This is the time of year when traditionally there aren't too many new releases, but there are quite a few new ones on the horizon. The artists I’ve chosen for this issue have decided to release their works digital-only, for downloading or streaming. Julia Stone's Twin EP has been issued in advance of the full album scheduled for release in 2021, and her Everything is Christmas EP is a one-off for the holiday season.
I finally got my MQA setup with Tidal active, so all my listening was done in MQA this go around, and it offers pretty exceptional sound quality across the board. Most MQA titles are generally close to CD-quality, but go through an unfold process where the final output is usually about double the sample rate of whatever the original was. For example, if an album is 16 bit/44.1 kHz, then the unfolded, decoded MQA version will be 24 bit/88.2 kHz. The MQA camp is doing a major press release push, where they’re basically saying that there’s “no such thing as high-resolution sound,” and that any sample rate converted to an MQA file will sound closer to reality than a high-resolution, high-bit rate remaster will. I won’t get into any arguments about MQA vs. high-res, but I will say that all the MQA selections I listened to this go around sounded pretty exceptional!
Kraftwerk – Remixes
It’s hard to imagine Kraftwerk without Florian Schneider, but at least vocalist and original member Ralf Hütter is still around; his (often heavily processed) voice is one of the most identifiable elements of the group. Surprisingly to me, the other current members of Kraftwerk have between eight and twenty-five years tenure with the band. An album of new material doesn't appear to be upcoming anytime soon, but Remixes contains a bevy of Kraftwerk tunes scattered across several decades. That is, the actual tunes are from throughout their classic catalog, but most of the remixes that appear on this release were mostly done in the 2000s. The remix artists include Kling Klang (Kraftwerk’s own studio), William Orbit, Francois Kevorkian, Rob Reves, DJ Rolando, Underground Resistance, Alex Gopher, and Hot Chip. The sole exception is the track “Non Stop,” which appears to be a new track, assembled from several different tunes, including material circa Electric Café. At least, no remix information for the track is credited in the scant details available for the album.
Remixes clocks in at a very generous 127 minutes, and while there are actually only six tunes on the album, all except for two get multiple remixes. For example, two of the remixes, “Robotnik” and “Robotronik” (both from Kling Klang) originated in the version of “The Robots” from The Mix. “Radioactivity” is from the album of the same name, and gets two remixes, one from William Orbit — which is more of a dance floor rave-up, and another from Francois Kevorkian, which offers a much more atmospheric presentation of the tune. “Expo 2000” was a non-album single that was commissioned for the Hannover Expo 2000 World’s Fair, and gets no fewer than nine (!) remixes; the range of styles employed has some of the versions bearing very little resemblance to the others (or the original)!
“Aero Dynamik” originally came from the Tour de France album; the original track peaked at Number One on the UK dance charts at the time of its release. Of the four versions here, I prefer the Francois Kevorkian mix, which has subterranean bass that will shake the foundation of your home. If you’re ever wondering whether your subwoofers are actually doing anything, just put this track on for a couple of minutes – it’ll definitely clear things up for you! The album’s closer, “La Forme” also comes from Tour de France, and Hot Chip’s “King of the Mountain” mix is both majestic and dynamic.
The sound here was across the board dynamic and impressive, and despite the outward appearance of significant repetition, the results are so incredibly varied that the album makes for essential listening, especially for fans. Highly recommended!
Parlophone UK, LP (download/streaming from Qobuz, [24/48 MQA] Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)
Julia Stone – Twin (EP)
Julia Stone is an Australian singer-songwriter and half of the duo Angus & Julia, with her brother Angus Stone. In recent years, she’s branched out almost entirely on her own, and it’s not particularly clear if Angus & Julia are still a thing or not. While her early work with Angus was mostly folk-oriented, her recent songs have taken on something of a synth-pop quality and employ a much broader range of instrumentation and vocal effects. An introductory blurb from her Facebook page prefaces the Twin EP as follows: “Reimagined, reborn and reinvigorated, this new era for Stone replaces dirt under foot with wet pavements and sticky dance floors; trades blue skies for red lights and red lips. Step into Julia Stone’s brand-new world.” That really says a lot about the new direction she seems to have taken.
Stone’s upcoming full album release, Sixty Summers, was scheduled to be released this year, but with the pandemic it’s been pushed back until at least February 2021. She decided to release an EP that includes alternate takes or edits of some of the album tracks as a bit of a teaser in advance of the album. Julia Stone’s voice, while very appealing, has a sort of soft, waif-ish quality to it (I find it very reminiscent of Joanna Newsom), and on most of her songs appears to frequently be multi-tracked. The EP’s four track titles are all monosyllabic, like “Break,” (produced and played on by St. Vincent) “Dance,” and “Unreal,” with the latter tune having two separate renderings. One of them, subtitled [twin], is the full-bore, for-the-dance-floor version, while the second version, [alone] is pared-down and much more introspective.
Overall, I found the EP to be quite listenable, and look forward to the full-length album in February. The EP is only a ditty, but is recommended nonetheless.
Arts & Crafts Productions, (download/streaming Qobuz, [16/44.1 MQA] Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Julia Stone – Everything is Christmas (EP)
Okay, so Christmas is over, and Julia Stone already has another EP currently out, but this seasonal one was too irresistible to ignore. Everything is Christmas is one of those records that has everything going for it; it’s exceptionally well recorded, and the performances are excellent. The unusual renderings of classic Christmas fare are given such interesting new twists, this EP really needs to be heard!
In my overview of four classic Christmas LP reissues (in Copper 124) I mentioned that my thirty-something daughter has a very non-traditional appreciation for holiday music – especially for music from the likes of Sufjan Stevens – which my wife and I totally bristled at. That said, the four songs here, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Jingle Bells,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” are all given such new and fresh readings that fly against tradition – but they totally work, nonetheless. Julia Stone reverts to more of a folk-oriented presentation for the tunes, which are sparsely accompanied acoustic affairs, with carefully placed percussion and the angelic voices of Stone and Ben Howard, who also chips in on guitar and banjo.
The sound quality here via Tidal and MQA is absolutely superb; you get the impression that Julia Stone and Ben Howard are right there in the listening room with you. My wife, whose tastes in Christmas music runs heavily towards the traditional, even gave this her seal of approval. Very highly recommended!
Arts & Crafts Productions, (download/streaming from Qobuz, [16/44.1 MQA] Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Max Richter – All Human Beings – International Voices (EP)
All Human Beings is an EP culled from British composer Max Richter’s recently released album Voices, which streeted in late 2020. The EP is a bit gimmicky, but is surprisingly moving, and is another effort on the part of an artist and musician to try and help us find some common ground and unity during the pandemic, and in this most trying of years. Despite Richter’s reputation as leaning a bit towards the avant garde in classical music, I found the scoring here very approachable and enjoyable.
The EP consists of five tracks that are all essentially the same piece of the same length, with only variations in the track timings of a few seconds here and there. As the music begins, there’s a scratchy overlay of a portion of a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt reciting the preamble to the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; this then segues to another, more modern voice that recites an additional excerpt from that declaration: “All human beings are born free and equal, in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of community. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
The five tracks are all titled the same, with the exception being that the first one is in English, “All Human Beings,” (spoken by actress Sheila Atim). The successive versions are titled and rendered in four other languages: in Spanish (by actress Maria Valverde), German (by actress Nina Hoss), French (by actress Golshifteh Farahani), and Dutch (by novelist Marieke Lucas Rijneveld). The tracks all feature a full string orchestral and choral backing, but Richter refers to the orchestra as “upside down,” because it employs an unusual complement of instruments, as opposed to a conventional orchestra. Richter says that we live in an upside down time that required an upside down orchestra. Regardless, the music is spiritual and moving. I know this sounds maybe somewhat contrived and heavy-handed, but I found the pieces to be inspiring, and hopefully everyone else will in the way that Max Richter intended.
I know this isn’t the kind of music I typically review here, but in a year where the world has been torn apart politically and by the pandemic, I found this work surprisingly uplifting. Recommended.
Decca (UMO), (download/streaming from Qobuz, [24/48 MQA] Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)