Something I didn’t anticipate when I moved from Austin to Seattle in 2012 was a classical music scene with an audience receptive to modern works.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra includes a number of commissions throughout its season, and a chamber series focusing on modern works turns the lobby of Benaroya Hall into an informal setting. I got to hear Steve Reich’s Different Trains as part of a chamber music festival, and Town Hall has brought in the likes of Alarm Will Sound, Roomful of Teeth and NOW Ensemble.
So the year-end Favorite Edition for 2014 reflects my rekindled interest in new music. It’s easier to indulge when even the record shops make it a point to separate modern music from the common era.
A few weeks ago, I was flipping through the vinyl stacks at the Bellevue location of Silver Platters. This album by Stephen Albert caught my eye immediately.
I knew right away it was Nonesuch release. The typeface, the stark black and white photography, the clean design — the only other label with such a clear cover aesthetic is ECM. In fact, label president Robert Hurwitz worked at ECM before taking over Nonesuch.
I checked the back cover, and sure enough, there was a Nonesuch logo. Flower of the Mountain was released in 1987, the same year as Kronos Quartet’s White Man Sleeps and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances. But who was Stephen Albert? I hadn’t heard of him, and I know nothing of this album.
So I bought it without sampling it beforehand. Just one of those rash purchases.
Another remarkable aspect of this album is the title piece. “Flower of the Mountain” refers to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses by James Joyce. The Joyce estate can get pretty draconian protecting the author’s copyrights.
Albert, it seems, managed to secure permission to use this text, while the Joyce estate told Kate Bush no. So Bush ended up writing “The Sensual World”. Bush would later secure permission when she re-recorded the song and re-titled it … “Flower of the Mountain”.
Albert’s Flower of the Mountain is a fairly genteel piece, decidedly tonal but not exceptional. It’s the accompanying piece, Into Eclipse, that steals the spotlight.
Into Eclipse has more sharp edges with a much more striking orchestration. It’s also the piece that is more readily available of the two. Into Eclipse can be found on Julliard Orchestra recording (New World 80381) and on an Eastman Music Nova album (Albany 192). By contrast, Flower of the Mountain is available only on this out-of-print Nonesuch release.
So why hadn’t I encountered Albert till now?
It turns out Albert died in a car crash in 1992. His career was on the rise up till then. Two years before Nonesuch released Flower of the Mountain, Albert earned the Pulitzer Prize for his Riverrun Symphony.
Travis Higdon ran Peek-a-Boo Records out of an office we both worked at during the late ’90s. At first, I found that misappropriation of office resources distasteful. Then, the office politics pissed me off, and I thought Travis could have done more to misappropriate office resources.
But meeting him introduced me to his band, The Kiss-Offs, who attracted quite a bit of buzz in the Austin music press. The band’s debut album, Goodbye Private Life, became one of my favorites in 1999. They split up after releasing a second album, Rock Bottom, in 2001.
Peek-a-Boo had a pretty nice roster around that time. The Prima Donnas were reviving the ’80s at a time when everyone shat on the ’80s. Silver Scooter was a proto-Death Cab for Cutie with a bassist who really, really dug New Order’s Peter Hook.
But I missed out on the band Travis formed before the Kiss-Offs: The 1-4-5s.
A few months ago, a used LP of the 1-4-5s’ Rock Invasion showed up at Jive Time Records. I hadn’t thought about Travis or Peek-a-Boo in years till I saw that LP. I didn’t buy it right away because, as usual, I was cash-strapped. But it did afford me some time to find an EP Peek-a-Boo released called “Unsafe at 45 RPM“.
I’ve made my distaste of garage rock known, but I don’t mind garage rock from people I admire. So I eventually picked up Rock Invasion.
It’s fast. It’s bratty. It’s lo-fi. It has “rock” in the every song title on the album.
I particularly liked how there was a hidden track … on vinyl. Given the space constraints of an LP, the songs on Rock Invasion are pretty compact if a portion of groove real estate can be devoted to a gap of silence.
I can hear hints of the Kiss-Offs in the 1-4-5s, but the songcraft that would mark Travis’ later bands is not on display here. The 1-4-5s, like their name suggests, kept things rustic. At the tempos they played, there was no time for complexity.
Yeah, I’m old enough to have actually downloaded this album from the iTunes, and yes, I know exactly who U2 is. Giving away an album for free can really backfire if the album in question doesn’t spur a fan to buy a physical copy. I may drop the cash because Songs of Innocence is better than No Line on the Horizon. Unfortunately, it’s as forgettable as anything the band has produced since the end of the last century.
MONO, The Last Dawn, Oct. 28
MONO, Rays of Darkness, Oct. 28
I’m rather glad MONO has finally realized that their orchestral sound can only go so far, and I look forward to hearing the reportedly rawer sound. But two albums?
… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, IX, Nov. 4
What can I say? I’m a sucker for the grandeur.
Fugazi, First Demo, Nov. 11
As a latecomer to Fugazi, the news of a release of music I’ve so far not yet encountered is pretty much equivalent to saying it’s a new album.
And these releases just hit retail:
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean
Part of me was really tempted to catch the premiere of this work by the Seattle Symphony, but I’m not as familiar with John Luther as I am with John Coolidge. NPR First Listen previewed the album, and skeptic though I may be of accolades — including a Pulitzer — this one was well deserved.
yMusic, Balance Problems
I think my fascination with New Amsterdam Records has cooled off a bit, but the label still grabs my attention from time to time. This collection includes pieces by Nico Muhly, Timo Andres and Sufjan Stevens. What? No Bryce Dessner or Richard Reed Parry?
eMusic announced it would return its focus on independent music, thus taking major label content out of its catalog. WEA-distributed labels have already been taken down. Universal and Sony albums are still listed on the site, but no time table has been given on when those titles will disappear.
The decision to offer major label content back in 2009 sparked a lot of controversy among eMusic users, and it even resulted in a number of labels such as Merge and Beggars Group leaving the service.
I was most interested in the WEA catalog since a lot of the artists I like are signed to WEA labels. WEA was one of the last to sign on with eMusic, and now, they’re the first to go.
I had been saving this month’s quota to use on Sept. 30, when Nonesuch is scheduled to release new albums by Steve Reich and Nico Muhly. Well, that plan is shot to hell.
I signed up with the service in 2006, when iTunes still locked its files with DRM and Amazon was months away from launching its own music download store. I used eMusic as a way to preview albums before I made any decision to buy a physical copy.
The tenor of the site changed drastically when it started offering major label artists. The accounting system changed from credits per download to dollar amounts per album. Slowly, I found myself getting less for the same price I’d been paying.
In the past, I could download 50 files per month. Now, my subscription can net me half that number.
I realized a few months ago that eMusic had become a Columbia House for digital downloads. My subscription was just enough to get me an album or two every month.
But I’m a budget-conscious listener, and eMusic had consistently undercut iTunes and the Amazon MP3 Store on catalog titles. The only thing cheaper would be to buy a used CD. In some cases, even new CDs were cheaper than eMusic. Those bargains are now on their way out.
I plan on keeping my subscription because I’m still part of eMusic’s target audience — indie music fans. But the download market is declining, and this pivot may not come in time to rescue eMusic.
A few months ago, I downgraded my Spotify subscription and started one with Google Play’s Listen Now. I was never a heavy user of Spotify, and honestly I found the desktop application poorly designed.
Google Play’s 20,000-song upload library pretty much clinched it for me, since my collection contains music that would be otherwise inaccessible to the streaming services.
I use streaming services as a way to preview music before I decide whether to own it outright. That puts me in a generation where ownership is a viable option. (In other words, I’m old.) I hear tell of an entire generation of listeners for whom their music experience begins and ends with streaming services.
For as much breadth the streaming services provide, I wouldn’t put my entire trust in their reliability. I’m not talking about bandwidth — I’m talking about rights holding and licensing.
A number of artists restrict the availability of their music online. John Zorn’s Tzadik label sells only through iTunes. AC/DC isn’t available anywhere. Metallica exclusively licenses through Spotify.
And what the rights holders give, they can also take away. When eMusic started offering major label content, I downloaded the self-titled debut album by the Stone Roses. A few weeks later, the album disappeared from the site’s catalog.
And if all the digging through record bins has taught me anything, there are vaults of material that will probably never see the light of day. How will I listen to Last Exit’s Iron Path on my iPod? By recording it straight from my vinyl copy.
On many occasions, my hunt for a particular piece of music forced me to seek out a physical copy. Self-titled albums by Animal Logic and Yano Akiko can only be had through used bins.
If my listening habits hewed closer to the mainstream, streaming services would probably have me more than covered. They don’t.
Recorded music is a business, and while the overhead in stocking a digital album is low, labels aren’t going to release product that they don’t perceive will sell. I have the unlucky habit of listening to just those kinds of recordings, and I always assume the services out there will have large gaps where my interests are concerned.
So I’m going to continue to acquire music in whatever forms they come. Streaming services are one such avenue, but for me, they can’t be the exclusive ones.
Before the Internet allowed listeners to try before they buy on a massive scale, music stores would set up listening kiosks for shoppers to sample a few select albums.
Of course, spots on these kiosks were available to labels who could pay for them, but I didn’t know that at the time. Given the quality of some of these selections, I could very well intuit they weren’t there solely on their merits.
100 Broken Windows by Idlewild was such a purchase. I had been living in Austin for three years at that point, and I hadn’t quite weaned myself off of Tower Records yet.
I gave a few tracks on the album a quick slice test — no more than 15 seconds for the first few tracks — to see if it would appeal to me, and luckily enough, it survived scrutiny. So I brought it home.
The album grew on me the more I listened to it, but part of me couldn’t quite picture myself being an Idlewild devotee. The band hit all the right points for me — lots of guitars, a singer with British brogue, a set of catchy songs — but I could sense I wouldn’t need more than one or two albums from them.
I had semi-consciously decided that if money got tight, 100 Broken Windows would be destined for a used CD bin. In 2002, money did get tight — I got laid off when the dot-com bubble burst, and the few bucks I got for the CD went toward petty cash.
At the same time, I knew the album wasn’t so bad that I never wanted to hear it again. So I ripped it before I let it go, then shelved the CD-ROM in the closet.
Fast forward 12 years later …
My rediscovery of vinyl spurred me to re-evaluate those decisions to let items in my collection wander off. I pulled out the CD-ROMs housing albums I sold for cash — 100 Broken Windows included — and gave them another play.
Yeah, I was dumb.
I may have never been destined to be an Idlewild fan, but I couldn’t deny being a fan of 100 Broken Windows. The album lost none of the appeal in the years since I first encountered it. To be honest, I’d find myself craving to hear “A Little Discourage” from time to time.
The album even got a reissue in the UK, supplemented with b-sides and extra tracks. I just settled to find a used copy for fewer than $5.
100 Broken Windows wasn’t the only victim of my short-sightedness. Maná’s MTV Unplugged, John & Mary’s The Weedkiller’s Daughter and Sugababes’ One Touch were albums that I liked more than I realized at the time.
At the time I sold them, I tried to picture whether ambivalence would set in years down the line. I gambled that my feelings for them would change for the worse and used that supposition to justify culling them from my collection.
John Zorn’s Naked City set me on an expedition to find as many degrees of separation from the band as I could. Tower Records published a magazine that one year included a supplement about a festival in New York City spotlighting the downtown New York scene.
From there, I learned about Robin Holcomb, Elliott Sharp, Bobby Previte, Marc Ribot — too many names to explore and not enough cash to get them all. And the Honolulu stores wouldn’t have carried these esoteric albums anyway.
When I learned about Last Exit, I thought, “Will this band give me a fix till whenever Naked City make a new album?” All that I read about the band — guitarist Sonny Sharrock, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, saxophone player Peter Brötzman and bassist Bill Laswell — led me to believe that they would rock you the fuck out much like Naked City did.
So I picked up a cassette of Iron Path, the only studio album the quartet would record and the only album released by a major label. I might have played through it a few times, but Iron Path lacked the thing that my unsophisticated teenage ears required — hooks.
For all its chaos, Naked City was a pretty melodic band. That’s not the case with Last Exit. These guys are intense, and they can bring on a mighty mean noise that never flies completely into anarchy. But hummable, they are not.
Iron Path didn’t survive one of the regular purges I made to fund other music. That would have been some time in the early ’90s.
The next time I encountered Iron Path was in 2003. A customer at Waterloo Records asked me whether the store carried it. I had actually heard of the album, which surprised both of us.
I wouldn’t think about Iron Path till recently, when I ran across an album titled Strange Meeting by a band called Power Tools. This trio consisted of Bill Frisell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson. I had never heard of Power Tools, and seeing Jackson’s name in the credits reminded me of Last Exit.
Many, many months later, I would find a sealed copy of Iron Path on vinyl for what could be considered an obscene bargain. Of course, I snatched it.
The problem with precocity is sometimes premature development can be mistakenly conflated with complete development. Yes, I was the audience for an album like Iron Path, but no, not at the age of 17. 29, perhaps. 35, maybe. But not 17.
The album is playing on the turntable as I write this sentence, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it — far, far more than I did approximately a quarter of a century ago. I wanted the wrong thing out of Iron Path the first time around, and I wrongly let it go.
It’s back in my life again, and it’s a pity that it can’t be in yours without a hefty outlay of cash. Used copies for the CD go for exorbitant prices, and the streaming services don’t have it. That pretty much leaves us with YouTube.
In the past, I’d feature upcoming releases that were editorially interesting. That is, they looked interesting even if I would never listen to them. I’m changing that policy to feature only things I plan on exploring myself.
The Drums, Encyclopedia, Sept. 23
I admit — I started listening to The Drums because I caught a video of “Forever and Ever, Amen” and thought Jonny Pierce’s shirt … accentuated his physique. He tripped my gaydar, unreliable as it is. The self-titled debut album was pretty good. The follow-up, not as much. I’m willing to give this third album a shot, now that the band is down to a duo.
Steve Reich, Radio Rewrite, Sept. 30
Whatever Radiohead references Reich throws into this piece will be totally lost on me given my ambivalence about Radiohead, but I am interested to hear Jonny Greenwood’s complete re-recording of Electric Counterpoint.
Nico Muhly, Two Boys, Sept. 30
I was wondering at what point Nonesuch would snag Nico Muhly for a recording.
Sam Amidon, Lily-O, Sept. 30
I look forward to hearing what Bill Frisell contributes to Sam Amidon’s modernized folk.
Cocco, Plan C, Oct. 8
Part of me wondered whether Pas de Bourée was something to tide fans over till a proper album release. The next question is whether it’s a harbinger of what’s to come.
Shiina Ringo, Hi Izuru Tokoro, Nov. 5
Shiina Ringo resumed releasing singles as a solo artist a year before disbanding Tokyo Jihen, and she’s put out four thus far. Taken together, they don’t really hint at a direction her music would go. Her self-cover album Gyakuyunyuu was a fascinating mess. I’m interested to see how she pulls it all together.
Jurisdiction disputes in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race at times precluded me from liking bands more suited to my tastes than my brother’s — Madonna and Depeche Mode spring to mind. But for the most part, my brother was more than welcome to some of his claims.
He dug Prince. I did not.
I liked a few of his singles, but in terms of overall output, I didn’t see the appeal. I appreciate Prince now, but I still wouldn’t consider myself a fan.
Oddly enough, I did become a fan of Wendy and Lisa. I’m not sure what drew my attention to them, aside from being featured so prominently in videos. (Or maybe I subconsciously picked up on the gay undertone of the pair.) When Prince broke up the Revolution, my brother continued to follow him, leaving me to take up the cause for Wendy and Lisa.
Parade is my favorite of the Prince and the Revolution albums. Sure, “Kiss” and “Mountains” are solid singles, but that psychedelic first side went beyond rock, funk, pop, whatever the hell else. It was thoroughly composed, no less structurally taut than a piece by Mozart or Beethoven. And for the longest time, I thought Parade was all I really needed from Prince.
As I got deeper into expanding my vinyl collection, I thought about those albums my brother had that I too wanted — Graceland by Paul Simon, … Nothing Like the Sun by Sting, Like a Virgin by Madonna. When I exhausted the overlap, I turned my attention to other parts of his collection.
I doubt I would pick up Out of the Cellar by Ratt, or any of his Toto albums. But Prince and the Revolution? Those albums where Wendy and Lisa had the most influence? I was willing to check them out.
The Revolution is credited on only three albums, starting with Purple Rain. The streaming services helped me to determine it was the better starting point in my limited exploration of Prince.
The nine-track album yielded five singles, which were played to death on the radio. At the time, I would have loved nothing more than to never hear those songs again. But after 30 years, their familiarity is comforting.
That left four tracks to explore. The introduction to “Computer Blue” is a running joke among some friends of mine, and it should be one among yours as well. “Baby I’m a Star” is a nice glue between “I Would Die 4 U” and the title track. And of course, without “Darling Nikki”, there would be no Parents Music Resource Council and the marketing coup-de-grace of the “Explicit Lyrics” marker.
Aside: I remember buying an album with an “Explicit Lyrics” label at the Fort Shafter Exchange, and the clerk carded me because the store wouldn’t sell those albums to anyone under 18. The majority of my music shopping had migrated to Tower Records by then, and they sure as hell didn’t care.
While I wasn’t a stranger to Purple Rain at the time of its release, I don’t find it surprising my appreciation for the album comes as late in my life as it has.
I wasn’t schooled enough in race relations in the United States to grasp the divide between “black music” and “white music”. I just knew I dug bands from England, and Prince was not from England.
Now that I’ve learned the history of rock ‘n’ roll, I see how Prince transcends that divide. He’s a bad enough motherfucker that those labels don’t fucking apply.