Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Playlist: September

Albums currently in rotation:
  • The Pajama Party—Pajama Party (2011)
  • Laura Marling—A Creature I Don't Know (2011)
  • Trentemøller—Reworked/Remixed (2011)
  • St. Vincent—Strange Mercy (2011)
  • David Sylvian—Approaching Silence (1999)
  • Big Wreck—In Loving Memory Of (1997)
  • Taj Mahal—Taj Mahal's Blues (1992)
  • Bonobo—Black Sands (2010)
  • Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara—In Trance (2011)
  • I Break Horses—Hearts (2011)
  • Chickenfoot—Chickenfoot III (2011)
  • Future Sound of London—Lifeforms (1994)
  • Feist—Let It Die (2004), The Reminder (2007)
  • Joe Bonamassa & Beth Hart—Don't Explain (2011)
  • Jon Hopkins & King Creosote—Diamond Mine (2011)
  • Opeth—Heritage (2011)
  • Gary Moore—Live at Montreux 2010 (2011)
  • Spotlight, Floodlight—Nocturne (2011)
  • King Crimson—In the Wake of Poseidon (1970), Lizard (1970), Islands (1971), Red (1974)
To quote a Marillion lyric, I'm feeling globally altered and disheveled. I've just returned from South Africa (the reason why there was no playlist posted for August), so I'm now trying to readjust to Pacific Time. As if that was disorienting enough, I am listening to Carole King's upcoming holiday album because I am interviewing her for an airline magazine. Lemme tell you, it's awfully strange to hear Christmas music in September.

My ears have been spoiled of late. As you'll see from the list above, I've been listening to my typically varied diet, including indie rock, blues, classic rock, world music, metal, folk, electronica, and progressive rock. Let me tell you a bit more about some of the albums I've listed above.

In heavy rotation in these parts: Steven Wilson's new album. It's the second solo album by the British songwriter, best known as the songwriter-singer-guitarist-producer of Porcupine Tree. Among his many extracurricular pursuits are long-running projects such as side projects such as No-Man (art rock), Bass Communion (ambient electronica), I.E.M. (Krautrock) and Blackfield (indie pop rock). I awed that one individual can be so prolific and diverse and yet produce such a consistently high caliber of songcraft and artistic innovation. He's an extremely rare and special talent.

I recently interviewed Wilson about his new solo album, Grace for Drowning, a double album that encompasses whole ecosystems of music. Which is to say that Wilson has once again incorporated his wide-ranging musical loves and filtered them to create something far more ambitious than most records. Grace for Drowning marks new territory for Wilson since it is unabashedly inspired by early progressive rock. That style of music has long been a primary influence on Wilson, of course, but Wilson's work on remastering the King Crimson back catalog (which I've been enjoying these past few months) made him realize what a key element jazz was to nascent progressive rock. But modern-day progressive bands have largely neglected the jazz element which Wilson says was often the spiritual heart of those 1970s bands. Wilson has emulated the approach of Robert Fripp on the King Crimson albums Lizard and Islands—recruit a bunch of jazz musicians and place them in a rock context.

Fripp was at the London listening session for Grace for Drowning. I'm told that he had a huge smile throughout the playback and was tapping his foot the entire time. Afterward, Fripp claimed not to hear any King Crimson influence at all...which seems disingenuous! The touchstones of Lizard, Islands and Red are all over Grace for Drowning. You can hear Crimon-esque slabs of monolithic doom-y chords on jazz-rock tracks such as "Sectarian" and "Remainder the Black Dog" (which you can download for free at and the 23-minute long "Raider II," a track with more endings than the last Lord of the Rings movie!

A lot of the album almost sounds like the score to a movie and I love that aspect of it. Indeed, the final three minutes of "Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye" is stunning. It's mixed so quietly that you have to lean in close to the speakers and really pay attention. The unsettling choral work of "Raider Prelude" sounds like something off the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Belle De Jour could have slotted onto the soundtrack to The Dear Hunter.

"No Part of Me" and "Index" (see video, below) showcase Wilson's electronica instincts. Indeed, the sublime "No Part of Me" begins as a gorgeous electronica sigh (with shades of Autechre) and then, midway through, suddenly plunges off a musical cliff into a riffing guitars section with middle-eastern sax courtesy of Theo Travis. It's fantastic.

A few other observations: I love the Steely Dan-ish piano on "Deform to Form a Star"... Though this is not a guitar-oriented album, Wilson plays killer melodic guitar solos on "Deform to Form a Star" and "Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye" and "Track One"...the album has some surprisingly joyful and upbeat music on it!

A related album is Opeth's Heritage, which was mixed by Wilson. I've long been a fan of the Swedish death metal band who, unlike most bands of that genre, have musically adventurous instincts and a keen grasp of melody. Heritage is a radical change of direction for Opeth. They've completely ditched the metal sound and the cookie-monster vocals of previous releases. I sure won't miss the unintelligible roars as I've always preferred the clean singing of frontman-guitarist-songwriter Mikael Akerfeldt, who has a beautiful voice. Heritage bears the hallmarks of early '70s progressive rock. Lots of mellotron, finger-picked acoustic guitar, David Gilmour-esque guitar and even flutes!

It's a natural progression for the band which has explored progressive sounds ever since Steven Wilson produced their seminal album Blackwater Park. And if you enjoy Heritage, take a listen to their earlier album Damnation—another Wilson production—a rather mellow album of classic rock sounds and without any metal or cookie-monster vocals. If you're feeling adventurous, and can stomach some heavier stuff, I also recommend Opeth's Ghost Reveries.

A new discovery for me: Spotlight, Floodlight whose debut album, Nocturne, consists of eerily beautiful instrumentals that will trigger mindscape dreams if you listen to it in the dark.

I first became aware of Spotlight, Floodlight when my friend Andy Saks sent me their beautifully forlorn version Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street." The cover version, which you can download for free here, features vocalist Rob Dickinson from the seminal British shoegaze band Catherine Wheel.

Clearly, this was a band to watch. Well, not so much a band as an artist. Spotlight, Floodlight is a project by LA-based composer Peter Adams who has worked with a number of well-known artists, including the likes of Michael Penn, Tears for Fears, Juliana Hatfield, Richard Thompson and Rickie Lee Jones. On this album, Adams supplements his piano and keyboards with the help of several percussionists, bass players, a cellist and a violinist and cooing vocals courtesy of Amy Seeley.

Just as the title suggests, Nocturne is music for the curfew hours. The album cover, an evocative cover photograph of a wolf in a dark forest, perfectly sets the mood for the music. The consistently lovely melodies, led by stark piano and twinkling Fender Rhodes, often sound like lilting lullabies but there's often an ominous undercurrent that provides delicious tension to tracks such as "Pi" and "Of Itself So." The sound of mildly distressed murmuring human voices on "Trees" and "An Autobiography" makes one imagine there are ghosts in the recording machine. Nocturne utilizes space and minimalism to allow the organic instrumentation to breath on tracks such as "Beauty Lamented."

If you're a fan of Richard Barbieri or Talk Talk or, indeed, Erik Satie, you'll love this record.

You can hear all the tracks as well as purchase a digital download or CD on the Spotlight, Floodlight website. Peter Adams is playing a solo show at Room 5 in LA on October 18. You can also catch him as the keyboard player for John Oates (of Hall & Oates).

If you haven't already, check out Neil Finn's new side project, The Pajama Club, by downloading the two free songs from their website: "From a Friend to a Friend" (featuring Johnny Marr on guitar) is particularly good and a pleasing departure in sound from the songwriting genius of Crowded House. I've included the video at the very top of this blog entry.

I've also been enjoying an advance copy of a 2-disc compilation of Trentemøller's remixes of Thom Yorke, UNKLE, Efterklang, Depeche Mode, Mew. Great stuff by the Danish electronic music producer and multi-instrumentalist.

This month saw the first posthumous release by my all-time favorite guitarist, Gary Moore. The album (and DVD), Live at Montreux 2010, is a document of Gary's final tour during which he returned to the sound of celtic-rock. He had been working on a new album in the style of Wild Frontier and Thin Lizzy's Black Rose at the time. Sadly, that album never got beyond the demo phase but three of the new songs intended for that album were included in the setlist of the final tour and they're included on the live album. They're all very good, especially one called "Days of Heroes," and I'm glad that they have seen the light of day. The video for one of the new songs, "Oh Wild One," is above.

The setlist, largely drawn from Gary's late 1980s albums, concludes with a stunning rendition of his most beloved song, "Parisienne Walkways." I have dozens of recordings of this track, a top 10 hit in the UK in 1979, and I never cease to be amazed how Gary never played the long guitar outro the same way twice. A testament to his brilliance.

Finally, a big thanks to my dear friend Simon Gort for a recent package of albums including King Creosote + Jon Hopkins, The Future Sound of London, Dutch Uncles, Bonobo, David Sylvian, and Justin Adams/Juldeh Camara. Simon and I share very similar music tastes and I am indebted to him for introducing me to so many great bands and artists over the past 20 years. Follow him on Twitter at @sgort100 for great recommendations of music you really need to hear!