and adagio movements. The various parts incorporate elements of traditional classical music, basic electronic music, minimalist thematic development, and even some techno and ambient stuff!
Choice Track (and why): Movement 4 – the intermodulation and varying of the tones in this movement create a cool rhythm that I found immediately compelling. It starts simple, gets progressively more complex in a minimalist manner, and then moves into a broader and slower moving period before finally returning to a swirling rhythmic vortex of notes before concluding.
You Might Love This If: You like electronic and techno music such as the early 70’s masterpiece ‘Switched On Bach’ by Wendy Carlos.
Here is a short video about the music and the package:
Summary: Let’s just be honest here: I would bet that Katy Perry spend much more time keeping her body in shape than working on her vocal range, breath control, or pitch. But that is pretty much the point – Katy Perry is a pure pop sugar package: an attractive young woman who gets packed into skimpy, tight-fitting clothes (Daisy-Dukes, bikinis on top?), and sings very catchy songs written by others to work around her limited vocal skills and allow her to perform them live without sounding awful while strutting around the stage.
I don’t mean that in a derogatory way – Ms. Perry is a smart woman who is working in a very tough business and has owned two of the last three summers in terms of chart success. She guest hosted on American Idol last year and I thought she was the best thing all year – well, along wih Neil Patrick Harris. In fact, the two of them plus Simon would be the best judges ever. But she was tough and insightful and clear with ideas and suggestions, something that informs the way she runs her music business.
Unless you have managed to shut yourself off from all public areas, chances are you have heard California Gurls and Teenage Dream. And if that is the sort of music you like, you have probably bought them as well – Katy Perry is definitely what they call a ‘singles artist’. So the question is: what ELSE is there on the CD? To be honest, not very much – certainly nothing I see being at the same level as those songs.
California Gurls and Teenage Dream are pure pop sugar, which is clearly Ms. Perry’s wheelhouse. When she stays in that zone – such as with TGIF – things go very well, producing one of my younger son’s favorite songs from the CD. The song Pearl, about empowerment, is also likely to be a hit despite feeling forced, contrived and clichéd.
When she goes outside of that – trying to be a rocker in Circle the Drain, sing a ballad in Who Am I Living For – she fails badly. She doesn’t have the vocal chops or expressive range for those sorts of things. She also seems to try way too hard to cover ground that is already well handled by Ke$ha and Lady Gaga – the drunken party girl and bizarre performance pop artist.
I’ve complained about the ‘designed by committee’ feel before, and that is certainly true here as well. The producers and managers and songwriting teams obviously wanted to have an arsenal of various song types to pitch to whomever decides what sells these days, in order to be able to support a string of hit songs into 2011 so that Katy can still be known in 2012 when her next CD comes along. Given the initial sales of the CD were pretty weak, I am not sure how well they will do with that, since her two mega-songs are already in the lower part of the top 10 and there hasn’t been a new one to take their place yet.
Choice Track (and why): California Gurls – sure it is overplayed, and sure I’ve already showed that it’s the same as other songs, but it is also incredibly catchy!
You Might Love This If: You like catchy pop songs and have not already heard these particular songs enough on the radio.
Summary: Back in 2005 GamerDad Andrew Bub pointed me to Sufjan Stevens CD Illinois. It is a nice collection of indie-feeling folks-pop with some interesting creative electronic and instrumental sensibilities. Since then, Stevens hasn’t done much … he has meandered from small project to small project. Now he has released an EP with a full release promised later this year.
All I can say is – if you don’t have Illinois, go grab it and skip this indulgent, whiny, derivative pile of mediocrity.
It is interesting to call this an EP when it is nearly an hour long. The opening title song starts off slow and quiet, sort of growing in the background in volume and density, and by the time you notice what is happening, it will likely be to say ‘what is he whining about NOW!?!’ The song veers from whiny indulgent folk-isms to some obvious Pink Floyd-inspired sections back to whining then ends with an obvious nod to the Beatles Day in the Life.
The other end of the EP contains a ‘classic rock version’ of the title song for another ten minutes and Djohariah, yet another long and meandering whine & drone-fest.
In between are a couple of songs – The Owl And The Tanager and From the Mouth of Gabriel – that remind me of his more interesting earlier work, but it is clear these are not the focus of his efforts here. And that is too bad, because it is the best stuff here.
He thinks he is much deeper and more interesting than he really is on the long meandering stuff, singing stories with little seeming purpose that jump from place to place – and I never really care. His voice on this is annoyingly plaintive and whining, and never connects emotionally with the song or the audience.
I know Stevens has a strong and loyal audience, and they will likely eat this stuff up. Personally I think that is half the problem – by the time he did Illinois he was being called some sort of ‘golden child’, and he obviously has spent too much time reading his own good press and thinking he needs to do ‘deep and important’ stuff. I think he should just go back to writing and singing good songs. Hopefully there will be some on his next effort, but for now you can just skip this one.
Choice Track (and why): From the Mouth of Gabriel – this is as close to his quality work as it gets on this EP. Check out the video below – if you don’t like this you won’t like anything on the EP.
You Might Love This If: You already love Stevens work and want more … otherwise grab Illinois and see what a full collection of him doing good stuff sounds like.
Here is a video for ‘From the Mouth of Gabriel’:
Summary: ‘Spark of Being’ is an experimental film by Bill Morrison that is an interesting retelling of the Frankenstein myth. Dave Douglas wrote and performed the soundtrack to that film, and this CD is in ‘expanded’ version of the soundtrack, featuring more songs and longer versions.
While soundtrack work often follows a fairly formulaic sense of short motive-based developments, experimental films provide much more freedom for the soundtrack maker as well. While Spark of Being hasn’t seen a wide market release, nor is it likely to ever come to most theaters, it sounds intriguing and I hope it comes to DVD at some point. The trailer linked below shows the haunting sensibilities, but also the extrapolations that Douglas and his group are able to make that still fit well within the framework of the visual form.
And the great thing here is that while the soundtrack is present and defines the origins of the music, the songs on Expand are not confined to fit a film. The result is loads of added freedom, space, creativity, and an amazing sense of communication and interplay between the players. I had heard good things before I bought this, but it far exceeded my expectations!
Choice Track (and why): Creature – with jazz music I never know the song titles until many, many listens – and sometimes not even then! So for me, my choice is ‘the second song’. But in a film that is a retelling of Frankenstein, it is appropriate that song #2 is ‘Creature’. It has a long, haunting and intricate melody and loads of group interplay, and is just a great piece of music.
You Might Love This If: You like modern atmospheric jazz full of experimentation and great harmonic sensibilities.
Here is the trailer for Spark of Being, with the soundtrack as backing:
Summary: When I reviewed Vijay Iyer’s Solo, I noted that the song Games was a Steve Coleman composition and was a great example of his experimental yet melodic ways. This is the first US release for Coleman in nearly a decade, during which we’ve had to grab whatever imports we could find. Was it worth the wait?
I would say a definite YES! This is not the best work Coleman has ever done, but it is still one of the best jazz record so far this year (I know I have said that before, but I would put this in my top 10 for context). The entire band is firing on all cylinders, and I love the ‘voice as instrument’ work of Jen Shyu for all that it adds.
Coleman is fond of dense polyrhythmic music with intricate harmolodic-type melodic development. From the start of the CD to the end there is an intermingling of melody and rhythm. There is loads of improvisation at every level, but not really in a traditional ‘head-solo-head-end’ song-form. The musicianship is extremely high, the interplay teaches me new things at every listen, and for such ‘cerebral’ music it is funky and fun throughout!
Choice Track (and why): Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual) – I worry when I hear vocals, but it was immediately clear that this wasn’t a ‘singing’ record. This establishes the structure and tone of the album, and I picked it mainly because I was just floored the first time I heard it.
You Might Love This If: You like modern jazz and are willing to stretch both your ears and your mind.
Here is a recent performance of Steve Coleman playing a song called New Morning:
Summary: In my Miles Davis Bitches Brew Retrospective I talked about the enduring legacy of that recording, and Christian Scott definitely falls into line with that thought much as Erik Telford’s 2009 Kinetic CD from an earlier review. Another artist I’m reminded of is Nils Peter Molvaer, whose breathy, electronic trumpet work are less ‘jazzy’ but certainly bear similar influences.
But while the others show greater influence hailing from the mid-70s Miles, Scott bears a style most resembling Miles work of the late 60’s leading up to the electronic era. On KKPD the group starts out with an atmospheric feel including muted trumpet, gets more funky and jazzy over the next couple of minutes and then Scott comes in with some searing open horn trumpet lines before things settle back in.
He says that more than a collection of songs this is a statement: KKPD stands for Klu Klux Police Department. And while I cannot speak to his statements or politics, I can attest to the excellence of the result. Each song says something unique, from a cover of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s The Eraser to songs from the band to a bunch of Scott originals. His alternating use of close-miked muted and open trumpet is extremely effective at creating and setting a mood.
There are gorgeous ballads, angry rants, funked-out romps and all-together beautiful work by everyone involved. The music is mostly acoustic and straight-ahead, but with songs like Angola, LA & the 13th Amendment and The Roe Effect, it is clear that Christian Scott sees a responsibility for himself to voice his feelings on pressing issues of the day, which he does to great effect throughout – using his horn to express his joy and rage and hope and disappointment.
Choice Track (and why): Angola, LA & the 13th Amendment – a broody and intense song, this moves and flows through stages that are introspective and expressionistic, cerebral and emotional.
You Might Love This If: You are open to new artists but not really into ‘avant garde’ jazz. This CD will be on every critics ‘Top 10 of 2010’ list, of that sort of thing matters to you.
Here is a music video featuring ‘Angola, LA & the 13th Amendment’:
Summary: Eminem hit the scene hard several years ago as a fast-tongued, hard-edged rapper with popular appeal. Over the course of two albums he gained massive success, critical acclaim and too much money for his own good, which he parlayed into personal troubles and a sense of entitlement that has informed everything he’s done since. Those first two albums cemented his place in history in terms of his talent and vision, but since 2000 his output has largely consisted of a couple of songs and riding on his own coat-tails.
So it has been a decade since his best work, and now Eminem is back: but will it be a hackneyed attempt at pop and rap relevance like 2009’s Relapse, or does he still deserve the reputation earned a decade ago?
Quick summary: like I said for Katy Perry, you should consider Eminem as a singles artists, because the two songs everyone has heard are the best two on the record … by quite a bit.
Honestly I just see it as basic pop music, with Mathers trying to use his ‘angry voice’ to sound hardcore and edgy, but generally coming off more whiny than anything else. The lyrics are trite and he is constantly forcing phrases to make things ‘work’ … his insights are shallow, his humor is tepid, his so-called ‘scathing commentary’ is …well, either weak or a sign of the sort of small-minded person he is. Cracking jokes about Michael J. Fox’s ailment? OK, I’ll go for small-minded and shallow.
I also see that they give him full songwriter credit on everything, which I consider a complete joke, since it is well documented that the hit songs (like the one with Rhianna) were shopped to him through producers and he just added his lyrics to them. I see it as an ego trip, which is fitting with the lyrics he spews throughout.
It isn’t bad stuff, and a couple of the songs are memorable, but it isn’t some sort of artistic exploration. Personally, given the choice, I’d put on the Katy Perry CD from my younger son. Pure pop sugar, but there is no pretense of being anything BUT pop.
Choice Track (and why): Love The Way You Lie – um … because my wife and kids all like it, it is pretty catchy, and Eminem is less whiny than in most songs.
You Might Love This If: You already like Eminem.
Here is the video for ‘Not Afraid’:
Summary: I haven’t liked much by George Duke in more than 30 years, since the Clarke / Duke project seemed to signal both men heading into pop music territory and Duke focusing more on production than on playing. So why did I buy this? Deja Vu was hailed as a ‘return to form’, and I am happy to say that this is exactly what we got!
I keep calling stuff ‘cerebral’ and top 10 list material and so on … this recording is none of that! But that isn’t a bad thing – this is a solid effort from a great pianist who has had success in jazz, rock, pop, funk, and so on. There are some great songs here, loads of excellent musicianship, plenty of chance to hear Duke stretch out on many of the songs, and just an overall upbeat experience.
There are dedications, such as Ripple in Time to Miles Davis, and the song bears the sound of some of Miles’ mid-80s work. But for many songs – the title track, Stupid is as Stupid Does, and the opener A Melody – the clock turns back to the great jazz, funk and jazz-rock music of Miles, Mahavishnu, and Duke himself from the 70’s. And that is just fine with me because he keeps it modern at the same time, and it all works extremely well.
Choice Track (and why): You Touched My Brain – because the whole family was reading The Girl Who Played With Fire and … y’know. Plus is it like the rest of the songs – catchy, fun, funky, and jazzy!
You Might Love This If: You love fun and funky jazz that is nice to listen to but not overly challenging or difficult.
Summary: OK, this isn’t a new release … nor even a reissue, but it just showed up on eMusic and since I had the credits and had been using a ‘digitized from a tape I made from a record 25 years ago’ copy, it was time. Also, the appearance of a song from this on Vijay Iyer’s Solo reminded me that this is one of those great and classic recordings that has been lost in a sea of other great and classic recordings.
And when someone is as great as Duke Ellington, there is a truckload of great stuff from every era. He ended the 50’s with the excellent Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack, and the 60’s were filled with important Suites (Far East Suite, Sacred Concerts, Perfume Suite and Latin American Suite), and collaborations with other stars such as Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Coleman Hawkins. These were not fluff – the collaboration with Coltrane is a true classic, and each of the Suites was an amazing composition. Yet all of these are ‘traditional’ Ellington – larger groups with dense compositions and arrangements.
Money Jungle is a trio – and not a traditional piano trio in any way. Joining Ellington are Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Roach and Mingus were well established giants of their instruments, and Mingus was a renowned bandleader and composer in his own right. In this recording Ellington is clearly at the center, with Roach and Mingus taking unorthodox roles providing rhythmic and harmonic support, color, solo voices, and just adding to the complexity and excitement of the songs. As I listened to this for the first time in a few years I was struck by how modern it sounds – these guys are not concerned about fitting any mold or meeting expectations. Ellington had a vision – and had two of the all-time greats alongside him to execute that vision.
Choice Track (and why): Fleurette Africaine – Mingus starts with an intricate floating bass line, then Ellington comes in with the theme and Roach supports with understated drumming. Considering all three were schooled in the Swing Era, this is nigh on ‘free jazz’ despite some delicate melodic work. Yet it is cohesive and absolutely gorgeous.
You Might Love This If: You like classic jazz and have missed out on this one until now.
‘Fleurette Africaine’, the same song from Vijay Iyer’s Solo
I very specifically called this the ‘Dogs & Cats Living Together’ edition because I was reviewing ‘mass market pop’ records from Eminem and Katy Perry alongside decidedly non-mainstream work such as Dave Douglas’ explorations.
But there is a further reason: I love music. Music is a very good thing in life, and I see the enjoyment of music as an entirely positive thing. So whether it is bopping to George Duke, rapping with Em or dancing to Katy, it is a wonderful and cathartic thing.
I was hard on the two pop albums here, but quite frankly I was disappointed. Each has a couple of very well done songs but failed to really deliver on the ‘love the single, love the record’ promise. Well, except for Sufjan Stevens – I thought his entire EP was indulgent and derivative all at once, and utterly skippable dreck.
Katy Perry is in a class with Ke$ha and Lady Gaga right now, but each of those two have filled the year with singles, whereas Perry had one mega-hit, one solid hit that seems to be fading fast and not too many more looking to follow. And given that the album sales for Teenage Dream have been fairly week, that doesn’t bode well for her staying power.
Eminem is an album artist by nature, and I know many of his fans have found much to like in the other songs … but frankly most of them seen to be in middle school, and I’m not sure based on his history that rubbing shoulders with Selina Gomez and Justin Beiber is his musical goal – but it is what is happening.
As for the other things, it was all stuff I got ‘by choice’ – and like I said the first time I did this, there is plenty of crap that is released that I either ignore or regret buying, but don’t want to belabor here. So you get the pre-screened version. I was honestly concerned how 1-bit Symphony would sound after the initial fascination wore off, but I have very much enjoyed it for the past couple of weeks.
I was in danger of this exploding once again into a mammoth post – I’ve been listening to new stuff from Ralph Alessi and the Either/Orchestra, and The Bad Plus has a new record out this week … so I had to deliberately cut it off now and save those things for next time.
Until then, check out this stuff if you are so inclined, but try to enjoy and support the music and artists you love however you can! And I will come back soon with more great music to share!