April has always been a pretty miserable month to me. With the exception of my sister and one or two close friends’ birthdays, my only associations when it comes to April are terrible weather (an occupational hazard of living in the UK), and matzah induced constipation (an occupational hazard of being Jewish and observing the dietary rules of Passover). April is, from two decades of experience, largely a month of mediocrity and disappointment. Thankfully, whilst the world of new music hasn’t been hugely fruitful, numbers wise in April, there have been a small number of particularly memorable gems that deserve to be talked about at great length.
Unfortunately, there is something that probably ought to be mentioned first. This April saw the passing of a giant. Cecil Taylor was one of the most important musicians to the world of free improvisation in the 20th century, and sadly he passed away on the 5th of April, at the age of 89. I hadn’t really taken the time to explore his music before his passing. In fact, all I really knew of him was that he was a free improviser, and that he was one of my Dad’s favourite musicians. So, I talked to my Dad to find out a little more about Taylor and to ask for recommendations of some of his music with which to get started. This, among other things, is what he suggested:
Silent Tongues (1974)
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this album. I spent most of the record’s 52-minute runtime with my jaw propped wide open… and then I listened to it another two times. Free improvising is, when done right, stunning, but I had only ever really seen or heard it done by groups prior to listening to Silent Tongues. In a group, you can and should be listening to the other musicians in order to inform what you play next, but when playing solo, there’s nothing to work from. Every idea must be your own.
What the late pianist did on Silent Tongues was astounding. Taking a completely blank canvas and turning it into something that profound, intricate and beautifully abrasive, is a skill that very few musicians have displayed since. Obviously, listening to any free improvised music is challenging, particularly if you’ve never done so before, but I would encourage anyone to at least give it a go, and to give Cecil Taylor’s work a serious chance, because if you can get past the immediate sonic barrier, then you might just experience something truly powerful.
Bark Your Head Off, Dog by Hop Along – Album of the Month
There isn’t an indie rock band around these days that even comes close to Hop Along when it comes to personality or narrative sophistication, not to mention the spectacular vocals of the band’s frontwoman, Frances Quinlan. Hop Along’s last record, Painted Shut (2015), is hands down my favourite musical discovery since I started writing about music regularly, so I had very high expectations heading into my first listen of the band’s latest offering – the curiously titled Bark Your Head Off, Dog.
The quartet’s dense lyrical and instrumental writing has developed even further since their last record to the point where Bark Your Head Off, Dog feels less like a series of beautifully written, but unconnected vignettes, and more a series of beautifully written vignettes, connected by a running theme of self-doubt, and the realisation that our lives are not shaped by ourselves as much as we would like.
So strange to be shaped by such strange men
This lyric, which makes its first of a number of appearances across the record on the ambitious song, ‘Not Abel’, encompasses the anxious, self-awareness of Quinlan’s lyrics, and gives colour to her idiosyncratically mundane story-telling. That’s really Quinlan’s lyrical trademark; using a complex inner monologue to make everyday events into character defining moments of self-discovery.
Musically, Bark Your Head Off, Dog is just as distinct as the band’s previous two records, in a genre that is becoming increasingly hegemonic. What sets this album apart from Hop Along’s previous work however, is the more complex song structures, resulting in musical narratives that mirror the complexity of the lyrical ones – moving beyond dense verses and catchy hooks, and embracing more winding paths with constantly changing aesthetics, particularly on tracks like ‘Not Abel’, ‘What the Writer Meant’ and ‘Look of Love’. These songs feel T.S. Elliot-esque in their construction, with the latter being an especially varied sonic journey. It starts with a low-fi, acoustic section, isolating Quinlan’s fraught, beautifully strained singing, before introducing eerie backing vocals and Hop Along’s trademark, deliciously textured guitar work.
I could go on forever about how stunning Bark Your Head Off, Dog is. These guys have captured something truly special, and I can only hope that they continue to do so for as long as Frances Quinlan keeps radiating genius with every word and note.
Currents, Constellations by The Nels Cline 4
Guitarists Nels Cline and Julian Lage have collaborated before. Their 2014 duo album, ROOM, is one of my favourite avant-garde jazz albums of the last few years, so it was great news to hear that the pair were collaborating on a new project called The Nels Cline 4 – an expansion on their previous work that added a rhythm section to their established guitar duo formula. I was initially worried that the addition of bass and drums would disrupt the intuitive back and forth between the two guitarists. Instead, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Tom Rainey add more of a solid rhythmic and structural backbone to the duo’s sound, and integrate into the eight new compositions quite naturally.
The compositions themselves are stylistically very similar to those that appeared on ROOM – characterised by their spiked, heavily chromatic melodies and the free movement between unison, melody with accompaniment, and thrilling call and response between the two guitarists. Colley and Rainey’s contributions are largely about feel and narrative, constructing strong rhythmic grooves in tracks like the dramatic ‘Imperfect 10’, before dropping out suddenly to reveal a quiet moment of playful guitar harmonising.
The performances on Currents, Constellations are striking and considered. Lage’s emotive soft touch and bluesy twang complements Cline’s more uniform jazz guitar sound beautifully, adding some much needed texture and personality to a sound that would otherwise be a little too mundane.
I thoroughly enjoyed Currents, Constellations which, whilst not being as immediately unique as ROOM, carries that record’s creative spirit to new and satisfying places.
Rise and Rise Again by Shake Stew
Shake Stew, the Austrian jazz septet on Traumton Records, led by bassist Lukas Kranzelbinder, have a fascinating sound. They’re a band with an odd instrumentation – two bassists, two drummers, two tenor saxophonists and a trumpeter – that works better than it has any right to. In an ensemble like this, where there isn’t much in the way of natural harmonic support, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is a very rhythmically oriented band, and on their sophomore album, Rise and Rise Again, they explore a wide range of rhythmic styles from all around the world, whilst making sure to heap in a considerable amount of high energy sax and trumpet soloing, just for good measure.
The opening track, ‘Dancing in the Cage of a Soul’ feels like a mash up of African rhythms and klezmer melodies, whilst ‘How We See Things’ (one of two tracks to feature guest performances from British saxophonist, Shabaka Hutchings) has a lyrical, West African feel to it, with the horn section playing beautiful sustained chords, a delightfully languid solo from trumpeter, Mario Rom, and a kora-like bass duet that opens and closes the track.
Rise and Rise Again is an inventive record, managing to accomplish things with its bizarre instrumentation that one wouldn’t necessarily imagine. The range of sounds and styles here is wonderfully diverse, and the fusions of these various styles prevent the record from becoming samey – a pitfall by which other recent jazz projects without significant harmonic support have been affected.
Swagism by Ghost-Note
Swagism, the latest record by jazz/funk collective, Ghost-Note, was the biggest surprise for me this month. The band, fronted by Snarky Puppy percussionists, Nate Werth and Robert ‘Sput’ Searight, released a gimmicky, yet thoroughly enjoyable percussion-centric album back in 2015 called Fortified, which wore a little thin towards the back end of its 45 minute run-time. Perhaps understandably then, I was pretty worried about this new record after I found out that it would be a 90 minute-long double album. I expected it to get real samey, real quick.
Thankfully that was not the case. Instead of the predicted, dreary collection of samey percussion grooves, what the world has been given with Swagism is a jazz/funk manifesto for unity, tolerance, acceptance and piles of fun. The aesthetic of this record is Weather Report meets big band meets hip-hop, with a sprinkling of sci-fi, and it works beautifully.
Swagism is still all about groove, and the percussion here is phenomenal from start to finish, but the record’s real appeal comes from its sense of fun which permeates every moment on every track. It’s not an album with a huge amount of thematic, or harmonic depth, but it’s one of the most consistently viscerally engaging records I’ve heard in quite some time.
Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae
I’ve been waiting for this year’s first really good pop record, and whilst it’s been disappointing that we’ve reached the end of April before anything remotely entertaining has surfaced, I’m delighted to say that this new record from Janelle Monae is one of the best pop records I’ve heard in quite a long time, joining Beyoncé’s LEMONADE, Everything Everything’s Get to Heaven and Laura Mvula’s The Dreaming Room in the upper echelons of contemporary pop.
The sonic and conceptual cohesion on Dirty Computer is impressively distinct and smart, which makes the catchy, and ideologically driven song-writing all the more engaging. Even for someone who, like me, is relatively new to the catalogue of Prince, it’s incredibly clear how influenced Monae is by the late popstar. The song ‘Make Me Feel’, one of Dirty Computer’s standouts, is a wonderful tribute to Prince’s ‘Kiss’, with some of the most intricately arranged, electrifying instrumentation and wonderfully campy vocals on the record. Whilst this is not a perfect album (I still cringe every time I hear a generic trap beat, and there are a few of those dotted across the track list) it’s definitely one of the most consistently brilliant pop records in the genre’s current idiom. Dirty Computer is both smooth and spunky and manages to deliver its ideological message in a way that feels effortless, and not even remotely forced. For God’s sake, listen to this album.