In these strange times, my music buying has dropped off significantly. And with the family being home all at once it has subsequently made discovering new music a bit of a challenge. I do have a few sources as my go-to for listening to new music, Soundcloud being the first.
Homemade Weapons, DUST EP, Soundcloud, 2020, Streaming and Download-various formats
I’ll admit it, I’m a little bit obsessed with this guy. Homemade Weapons has been releasing some of my favorite music over the last few years. If I had to pick, the track “Swampdrain” off his DUST EP has been steadily on repeat whenever I have a free moment to myself in the house. I’ll fail miserably at attempting to describe his particular brand of Drum and Bass, so I’ll stop at saying just listen. It’s great.
Doc Scott – DNBVID Livestream(s)
For me, Doc Scott’s Future Beats Radio Show is a rite of passage for discovering the landscape of Drum & Bass and beyond. Since the pandemic, Doc has shifted to live streaming his sets with a portion of donations going to a worthy COVID charity. I have yet to have the opportunity to listen live but I have made sure to listen after the fact where possible and I haven’t been disappointed yet. (I highly doubt I would ever be either). To catch a show simply follow Doc Scott on Facebook, Twitter, or Mixcloud where he’ll be posting shows as he does them and you can listen in on some of the archived ones as well.
Theo3, Strong Minded, Soundcloud, 2020, Streaming and Download-various formats
One of my favorite Toronto MC’s, Theo3 just dropped his latest self-produced LP. Theo has been grinding on this one for some time and I’m happy to see him finally release this latest effort. If you’re a fan of beats and top-notch lyricism then be sure to give this a listen. Theo is donating half of the proceeds towards the Unification Bursary which helps youth and community initiatives in Toronto.
Dolby Atmos Music on Tidal! (Various artists, Tidal on AppleTV 4K)
Tidal streaming music in Dolby Atmos immersive sound is a milestone in A/V history. Tidal’s Atmos streams, available to all “HiFi” tier subscribers, are real immersive tracks with surround, height, and LFE, not a mere headphone and “smart” speaker gimmick trading on a name. The current selection is not huge, but there is content available in most genres. The selection also seems to grow a little bit every time I open the Tidal app. I use an AppleTV 4K to stream Atmos music (!!!) on Tidal, but I have read that Tidal can also stream music in Atmos (again, !!!) through other streaming players. While I have hardly listened to everything available in Dolby Atmos immersive sound (I repeat, !!!) on Tidal, here are a few snapshots.
The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” is a track perfectly suited to Dolby Atmos, and the Atmos remix takes full advantage. The “storm” swirls above you, while the band gains extra envelopment from the surrounds. More like this, please!
Eric Lu’s “24 Preludes,” containing pieces by Chopin, Brahms, and Schumann, is a standout album in Atmos. Our Editor-In-Chief John Johnson Jr. highlighted the 2.0-channel version in the March installment of “What We’re Listening To.” The Atmos version is everything he discusses – masterful playing, microphone placement that puts the listener practically in the instrument, etc. – but more of it. The image is just so much more convincing in the round.
While I have not compared sound quality between the Tidal stream and Blu-Ray Audio disk of R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People,” on early impression, the streaming version does not disappoint. N.B: don’t be alarmed by the lower apparent volume of Atmos music tracks on Tidal compared to disk. Just turn it up 12-15dB. A/V hobbyists’ obsession with “reference volume” has always baffled me. The dB number on the display is just a number. So long as you’re not driving anything into clipping, you’re fine.
The Weeknd was not an artist on heavy rotation for me before Atmos music came to Tidal. However, his music is a fun listen and his tracks show how to make a great-sounding Atmos album without gimmicks. I will be exploring more in the future.
While I am not a huge fan of “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones, the album is an audiophile chestnut for a reason. I’m not sure the immersive treatment benefits this album terribly, but Norah Jones fans will want to hear it for themselves.
Admittedly, not every Atmos remix or remaster on Tidal is a success. Consider, for example, the two (at time of writing) Guns N’ Roses tracks: “Welcome to the Jungle” and “i.” They make tasteful enough use of surrounds and heights, but the period bass voicing reminds you these tracks were mastered to sound loud on a boombox with a double cassette deck. The richer-sounding Mobile Fidelity remaster, up-mixed in Auro, is more fulfilling.
My biggest disappointment so far: Tidal named a playlist “Atmos for Androids,” but it does not include “Paranoid Android.” Nor are there any other Radiohead tracks available in Atmos (yet, I hope). The Atmos version of Pearl Jam’s new album “Gigaton” is also not (yet?) on Tidal, though one can buy “Gigaton” in Atmos (with pretty moving wallpaper) directly from Apple.
But overall, kudos to Tidal, Dolby, and the record labels involved for bringing immersive music streaming into a world that of late has looked a little bleak. Discrete multichannel music done well is a real treat, but far too rarely done and never before streamed. I hope this advance explodes Tidal’s subscription base and elevates immersive music to the new normal.
Pearl Jam, “MTV Unplugged” (Record Store Day 2019 release vinyl)
In the early 1990s, MTV’s “Unplugged” was Gen Xer appointment viewing. The show’s premise was simple: take artists with trending music videos, put them on a stage with acoustic instruments in a small venue, and record the concert. Some of the results were magical: Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and the holy triumvirate of Seattle “grunge” band sets Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam’s unplugged performance was included as part of the Super Deluxe Edition of “Ten.” However, until Record Store Day (a de facto national holiday sometimes called its lesser name, “Black Friday”) 2019, this performance was not available on LP.
Pearl Jam recorded their MTV Unplugged set at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens (home of, inter alia, Sesame Street) after a week of rehearsal following their first European tour. Unlike Nirvana in their later Unplugged set, Pearl Jam does not re-arrange anything. Yet somehow every track works. The ballads one would expect to translate well into the Unplugged format, such as the opener “Oceans” or “Black,” are as outstanding as expected. Even songs one might expect to need that electric crunch to send its guitar riffs soaring, such as “Alive,” “State of Love and Trust,” and “Evenflow,” survive translation to the Unplugged format. “State of Love and Trust,” especially, just rocks unrepentantly.
The sound of the LP is…certainly better than what came out of the speakers sticking out the sides of my parents’ 27” Panasonic Prism CRT when I first watched the concert with jaw wide open. The intimacy of the hall comes through, an effect amplified by the minor soundstage constriction caused by vinyl’s inherently higher noise floor than digital. However, the most important aspect of this performance on vinyl is not the sound quality, but the inherent logic of spinning the black circle: you’re compelled to listen to the whole thing instead of skipping from one track to the next willy-nilly.
Renaldo And The Loaf, Songs For Swinging Larvae, Ralph Records, RL 8108, 1981
A thing is either unique or it’s not. If it is, it means that there is only one example of that thing. There are no other things like that thing. And there is only one Songs For Swinging Larvae, and there is nothing else like it. I have heard a great many recordings in my life, and I hold firm to the belief that there is no other work of audio expression that comes close to this album.
The two members of Renaldo & The Loaf are Renaldo Malpractice and Ted the Loaf, stage names for Brian Poole, and David Janssen, respectively. They are Brits living in the town of Portsmouth, and in the early 1980s, they were very busy in their sonic lab creating their own style of “musique concrete” with traditional instruments, cut-up and manipulated audiotape, DIY studio effects, and essentially anything else within a microphone’s reach that could make a sound. After a couple of self-released cassettes, they got the attention of The Residents, who released this, their first album, on Ralph Records in 1981.
From the very first seconds of this album, you know you’re in for quite a ride. The first song, “Lime Jelly Grass,” is built around a snare drum and keyboards played in a military tempo, with forward and backward yodeling vocals and other sounds whose origin I simply cannot identify. This song, like the rest of the album, best exemplifies what is usually referred to as “naive art.” The music is utterly free of convention or expectation, endlessly creative, and almost charming in its child-like creatively. The fact that Janssen and Pool were able to create such deeply realized and complicated music, by manually cutting and looping tapes, bouncing tracks on primitive recorders, using tape machines for effects and time-shifting, is all very impressive considering the album was made in 1981 before the idea of a sampler was even a thing.
Standout tracks include “Kimbolton Gnome Song,” which is about a man who takes his garden gnome to bed. “Very strange, a bit deranged. Takes his gnome to bed. Ha ha!” It’s a quintessentially English subject when you think about it, but it’s treated in an unimaginably new way. Then there is what I consider one of the greatest songs ever created by human beings, “Is Guava A Donut?” This thing starts off with the sounds of a diner or pub and then follows a curious man asking such odd questions as “Is Dover a seaport?” and “Is Ghana a bloodsport?”
This is in no way an angry or aggressive work. It is charming, strange, childlike, humorous, weird, clever, and unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. Even the woodcut cover, by illustrator Gary Panter (who went on to do covers for Frank Zappa and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others) is as striking and uncomfortably weird as the music. I can guarantee you won’t forget this album after you’ve heard it. Whether that is a good or bad thing, I will leave up to you.
In 2013 the album was given a deluxe reissue on CD and vinyl by the Klanggalerie label based in Austria. A lot of care went into the pressing and cover of the LP and the sound quality is excellent. I’m surprised at how much more detail I’m hearing in the album with this pressing, and I’ve been listening to it for over thirty years. This album and the rest of Renaldo And The Loaf’s catalog are available in many formats on Bandcamp.
Also worth noting is that in 1983, the Residents and Renaldo & The Loaf went on to collaborate on an album, Title In Limbo. It is well worth hearing if you like this one.
Glass Eye, Marlo, self-released, 1984, LP
Glass Eye was a four-piece band based out of Austin, Texas, and they were active between 1983 and 1993. They toured extensively through the southern United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s and I saw them perform several times in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. They were always a treat to watch and nice folks to boot.
Marlo is their very first release. It’s a self-released 12” album with six charming and fun songs on it. The band’s primary songwriters were K. McCarty, the band’s lead guitarist, and Brian Beattie, the band’s bassist. McCarty’s songs are impressionistic and poetic while Beattie’s are sarcastic, which gives the band’s music an interesting tension between light and dark. What stitches it all together is the great musicianship. Drummer Scott Marcus brought a solid and heavy rhythm to the music and Stella Weir added just the right amount of filigree and tears to the music with her keyboards. McCarty’s guitar playing anchors the music, and Beattie’s rubbery and expressive fretless bass guitar playing swoops and sweeps around; he really is an amazing bass player and it’s a shame more people don’t know about him. These four musicians had a knack for finding an engaging rhythm and tempo in their songs, so much so that they were frequently referred to by the music press as “quirky.” One time while visiting with the band they told me they hated being called “quirky,” so I am making a point here not to call them “quirky.” I will refer to them as “clever.”
And clever they were on this and all of their other albums. On the song “Chrome Shoes,” Beattie sings the great phrase, “Money is no object; it’s an emotion.” There’s no arguing with that. “Some things just aren’t real. Some things fade away.” These are lyrics from McCarty’s song “The Big Moment,” which is a nice challenge to existential dread punctuated by Beattie’s fretless bass harmonics. After listening to Marlo the songs end up stuck in my head for weeks.
The band did gain some notoriety. They had an appearance on an episode MTV’s The Cutting Edge show based in Austin (and that’s how I discovered them in 1985) and Marcus and Weir appeared in the movie Slacker. After a second release, a full-length album, Huge, on Wrestler Records in 1986, they signed to Bar/None records in 1988 and released two albums that were well-received on the college radio charts with a different drummer and keyboard player, for some reason. K. McCarty did go on to make three solo albums, including a great album of covers of fellow Austinite Daniel Johnson, called Dead Dog’s Eyeball: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston. Brian Beattie built a recording studio and went on to produce albums with The Dead Milkmen, Ed Hall, Daniel Johnston, Okkervil River, and others.
Glass Eye eventually called it quits in 1993 (even though they self-released a CD in 2006 of some unused songs and have done an occasional one-off performance). Their catalog has not been reissued, nor has it made it to any of the streaming services, as far as I can tell. But it’s all well worth seeking out.
Michael Gandolfi, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation – Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Telarc, Multi-Channel SACD
For those who are getting tired of the same old classical music from more than a century ago, this work is proof that interesting American music is still being made. Gandolfi based the piece on an actual garden in Scotland that has a harmonious landscape of curves, sculptures, and ponds.
The work has 16 movements, in 3 parts, that deals with wave theory, DNA, sub-atomic particles, and the birth and expansion of the universe. I know, you are thinking “modern, atonal noise”, but that would be the farthest thing from the truth. It’s innovative, exciting, tuneful and each movement is uniquely different from the preceding tune. Interspersed throughout are snippets of Bach, Frescobaldi, Mozart, Stravinsky, Berlioz, and others…sort of a “who’s who” in a musical fly-by as we fast forward through human history. The Big Bang is also represented with an opening movement that has the dead silence shattered by a chord played in fff! If your system volume is set too high, it will make you fly off the couch. The recording is excellent. All in all, this is over 67 minutes of fun and exciting (did I mention tuneful?) modern music that will not make you roll your eyes. Go ahead, take a chance.
Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville, Cry Like A Rainstorm – Howl Like the Wind, Warner Music, CD
With a recent Kennedy Center tribute to her amazing career, I still never tire of hearing her strong and pure vocals, here accompanied by Aaron Neville and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. Released back in 1989, it is a full digital recording that has a “fat sound” that gives room for the orchestra and choir to really open up. The soundstage is wide and the small details pop, with some deep bass from the drums and guitars. Of all of her remarkable recordings, this is the one that finds its way into my disc player the most often. The last song, Good-bye My Friend, is quite poignant. I think this is on Qobuz and perhaps Tidal, so give it a spin. It’ll remind you of the Golden Age of female vocalists in Rock-N-Roll, and not the soft-spoken gibberish we hear today.
Arnold Rosner: Symphony #5 “Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina” Coupled with the Nicolas Flagello: Missa Sinfonica, National Radio Symphony of Ukraine conducted by John McLaughlin Williams, Producer: Walter Simmons, Recording Engineer: Andrij Mokrytsky, Naxos, CD
Last month I discussed the Vaughan Williams 5th which was an attempt to provide some comfort and hope during the time of World War II. The Arnold Rosner symphony has some similar characteristics but, in this case, the war is Vietnam. Rosner wrote his 5th during the latter part of the Vietnam War, in 1973.
Other than a little divided string writing and the use of modal harmony, nothing in the Rosner is common with the Vaughan Williams symphony except both works are some of the finest symphonic writing of the 20th century. This is my second look at a work by Rosner. My first is found at the bottom of February’s “What We Are Listening To” feature. According to his friend, Walter Simmons, “His composer-heroes at the time were Hovhaness, Vaughan Williams, and Nielsen, and their influence is evident in much of his earlier creative work” I have looked at the works of all three of these composers in the past months of “What we are Listening To”.
Rosner undertook a doctoral study in music composition at a time when 12-tone music was considered the only method to be employed. Listeners rejected the music and the decline of attendance at classical concerts starts at that point. Listeners were forced to listen to music they found incomprehensible and, for the first time, no new music written for an audience was presented.
Rosner rejected writing in the 12-tone style. The works he submitted for the completion of his doctorate were rejected and he was forced to change course and change to a doctorate in musicology. In an interview, he said, “What I have attempted to do is to fuse structures and scoring derived from the Romantic period with melody and harmony of the Renaissance and early Baroque”
In another interview, Rosner makes his approach sound as radical as 12-tone theory: “Later during the 1600s, a tighter, more predictable language began to develop—what we think of as “tonality”— which helps to divide sections, point our ears toward endings, and transitions, and so forth. A piece is “in D minor,” or “in A-Flat Major.” Well, to my ears and mind, that development, most clearly represented by the music of the 18th century, is a step BACKWARDS, because the harmonic structures turned safe and “limited.” This quote is from a long interview that should be fully read to understand the context.
The symphony #5 had its premiere in 1975 with the Colorado Philharmonic Orchestra and then disappeared. When you hear this CD, you will wonder how this could possibly have happened. Totally original yet approachable, it points to a different way to compose “new” music.
The title indicates the symphony uses the “Salve Regina” plan chant from the Renaissance which appears in parts of the work. Music reviewer Steve Schwartz points out that Rosner also chops it into parts and riffs on the pieces. Schwartz goes into some detail on the structure of the composition which can be found at this site.
The movements of the symphony are from the mass although Rosner was Jewish. You can treat the work as absolute music. Rosner said music was his religion.
In contrast to the Vaughan Williams 5th, Rosner scores add percussion beyond the tympani. I find the cymbal crashes with added gong would be best removed. That the music is climaxing is obvious and needs no emphasis. It is this tendency to push things too far which may be the most significant issue I have with Rosner. It is only a blemish in the 5th symphony. The issue comes into grater prominence in his aggressive and angry 6th symphony.
A Naxos CD with an orchestra from Middle Europe often disappoints but when conductor John McLaughlin Williams is on the podium small miracles happen. The playing is excellent with firm rhythm execution and accurate intonation. The watchful eye of the producer Walter Simmons so closely associated with Rosner for decades, no doubt contributed to the quality of this performance. The score has some small sections of very difficult writing for the strings which in a couple of places run a tad outside the ability of the orchestra but that is it. Otherwise, you would never guess who is playing. The sound quality is excellent.
I think Symphony number 5 is perhaps the finest work by Rosner but he wrote so many important works in very different styles it is almost impossible to pick one. It makes a strong case to be considered among the most important symphonies written in the 20th century.
The CD has another symphony by Nicolas Flagello with movements titled after the Mass. Flagello is a very different, but important, American composer. It even quotes the same chant yet the works are totally different in style and approach. I will come back to it at a later time.
Respighi, Concerto Gregoriano and Poema Autunnale, Lydia Mordkovitch Violin – BBC Philharmonic conducted by Sir Edward Downes, Producer: Ralph Couzens, Engineer: Don Hartridge, Chandos, CD
Many of you are thinking that Respighi may not be the ideal composer for “music in the time of COVID” if you know just the Pines of Rome. Not all of his works are over the top orchestral showpieces. He studied the violin and viola so it is not surprising he produced three violin concertos. As the name suggests, the piece uses Gregorian modes found in Gregorian chants although I have not seen a discussion of the work that sites a specific chant being quoted.
Written in 1921, this is the only concerto for any instrument by Respighi that you have any chance of hearing live. It is not a virtuoso concerto although the part is far from easy. It is a lyrical and meditative piece. Respighi’s use of modes enhances the meditative aspects of the work.
The very different and often played Barber Violin concerto is another example of a concerto with the emphasis on the lyrical in its first two movements, but the Barber takes a very different path in the last movement which is a showpiece for the violinist’s abilities and insures a standing ovation. The Concerto Gregoriano language is consistent across the whole work; indeed, the first two movements are marked andante. The third movement is a contrasting Allegro Energico marked Alleluja. It starts and ends with a moving lyrical theme. The work concludes with some energy but never gives the soloist his/her big moment. At the premiere, when it ended, the audience clapped but expecting a showpiece was not enthusiastic.
One program annotator cites a similarity to the Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending but it is an absolute certainty Respighi never heard the earlier work. The Lark Ascending is very much music for COVID which I will examine later.
Concerto Gregoriano first appeared on an early Naxos CD which was marginal at best. It hinted that this was a magical work but it was not until Chandos released the performance by violinist Lydia Mordkovitch that this was seen as an undiscovered masterpiece. The conductor Sir Edward Downes was part of a large project by Chandos to record lesser-known works by Respighi. The sound of the recording had the unique Chandos warmth which is ideal for this work.
A 2017 recording by violinist Henry Raudales with the Munich Radio Orchestra under Ivan Repušić is an interesting alternative with an even more expansive approach. It is part of a live concert performance with the other work on the CD being totally unrelated. The Raudales is thus a candidate to be streamed but not purchased.
Poema Autunnale is the inevitable couple to the Concerto Gregoriano. Written 5 years latter this short work which as the name implies is of a similar mood but it does not explore modal scales.
Respighi, Three Botticelli Pictures, Academy of St.-Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, CD out of print. Lossless download available at Presto Music
If after hearing the Concerto Gregoriano, you find yourself asking “did he write anything else with this musical voice?” The answer is yes, and the Three Botticelli Pictures are among the best. The three movements are inspired by a painting by Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. The work quotes some other music of the period in the first and second movements according to some program notes. While I cannot identify the quotes, the music has some scales that would have been used at the time of the Renaissance. It is not dominated by them as the Concerto Gregoriano is.
It is written for a chamber orchestra. The scoring is unique, just four woodwinds, one horn, and one trumpet. To this, he adds celeste, harp, and piano. Katherine Baber writes “the prominence of bells, harp, celesta, and triangle adds another touch of exoticism” It is a quite different work than the Pines of Rome with its huge orchestra and over the top offstage brass.
Most program notes go into detail on the paintings and how the music is inspired by them. I do not find it that useful, in general, to know what inspired a composer. I approach works like this as absolute music.
The Botticelli Pictures have many recordings, but none is as well played as Marriner and the Academy of St.-Martin in the Fields. Marriner was an ideal interpreter of the smaller Respighi. This recording was coupled with equally well-played performances of The Birds and the three Ancient Airs and Dances suites. All music in times of COVID which I will explore later.
Inexplicably the performances are no longer in print on CD. You can download them, lossless, thanks to Presto Music. The Marriner performances can also be streamed. Streaming comparative performances revealed absolutely no tempo consensus in the third movement. With an average length of only 5 minutes, it varies by more than two.