Iggy Pop – Free
I have a fairly esteemed level of admiration for Iggy Pop; his work with the Stooges helped make him a punk icon. And working with Bowie over the course of much of his solo career only solidified his reputation. Over the years, Iggy Pop has cultivated this image of himself as this wild, out-of-control animal-man onstage, a persona that he’s had a hard time separating himself from in real life. In recent years, especially now that he’s 72, Iggy appears to have begun to accept that he’s actually Jim Osterberg, and that Iggy Pop is just a character he’s been playing for forty-plus years now. But he always seemed to find ways to embrace whatever current musical trend was going on, despite the decade, and that served to give his music continued relevance. That said, Iggy’s recent output, with the exception of 2016’s Post Pop Depression, his collaboration with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, has been decidedly unpunk.
Iggy published a coffee-table style book a couple of years ago, Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges, which chronicles Iggy’s take on one of the most storied and influential bands of all time. I find it very interesting that in the aftermath of this book’s release, not everyone who was on the scene during the Stooges heyday shares his somewhat optimistic recollection of how everything transpired back then. I recently read a really good article, “The Lost Stooge: Chasing the Ghost of Dave Alexander,” on the Please Kill Me website. It discusses the life of Stooge bass player Dave Alexander, a founding member of the band, who was widely credited for much of the band’s direction on the first couple of albums. Before he was unceremoniously fired by Iggy; he drank himself to death afterwards and like so many rockers of his generation was dead at age 27. You can check that superb article out here; it seems that, at the time, everyone called Iggy “Jim” or “Jimmy,” and as the Iggy Pop persona began to dominate his life, his empathy for those around him just about disappeared. It’s a recurring theme we seem to see a lot now that most of the rockers of our youth have suddenly become seventy-somethings.
Anyway, back to Free; surprisingly, I actually kind of like this album. There’s a very weird kind of ambient/arthouse vibe going on, with jazzy, almost late-period Miles Davis-ish trumpets occupying the backgrounds of many of the tunes. You get that right out of the gate with the opening track, “Free”, where Iggy offers a very sparse spoken verse about wanting to be free; he’s definitely freed himself of any post-punk pretensions here! Among the listed performers is Brooklyn based Noveller; she’s credited with “guitarscapes,” and her very ambient stylings give most of the songs here a very mystical quality. Ig wrote or co-wrote three of the songs, among them, “James Bond,” which is one of the very few uptempo offerings found here, with some really punchy trumpet fills during the instrumental bridge. And there are more spoken-word type offerings, like Lou Reed’s “We Are the People,” where Iggy’s spoken rendering is offered to great effect over that virtually constant trumpet hovering in the background. It’s very striking, but nothing you’ve heard so far will prepare you for the next track, another ambient-drenched spoken reading of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Which sounds as though it might have been taken from the soundtrack for a David Lynch film! I mean, this is either truly weird, or totally inspired stuff—I’m still not quite certain which.
At just a tad over 34 minutes, this is definitely more of an EP than an album, but 34 minutes of this might just be enough. There’s a local college radio station here in Atlanta, WREK (Georgia Tech), that’s renowned for thirty-minute-or-so sets of totally disparate music played back-to-back, and often with no information to identify the pieces. God help you if you actually hear something you like. Free is populated with songs that could totally find themselves inserted into that kind of mix—I could easily find myself pulling this record out, or inserting bits into a designed mix during a party setting. Gotta keep ’em guessing! Recommended.
Loma Vista Music, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify)
Sigur Rós – Liminal Sleep
My daughter turned me onto the music of Icelandic avant-rock indie band Sigur Rós a few years ago; their unusual mix of off-kilter indie pop and ambient music was very polarizing and intoxicating—either you loved it, or…meh. I have a number of classical music records in my collection from Icelandic composers; the whole ambient thing seems to be a thread that runs through much of Icelandic music. Sigur Rós toured a lot with Radiohead during their early years, and I can’t help but think from what I’m hearing here, that their music had a profound impact on Radiohead. And what we’ve heard from Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood in the subsequent years.
Many of the nine selections on this album run near the twenty-minute mark in length, and are extended set pieces that expound upon some of the more ambient riffs from Sigur Rós’ prior albums. The naming convention for each of the pieces follows a defined pattern: “Sleep 1,” “Sleep 2,” etc., all the way through “Sleep 9.” There are even websites online promoting improved sleep techniques where this music is available—seriously? Coming from a deeply steeped in Prog Rock background, I actually have enjoyed this music—so far. At almost two and a half hours in length, I won’t pretend that I’ve actually listened to the whole thing. This is the aural equivalent of going to a three hour movie—you’re either so enthralled, you can’t get out of your seat, or you can’t get out of your seat quickly enough! From the start of the opening track, “Sleep 1,” I felt a strong connection to what’s going on musically in the central section of Yes’ classic “Close To the Edge.” If you find the undeniable cornerstone of Prog Rock a total snooze, you’ll then probably give short schrift to anything on Liminal Sleep.
As far as I can tell, there’s not currently any physical product that exists for Liminal Sleep; its excessive length definitely restricts the possibility of its release as a CD or LP. It’s available for streaming just about everywhere, and that’s probably going to be good enough. Be forewarned, though: much of this album is not going to impress people with its DR scale performance. I listened to the MQA version on Tidal with my AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC, and I thought it sounded pretty darned good. Recommended.
Krủnk, (download/streaming from Bandcamp, Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify)
The Highwomen – The Highwomen
The Highwomen is a collaboration between Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Brandi Carlisle; the group had been coalescing over a period of time and actually played live together for the first time this year in April at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday party. The Highwomen is either an homage or a loosely disguised jab at the legendary Highwaymen album, the biggest selling country album of all time, which consisted of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. The Highwaymen was the epitome of male-dominated country music at the time; these women don’t seem too mean spirited, so I prefer to think that it’s more of an homage with a firm touch of girl power. They’re putting their music out there, and it’s some of the best modern country music currently available. While I generally have no problem with crossover artists (except for Taylor Swift, that’s just not country!), and as cute as that Maren Morris “The Middle” stuff was, it’s really great to hear her singing real country music again! All these women write great songs, and the vocal harmonies are just to die for; The Highwomen are rewriting country music in a thankfully much more classic mold than much of the crap we’ve been hearing lately on country radio.
The song selection here is very strong; the album has a bit of a politically-correct slant, and is designed to highlight the complicated realities of being a woman in the modern world. All the songs were written or co-written by the four members of the group, although it’s obvious that all four don’t share harmonies on every song. Right out of the gate, you get two of the album’s best songs back-to-back. “Highwomen,” where each of the four women takes a verse to tell stories of strong women taking charge of their not-always-perfect lives to effect positive change. It’s followed by “Redesigning Women,” which is a clever double-entendre on the television show Designing Women, but these girls are redesigning a world where they’re on equal footing with everyone else. Another song that chronicles the challenges of being a modern woman in a complicated world—but in a much more lighthearted manner—is “My Name Can’t be Mama.” Where the group sings about trying to balance indulging in all that life has to offer, along with the challenges of raising a family.
My big quibble with this album is a technical one based on the sound quality; this record is an unfortunate victim of the loudness wars. Dave Cobb did a serviceable job producing the record, but it’s been compressed to hell. I was working upstairs on reviews on my laptop while Tidal was playing downstairs on the big system. When the album queued up on the music server, I had to rush downstairs to adjust the volume downwards, because it was about double what had been playing before. This kind of crap is just ridiculous, and an audiophile’s nightmare. Other than that, this is a really good record; maybe it’s not quite as authentic sounding as the Miranda Lambert led Pistol Annies album, and the harmonies aren’t quite as sweet as on the Ronstadt/Parton/Harris Trio album. This record stands on its own merit, and I’m really looking forward to hearing more from this group. Hopefully, with greatly improved recording and production techniques. Recommended.
Atlantic/Elektra/Low Country Sound, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, YouTube, Spotify)
Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell
Norman Fucking Rockwell. When I first started reading about the impending release of this album months ago, I had to assume that the title was a freaking joke. It’s not. On the opening title track that’s lushly orchestrated with layers of Lana Del Rey’s multitracked vocals singing the chorus, the first words from her seriously angelic voice are “Goddam, you man child…you fucked me so good that I almost said I love you!” I’m no saint, but trust me, I almost can’t even believe that I just typed those words! There’s nothing else out there in pop music that even remotely compares with this; she drops the F bomb repeatedly throughout the songs on this album. I’d been listening to Tidal all day on my home system while working on reviews, but as the day progressed into evening, I switched to headphones right as I put this album on. Thank God for that—my wife Beth’s no prude, but she probably would have freaked had she heard that opening refrain live across the airwaves! Her verbal response to this would probably have made her typical expletive-laced response to the music of Rickie Lee Jones sound like she was reading from a Sunday school primer.
When I first signed up for Instagram about a year or so ago, a video for Lana Del Rey appeared in my feed; I took a look, and suddenly my feed was flooded with videos of Lana Del Rey. Dancing this kind of lilting stylistic dance, her skirt or dress swaying rhythmically to her movements. That’s pretty much the mental image I get from listening to this album; I just didn’t picture it with the language embellishments. Don’t get me wrong, but generally I equate someone’s repeated use of fuck in a song to hate speech, hardcore metal, or even gangsta rap. Not repeated as though it’s almost a mantra or a prayer. Back in the day, when I’d hear Mick Jagger sing “you can come all over me” from the Stones’ Let It Bleed, yes, it was hypersexualized, but it was the Stones, and you expected it from rock’s bad boys. Maybe I was a tad more hypersexualized myself back then, because it didn’t shock me on any kind of level compared to this. An alternate take on this: in today’s “Me Too” world, where carelessly expressing your sexuality can get you into some seriously deep doo, it’s almost refreshing to see that Lana Del Rey is so sexually uninhibited.
In the Pitchfork review of this album, they call Norman Fucking Rockwell Lana Del Rey’s “masterpiece we’ve been waiting for,” and also call her the “best American songwriter, period.” A bit further down, some Joni Mitchell/Leonard Cohen alliterations are made. Okay, it’s my turn now—are you fucking kidding me? I can totally see the appeal of this record to a particular demographic; the music accompaniment to Lana Del Rey’s ever-lyrical voice is almost like ear candy. And I’m sure this record will sell metric tons of music software. But is this really the state of the art of current American popular music? Even mentioning her in the same breath as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen is damn near blasphemous. YMMV.
Interscope/Polydor Records, CD/LP/Cassette (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify)
Igor Levit – Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas
Russian-born pianist Igor Levit launched his recording career with 2013’s Beethoven: The Late Sonatas, which—in tackling some of the most difficult and complicated music in the repertory—is a pretty bold and brash statement for a debut record. His passionate playing and lightning-quick technique quickly announced his presence on the classical music scene, and he’s remained a force to be reckoned with over the course of seven albums in just six short years. He recently (2018) was named the winner of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award, which is awarded every four years by the Irving S. Gilmore foundation. The award honors extraordinary piano artistry, and comes along with a $300,000 honorarium for career advancement—not too shabby in a day and age where it feels like support for classical music has almost completely fallen by the wayside. He also was recently named the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist of the Year; the accolades just keep on coming for this very talented young man!
Next year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, and Sony Classical has much lined up in the way of celebratory releases. Igor Levit is a Sony Classical exclusive artist, and in advance of the upcoming celebration, he’s just released this sprawling 9-disc CD set, Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas. Which at a list price of about $60 is a whole-lotta-Beethoven and Levit—that’s less than $7 per disc, and an extraordinary bargain! A much-anticipated and important release, Igor Levit’s completion of this staggering undertaking started six years ago will no doubt serve as a stunning kickoff to what is certain to be a worldwide celebration of Beethoven’s music. One of the aspects of this new cycle that I find very appealing is that the individual sonatas are all presented numerically sequentially, which isn’t always the norm for Beethoven sonata programs. It’s just a bit more….tidy, if you will!
Levit plays with equal parts passion, poignancy, and introspection, tempered with bursts of near-robotically fast technique. His playing of Beethoven’s early sonatas often reminds me of Glenn Gould’s approach to Bach; thrilling technical proficiency, but played so tempestuously that there’s perhaps some fear that the soul of the music might get lost. Personally, I don’t ascribe to this; while his approach may not suit every enthusiast’s taste in Beethoven sonata performance, his playing still gets to the heart of the music. Yes, Igor Levit is an undeniable technician; I happen to love Gould’s (and Levit’s!) approach to classical performance, even though many will likely yearn for more contemplative readings with less exhaustive tempi. And more air and space. Those listeners will probably be more well served by classic catalog offerings from the likes of Arrau, Barenboim, or Gilels.
Levit’s recording of the late sonatas dates from 2013; the remaining performances were recorded between 2017 and 2019, and the complete cycle utilized three different recording locations. Despite that disparity of time and locations, Sony Classical has done an outstanding job of maintaining continuity between the performances, and the sound quality is absolutely superb. The realism and clarity of the piano via my home system was staggeringly good! I split my listening between the CD discs via my Yamaha universal player, 44.1 CD-quality streaming via Tidal, and 24/96 streaming via Qobuz. If going the archival route, the CDs are superb, and provided magnificent sound via my Yamaha unit. But I also found streaming via Tidal very good, and the high-res streaming via Qobuz was exceptional! Beethoven: The Late Sonatas is a magnificent collection that, for me, sets a new standard in Beethoven sonata performance. Very highly recommended!
Sony Classical, CD (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify)