Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Playlist: November

Albums currently in rotation:
  • King Creosote & Jon Hopkins—Diamond Mine (2011)
  • The Civil Wars—Barton Hollow (2011)
  • Caravan—In the Land of Grey and Pink: 40th Anniversay Edition (1971)
  • Rush—Time Machine: Live in Cleveland (2011)
  • Peter Gabriel—New Blood (2011) 
  • Kate Bush—50 Words for Snow (2011) 
  • Levin Torn White—Levin Torn White (2011) 
  • Matt Stevens—Relic (2011)
If you're wondering why I'm only posting November's playlist now that it's over half way through December, it's because I spent most of that month working on my novel. I finished the first draft of the novel just a few days ago. Months of hard work but I'm thrilled with how it's turning out. More details in the months to come as I work on the edit/rewrite. Given the intensity of the writing process, November's playlist was slim. (I wish I could write and listen to music at the same time but I often find I need all my faculties attuned to listening to the ideas for the page.) However, November produced one of my favorite albums of the year: Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow

At the start of 2011, absolutely no one would have predicted that Kate Bush would release not one, but two, albums in a year. This reclusive artist last emerged with an album in 2005 with Aerial. Before that, her previous album was released in 1993. (To get my extensive thoughts on Kate's first release of 2011, Director's Cut, an album in which Kate reworked some of her older songs, scroll further down to my June playlist.) Half a year later, we've been spoiled with her first new album of brand new material, 50 Words for Snow.

50 Words for Snow is an enthralling work. Much has been made of the fact that this new album is a concept record about winter and snow. But there's also another common denominator that links the songs (the shortest of which is 7 minutes long): They're all about loss and people (and, er, a Yeti) desperately trying to make a connection with each other.

Like her previous masterpiece, Aerial, it's an album of two distinct halves. The first half of the album is stripped down with voice and piano to the fore (there's also some orchestration, muted electronic effects, and jazzy drumming by Steve Gadd). The use of minimalism and space is perfect for these songs about exposed elements, wintry tundra, harrowing blizzards, and bodies drowned under ice. We're definitely back in "Ninth Wave" territory for the first half of the album. These songs are unsettling yet strangely beautiful.

The opener, "Snowflake," is about a mother searching for her child. "Lake Tahoe" is about a dog who pines for his mistress, a woman who drowned in the ice in the Victorian era and never returned home. The latter part of the song imagines the two meeting up once again in the dog's dream (or is it the afterlife?) and the emotion of the song caught me off guard. The third track, "Misty," imagines a one night stand between a woman and
brace yourselfa snowman briefly inhabited by a spirit of some sort. What sounds laughable and wacky on the page turns of to be a strangely affecting and heartrending tale. Once again, it's Kate's unique imagination that sets her apart. These first three songs are at least 10 minutes long and they're transportive.

The second half boasts more colorful instrumentation and is more upbeat. The single, "Wild Man," has a good chorus. (See above video to hear it.) The title track doesn't sound that appealing on paper: it's a song in which the British actor and raconteur Stephen Fry lists 50 words for snow. But it has the niftiest chorus and it's been stuck in my head for days. On this track, as on "Pi" on Aerial, Kate sounds amazingly sensual even when she is just counting out numbers. There's also a duet with Elton John called "Snowed in on Wheeler Street." Although I think the song would have been better with a singer such as Peter Gabriel or Marillion's Steve Hogarth, the epic ballad packs quite an emotional punch. The closer, "Among Angels," is a beaut and it's Kate's most emotional performance on the album.

She's still my favorite female singer of all. Like so many other singers
Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Robert PlantKate may have lost her youthful vocal range with age but, like those aforementioned artists, she has more than compensated by becoming a more expressive, more emotional vocalist in the process. 

Kate's previous album, Director's Cut, consisted of remakes of earlier songs she was dissatisfied with. Her old friend (and duet partner on "Don't Give Up"), Peter Gabriel, has also revisited songs from his back catalog on his latest, New Blood. Most recently, Gabriel released Scratch My Back, a purely orchestral album in which the singer covered songs by the likes of The Talking Heads, Radiohead, Elbow, Paul Simon and many others. To my ears, that album was only intermittently successful as only a very few songs, such as "Boy in the Bubble," offered compelling alternative readings to iconic songs. So I was naturally leery of new orchestral album, New Blood. But I checked out "Rhythm of the Heat" on Spotify after reading a review of the album and I was so taken with it that I bought the record. 

A few of the new versions, including "Don't Give Up" and "Digging in the Dirt," don't even come close to the originals. That said, there are tracks such as "Rhythm of the Heat" and "San Jacinto" and "Wallflower" and "Intruder" that far outstrip the originals. To his credit, Gabriel has avoided what he has termed "Hollywood soundtrack" orchestral sounds in favor of something earthier and more primal. His voice, meanwhile, is still utterly fantastic, especially when he opens up his pipes and lets out those lupine howls. I hope that Peter will create new material next (and hope he gives Tony Levin and David Rhodes a call). And the next album better not be another Up.

The term "Power Trio" is often bandied about quite liberally but only a few band units truly live up to such billing. The term certainly applied to Cream. It applies doubly so to Rush. And Levin Torn White have so much firepower that you'd swear their amps go up way past 11. The trio's debut album is not for the faint of ear. This wholly unusual instrumental record is often brutal, noisy, and abrasive. It's also shot through with moments of sublime beauty and harmony.

The album's unusual textures stem from the inside-out guitarwork of David Torn. A recording artist for both ECM and Windham Hill labels, Torn is very much an art rock guitarist who has recorded with the likes of Tori Amos, David Sylvian, Mick Karn, and David Bowie. Torn is very much a guitarist more interested in spacial textures than playing straightforward scales. On Levin Torn White, the guitarist can sound his instrument like a dentist's drill, a hornet's nest, and an electrical grid about to go on the fritz. He can also produce spectral beauty from his guitar on tracks such as "Convergence."

Much of the album's oomph comes from Alan White. Though White is widely respected as the drummer of YES, he is nevertheless one of rock's most underrated drummers. White has tremendous technique and awesome power. You wouldn't always know that from YES records. The band's latest record, Fly From Here, is their best in well over a decade but, alas, White's drums are buried low on the mix and the only time his fusillade drumming is showcased is on the extended version of "Hour of Need" on the Japanese edition of Fly From Here. White more than compensates on Levin Torn White with some heavy hitting, trippy time signatures, and different drum sounds.

Added propulsion comes from Tony Levin is one of the world's great bassists and Chapman Stick virtuosos. He has played with the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, James Taylor, Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, Warren Zevon, Pink Floyd, and Dire Straits.(Fun fact: Both White and Levin played with John Lennon.) But Levin is perhaps best known as the longtime bassist and stick player in King Crimson and related Crimson projects. Levin adds unexpected funkiness and probing basslines to the trio's music.

If you're fond of the more outré adventures of King Crimson and Robert Fripp, this album is for you. It's uneasy listening. But if you're feeling bold, take a trip into this 4th dimension of sound.

I'd heard of Matt Stevens long before I heard him. The guitarist is closely aligned with Britain's modern progressive rock movement though I must say that his music sounds less prog than it does progressive. (That's a compliment by the way.) Stevens' specialty is acoustic guitar, an often underutilized lead instrument in progressive music nowadays. The acoustic guitar is the lead instrument on Stevens' latest record, Relic, which consists of 10 delightful instrumentals. That's not to say that it's an acoustic record. Bass, electric guitar, and drums are consistent ingredients throughout but, more often than not, it's acoustic guitar that's to the fore.

On tracks such as "Rushden Fair" and "Sand (Part 2)," Stevens creates delicate lattices of harmonic interplay with his finger-picked guitar. Elsewhere, the arrangements and riffs of "Nightbus," "20 GOTO 10," and the title track pack a crunch that will appeal to fans of The Pineapple Thief and Radiohead. On "Frost," Stevens demonstrates that he's no slouch on the electric guitar either as he grinds out a gnarly riff and tears through lead lines so quickly that one imagines smoke coming off the strings. "The End" evokes a feel similar to Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross" without sounding like it.

My favorite track on Relic is titled "Scapegoat." Listen to it below and you'll see why! Then go get the album, which you can also stream, over at

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