All the albums I’m reviewing this time express in some way qualities of introspection, melancholy, despair, and disillusionment; there’s no intended theme here, it just worked out this way! It can’t be happy, happy, joy, joy all the time, but I’ll work a bit harder at getting things back on a more even keel next issue. Enjoy.
Beach Bunny – Honeymoon
The brainchild of Chicagoan Lily Trifilio, Beach Bunny is an indie garage-pop band that’s released four EPs over the last four years. The last of those, Prom Queen, was released in 2018; the title track has gotten the band more than 40 million streams on Spotify. “Prom Queen” (the song) dealt with negative-body issues, and has gained a huge boost in popularity from the currently red hot video app TikTok, where it can apparently be heard virtually non-stop. That exposure got them a record deal with New York indie label Mom+Pop Records and Honeymoon—Beach Bunny’s first full-length album—has these guys poised for the big time. Whereas their EPs tended to be mostly lo-fi, acoustic bedroom-pop type productions; the band has been touring for a couple of years now, and the sound has definitely gelled and gotten bigger and bolder—and much more ready for prime time.
Lily Trifilio writes songs that are tuneful and energetic, and very confessional in nature; and they’re absolutely brimming with infectious pop hooks! A graduate of DePaul University in Chicago, she was even called upon recently by her alma mater to teach a master class in songwriting. I’d say the style the band has adopted now is more along the lines of “power fuzz-pop” and possibly even closer to “fuzz-pop/post-punk.” In the song “Rearview,” she asks a former lover, “Was I ever good enough for you…you always seem closer in the rearview.” The song lopes along with strumming guitar and organ accompaniment for two-and-quarter minutes, then drummer John Alvarado blasts into the tune and the band absolutely cranks for the last thirty seconds. The effect is truly stunning!
Of course YMMV, but I find it exciting that groups like this can transition from internet splash to actual, touring, working band, while making music that is both interesting and fun to listen to. Hey, there’s nothing here that’s ultimately heavy or compellingly classic—and most of the songs clock in at about two minutes, tops. But it beats the hell out of whatever crap Taylor Swift is cranking over the pop airwaves these days. Recommended.
Mom + Pop Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Bandcamp, Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, iTunes, Spotify)
Anoushka Shankar – Love Letters
I probably first heard the sitar played by George Harrison on a Beatles record, but at the time, it didn’t really register that it was an exotic Indian instrument I was hearing. I really didn’t make the sitar connection until George Harrison released his epic Concert for Bangladesh live album, where the Ravi Shankar played “Bangla Dhun” was the opener. And it was literally, criminally ignored by nearly everyone who ever bought the record! I don’t know why, but Shankar’s playing truly resonated with me; I virtually couldn’t play any of the record’s sides without first listening to the “Bangla Dhun.” I bought Anoushka Shankar’s (Ravi Shankar’s daughter) debut album at Tower Records in 1998 when it was first released, and have revisited it regularly over the years. It’s more in the classical Indian music vein, a direction that Anoushka has strayed from over the last decade or so, moving more into the world music arena. And combining elements of pop, trance, and fusion, among her many influences that meld surprisingly well with her heavy Indian classical background.
Five years later, in 2003, Norah Jones literally swept the Grammy Awards with her debut album, and suddenly, it became known that she and Anoushka Shankar were sisters. I don’t know with certainty what influence this had on Anoushka Shankar’s career, but it seemed to definitely veer from that point towards more popular music. This new EP comes in the wake of two life-changing events for her; a serious health crisis, requiring numerous surgeries and where she quite nearly died. And the dissolution of her seven-year marriage to British film director Joe Wright (Darkest Hour, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice); obviously, she has struggled with the aftermath of both mightily. And this new album is her way of announcing to the world that she’s ready to move on.
The six songs deal mostly with love and loss; I get the feeling from listening to the songs that she’s moved on from her health issues, but is still attempting to process and externalize what the breakup of her marriage has put her through, and how she’s continuing to deal with it. I don’t know any of the details, but you get the idea from some of the song lyrics that her ex ditched her for a younger woman. In the song “Bright Eyes,” Anoushka asks, “Does she feel younger than me, new and shiny” and “most importantly, do you call her Bright Eyes too?” She grapples with issues of self-doubt, like in the song “Lovable,” where she asks, “Am I still lovable, since you stopped loving me?”
The record is very sparsely arranged, with most of the songs only containing Anoushka’s sitar, along with an acoustic bass and a variety of Indian percussive instruments. A few songs add piano to the mix, and all of the songs contain vocals from the likes of German singer Alev Lenz, the Afro-French Cuban duo Ibeyi, and Indian singer Shilpa Rao. All of the songs except for “These Words” are sung in English. I’m gonna be perfectly honest with you—this is an absolute downer of a listening experience. But the songs are absolutely beautiful, and Anoushka’s instrument tone is simply gorgeous—this is an extremely well-recorded EP. I did all my listening to the MQA files on Tidal, and I felt the sound was remarkable. Well worth a listen if you have a chance!
Mercury/Universal France, (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Spotify, Deezer, YouTube)
Ben Watt – Storm Damage
Most everyone knows Benn Watt as one-half of the EDM/Dance/Trance/Jazz/Bossa/Electronica powerhouse Everything But the Girl, with wife, partner, and powerhouse vocalist Tracey Thorn. And he’s also a talented multi-instrumentalist, producer, and DJ, who’s worked with just about everyone who really matters in the music industry. Everything But the Girl enjoyed tremendous success through the late eighties and into the nineties with an acoustic jazz/bossa/dance slant, but then Watt became gravely ill with an extremely rare autoimmune disease and quite nearly died. His eventually return to music found him getting very deeply steeped in techno, deep house, and club music, and EBTG’s return reaped even greater commercial successes than ever before. The group went on hiatus in 2000, but Watt hasn’t slowed down at all; he’s continued to produce and record with acts as diverse as Beth Orton, Massive Attack, and David Gilmour.
This new album shows a return to his singer/songwriter roots from very early on in his career, and chronicles his process of coping with the recent death of his closest half-brother in 2016. The aftermath found him grieving, angry, and disillusioned over the disintegrating political landscape in England; it basically muted his creative voice for over a year. His return is marked by this new album, Storm Damage, which he refers to as a “future-retro trio”; it basically features a foundation of piano, upright bass, and hybrid acoustic-electronic drums on all the songs. And of course, the songs are augmented by guitars (Low’s Alan Sparhawk guests on several songs), synths, and samples that Watt calls “impressionistic found sounds” that he adapted from online public-domain recording archives. Despite the embellishments, this remains a sparsely instrumented album, and is a return to the more organic roots of his early career. Much of the focus of the record is on Watt’s vocals and the confessional nature of most of the songs.
The press notes for the release state Watt’s desire for “a new way to capture the energy,” and he’s most definitely done that with this new album. “Summer Ghosts” opens with the lines, “Thought I had a degree of resistance, but look at me seeking assistance.” Watt makes no bones about the fact that he’s struggling with all the complications of his current environment. It follows the basic piano/bass/drums formula of most of the album, but the added analogue synths float over the acoustic foundation, and give the song a very ethereal and atmospheric vibe. In the song “You’ve Changed, I’ve Changed,” he states, “You’ve changed, I’ve changed, we can’t all remain the same. Shed the skin, it’s no big thing.” Time to move on, get over it. It’s a record of very deep introspection.
The recorded sound is superb, and features many of the atmospheric qualities that he brought to all the EBTG recordings; the streamed MQA sound from Tidal sounded simply incredible over my home system. It’s available from a variety of streaming services, and is well worth checking out—while it’s nothing like most of his techno and deep house output, it’s nonetheless a compelling listen. Highly recommended.
Ultimate Road/Caroline, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, Google Play Music, Spotify, Deezer)
Carla Bley/Steve Swallow/Andy Sheppard – Life Goes On
Carla Bley has essentially been an active recording artist for sixty years. That’s right—sixty years! Born in 1938 in Oakland, California; her father was a piano teacher and church choirmaster, who taught her at a very young age to play the piano. However, he died when she was only eight years old, and by fourteen, she had decided that being a professional roller skater was her calling. She headed to New York City at seventeen, and took a job as a cigarette girl at legendary jazz club Birdland, where she immediately drew the attention of pianist Paul Bley. Who encouraged her piano playing, and also encouraged her to start composing—within a few years, they were married, and a number of other jazz artists were recording her compositions.
Carla Bley, at age 81, is one of the most prolific jazz composers of all time. I can’t even count the number of studio albums she has to her credit; double that number, and you get the number of albums she’s either collaborated or guested on. Her new album, Life Goes On, features longtime partner and collaborator, bassist Steve Swallow, along with tenor and soprano sax player Andy Sheppard. The trio have been playing together for over twenty-five years; this new record is their fourth album together. To hear the intricate and incredibly nuanced playing on this album, you’d never guess the ages of the players; Steve Swallow is 79, and Andy Sheppard is the youngster of the group at 63!
Life Goes On is a trio of relatively lengthy suites; the music was composed as Carla Bley recovered from an illness. The trio toured with the new music for a while, then retired to the studio where they’ve perfected these pieces. The title piece is a long (clocking in at nearly 24 minutes!), contemplative work of four parts, titled, “Life Goes On,” then “On,” then “And On,” closing with “And Then One Day.” Carla Bley’s piano playing is simply magnificent here, and even though the arrangements are very spare—there’s plenty of room for each of the players to comfortably stretch out. Steve Swallow’s playing alternates constantly between plumbing the depths and plucking at the higher registers of his instrument; he’s definitely one of the most interesting bass players of all time. And British saxophonist Andy Sheppard is one of the finest horn players of this generation; he’s on tenor here, but alternates between tenor and soprano throughout the albums three suites. His tone is quite simply sumptuous and superb here; his runs and fills are deliberate and measured, and he never hurries through his solos—it fits the mood of the piece perfectly. Even at nearly 24 minutes in length, this piece passes waaaay too quickly!
While much of the album is quite subdued and melancholy, this is my favorite jazz recording of 2020 thus far. I did all my listening to the 24/96 stream from Qobuz via Roon—the sound quality was absolutely magnificent streaming across my home system. This record is not to be missed—it comes very highly recommended!
ECM, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, Google Play Music, Deezer)