Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » May
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On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

“Everything is new,” Antony Hegarty’s voice quavers on the opening track of his gorgeous new offering Swanlights. But how new would you want the proceedings here from Antony and the Johnsons to be? When you’ve pretty much nailed timeless, why budge from there? Remind yourself that Antony grew up in a small town in rural England. His alma mater, The University of California at Santa Cruz. Yet, Antony has fashioned an identity every bit as unearthly, as ethereal as one of those few iconic figures whose past we forget, whose identities become almost alien, something apart. Think of David Bowie. Think of Bjork, Antony’s sometime collaborator, who also contributes to a single (and singular) track on this album.

Antony is a musician whose voice is his instrument. His voice seems as relevant in a small, dark bar as it does spot lit on a stage with an orchestra sprawling behind him. In a time when even the most broadminded of folks still wrestle with traditional views of sexuality and gender, Antony’s tremulous, omni-sexual voice is eminently accessible, if not accessed by many. Still, to hear some listeners reference their annoyance with his voice is, perhaps, to register the average human’s continuing discomfort with those individuals who allow for their gender to fall breezily between polar points or even to ignore the concept of gender all together. That voice guides us through 11 tracks on Swanlights, Antony’s fourth effort with the Johnsons. Those songs sometimes drift into one another, which makes for a more amniotic album experience than most artists are creating in the age of iTunes and the indomitable MP3. “Everything Is New,” for example, subtly overlaps with the lullaby lull of “The Great White Ocean.” Even as lullabies often contain darker themes, a primary theme of Swanlights seems to be death. That’s reflected in song titles themselves: the splendid, tremulous “Ghost” or “The Spirit Was Gone.” The title track, too, “Swanlights,” reminds us of the expression “swansong” and, as close attention to the album’s cover art reveals, it also refers to the story of a polar bear named “Swanlights,” which was hunted and killed for dog meat. Antony himself describes “swanlights” as a term for “the moment when a spirit jumps out of the body and turns into a violet ghost.” Appropriately, an unofficial, yet popular video for Antony’s beautiful duet with Bjork features video of two killer whales separating a gray whale calf from its mother and killing it. Simple, oddly beautiful, yet disturbing, like much of Antony’s music.

The aforementioned “Flétta” features Bjork trilling softly in Icelandic, initially against minimalist piano. She raises her volume, however, and the piano becomes more driving as Antony eventually joins her. On the even quieter title track, Antony’s voice runs backwards initially before sliding into the song’s minimalist lyrics. Any electronic touches prove consistently light, leaving the songs feeling timeless. Set against tender strings and tentative piano, “The Spirit Was Gone” also feels ancient.  It’s the most mournful, exquisite song here. Consequently, following this song with “Thank You for Your Love” evokes surprise. Here, Antony proves the most straightforward, the most upbeat, certainly the most removed from the balance of the album’s more melancholy themes. He begins with relative restraint, but gradually lifts the song into a swirling, ecstatic state. The Johnsons also sneak saxophones and trumpets into the mix here, contributing to a sound much like tempered version of a classic soul track. That song also provides a bookend to an earlier effort, “I’m in Love.” It features a gentle flapping sound as Antony sings how he’ll “kiss you like a humming bird.” If he flaps there, elsewhere Antony soars: if “Salt Silver Oxygen” doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, you should check your pulse. As Antony bursts into the enigmatic lyrics repeatedly – “she is the selective Christ” – pumping tubas join him, rising, rising, swirling, until the effect is electrifying. All of this accompanied by Nico Muhly’s impeccable string arrangements.

As the lengthiest contribution,“Christina’s Farm” closes out the album gravely, and Antony recalls the album’s opening, now with a subtle shift to the past tense: “Everything was new,” he sings. “My face and your face tenderly renewed.” Is this despair or promise? The dead end of dissipating love? Or a slender shoot of hope poking up through a crack in the hardened ground? And so ends an eerie, intimate album from an inimitable artist.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

The Metallic Year opens with a low, reverberant hum, the din of distant traffic or unseen machinery. It lasts less than a minute, but in that short time it manages to set the tone for the tracks that follow, suggesting both circulation and secrecy, the muted roar of things working away in the dark.

Imobogodom consists of Daniel Beban and Alexander Tucker, who teamed up when Beban was working the graveyard shift as a radio engineer for the BBC. Accordingly, there’s something of the dispassionately technical and spectral about the pair’s debut record. Working with the reel-to-reel tape recorders and other quickly obsolescing desiderata stored in the Beeb’s laboratories, Beban and Tucker use splices, loops, and a few precise instrumental effects to make sound into an object as well as an atmosphere, a shifting sculpture and a textured, rumbling collage. There are a few nods to conventional notions of harmony: the second track, “Unseen Ticket,” features a rolling piano riff interspersed with what sounds like a plucked banjo and a rhythmic electronic whistle. A background drone gradually builds in timbre, until something like a tidal crescendo is reached. Here, with a fusion of sparse, rustic instrumentation and synthesized rustle, Imbogodom summon an aura of idiosyncratic mystery similar to later work from Climax Golden Twins.

Elsewhere, the duo delves into more disembodied territory, using augmented chants and long stretches of monolithic drone to achieve a primitive, aboriginal vibe in the way of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s experimental stuff. The middle of the record more or less focuses on this sort of extended ambient dirge, and impatient or unadventurous listeners may begin to yearn for more visceral pastures. The Metallic Year doesn’t develop so much as drift, with only brief spotlights of piano or string harmonics illuminating the cloudy twilight. “Indosoap,” with its bubbling chimes and melancholy, clanging tones, suggests a promising tangent, echoing the radio-soundtrack work of John Baker, another BBC employee who pieced together tape in order to fashion a weird cornucopia of electronic sounds. Unfortunately, it quickly segues into what should be the album’s centerpiece, “Bvsh Hovse Ghost,” named after the building in which Beban worked as a world service radio engineer, and in which he and Tucker composed. The song’s reverberating moans and sparse clatter are appropriately supernatural, yet it ultimately fails to ignite: listening to it is like watching someone assiduously kindle sparks for six minutes without ever starting a fire. The following track , “Report From Iron Mountain,” kicks off like an alternate version of “Aumgn,” the ambient jam on Can’s Tago Mago (United Artists, 1971) that most people I know usually skip over. From there, it uses that least satisfactory of avant-garde tricks, found vocal clips, with the usual stultifying results.

Despite such inescapable (and, in work like this, somewhat obligatory) longeurs, Imbogodom usually manage to get beyond their heady concepts and intricate process to fashion a collection of nuanced, interstitial music that, if taken on its own terms, is as intriguing to listen to as it must have been to create. Which, when it comes to material as cerebral as The Metallic Year, is high praise indeed.

[The Metallic Year is released on LP only in an edition of 1,000 copies, currently still available from Thrill Jockey.]

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

Of all the singer-songwriters who came of age during the late 1960s and attained prominence in the following decade – James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon, et al – Leonard Cohen remains the most fascinating and commanding this side of Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, Cohen has sustained a multi-decade career filled with creative and spiritual exploration, which has sometimes mystified fans but nevertheless has still proven to be timeless.

The immutability of Cohen’s poetic vision, music, and personality are at the forefront of the 2010 concert album and film package Songs From the Road, which includes 12 tunes recorded at various venues during Cohen’s 2008-9 world tour, including stops in Israel, England, California, and Canada.  Songs From the Road comes on the heels of the CD+DVD release Live from London (Columbia, 2009), which focused on a single performance: the July 17, 2008, show at London’s O2 Arena. Songs from the Road was also brought out the same year as the reissue of Cohen’s 1972 concert documentary, Bird on a Wire. While all three releases highlight the singer’s onstage presence, each portrays a different aspect. Bird on a Wire follows Cohen off stage and presents him up close and intimate, away from the spotlight. Live from London takes the opposite approach, zeroing-in on a particular stage show, start to finish, and capturing the feel and flow of a distinct appearance as fans experienced it.

Songs From the Road is similar but utilizes specific songs from a variety of gigs selected by Cohen producer Ed Sanders, all of which Cohen acknowledged were very special renditions. It seems magic happened nearly every evening, since pieces are culled from 11 nights. What each demonstrates is Cohen’s ability to communicate on a personal level with every soul in the audience, no matter how large the crowd. Fans can be unforgiving, and too often music stars believe the multitudes are there for them personally and not the show. Watching Songs From the Road, it’s clear everyone is listening intently, as they firmly inhabit each moment along with Cohen while he’s humbled and considerate of his admirers.

The music is a treat for Cohen aficionados since the dozen numbers cover well-worn favorites “Bird on the Wire,” “Chelsea Hotel,” and “Suzanne,” in addition to also lesser-known nuggets “Heart with No Companion,” from Various Positions (Columbia, 1985), and “That Don’t Make It Junk,” off of Ten New Songs (Columbia, 2001).  There are modified versions as well. Cohen rearranges the verse sequence on “Suzanne” and inserts a new one in “Bird on the Wire.” Throughout, Cohen’s finely weathered voice is complemented by one of his best backing bands ever. The nine musicians – including famed keyboardist Neil Larsen and longtime collaborator/harmony vocalist Sharon Robinson – impart a warm, luminous tone shifting from light pop/jazz to country to somber folk. The uplifted arrangements – which include keyboards, drums, and pedal steel guitar, as well as harmonica, harp, and assorted Spanish stringed instruments – provide optimism to even the most dejected lyrics. An excellent example comes during a country-stippled rendering of “Heart with No Companion,” which has a slightly humorous interpretation accentuated (on the DVD version, anyway) when the backing singers do an impromptu dance during an instrumental break.

Anyone who knows Cohen has probably heard his songs countless times, but during Songs From the Road Cohen brings freshness to even the oldest material, including “Chelsea Hotel” and “Suzanne,” which have developed into narratives of nearly-mythic reflection that Cohen now dispenses with deep-rooted significance. The renewed impact of Cohen’s perceptive music is not lost on concert goers. During “Lover, Lover, Lover,” which opens up this collection, fans hold up green light sticks as they sway in time to Cohen’s melodically lilting plea for a new identity and an old romance. During “Chelsea Hotel,” where Cohen turns a one-night stand into something akin to a commemoration, the audience rises to their feet.

The 71-minutes worth of concert footage is superbly shot. It’s apparent the film crew took time to get the finest close-ups on every musician, the best angles on Cohen, and superlative color balance despite varied lighting at each venue. The visuals emphasize Cohen’s lyrics in ways that a sound recording cannot match: when Cohen drops to his knees at the beginning of “Waiting For the Miracle” in a half-prayer, half-entreaty, or how he uses subtle flicks of his finger on several songs to accent a word or syllable. There is a 21-minute DVD bonus, the mini-documentary Backstage Sketch, a slice of behind-the-scenes life which centers exclusively on band members and tour staff. One odd choice is the DVD’s optional subtitles, which are only accessible during Backstage Sketch. Anyone who wants to switch on the subtitles to read Cohen’s lyrics as he sings is out of luck. More useful is the DVD booklet, with producer Ed Sanders’ notes explaining how he chose each performance, as well as Leon Wieseltier’s essay concerning life on the road.

The review article that follows was originally written in September 2010, immediately following the third staging of the All Tomorrow’s Parties USA music festival in the Catskills region of New York, this time curated by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and ATP. Publication of Matthew Siblo’s article was postponed at the time due to technical issues with the Skyscraper site, resulting in it getting shelved until now. However, with the summer festival season on the horizon and following the recent announcement of ATP’s I’ll Be Your Mirror event this fall (September 30-October 2 in Asbury Park, NJ), we figured it was about time to dust off this excellent article and share it with the world.

An elusive charm surrounds New York’s All Tomorrow’s Parties – an American incarnation of the long-standing British boutique music festival – that’s difficult to articulate.  When describing how it distinguishes itself amongst the crowded summer festival season, ‘indie rock sleep away camp’ is popular shorthand and for good reason. Its location, Kutsher’s Country Club resort nestled in the Catskill Mountains, projects a musty, seen-better-days ambiance. With its creaky boats, menacing hallways and bygone Borscht Belt glory, Kutshers has been lampooned by every comedian whose roamed the premises, its dilapidation conjuring a Craven/Kubrick hybrid of unsettling tranquility.

Yet even with the mysteriously stained comforters, drafty windows and pick up baseball games, ATP New York, now in its third year, does not share the same woodsy, devil-may-care attitude of Bonnaroo or Burning Man. The fiercest condition attendees face is a lack of wi-fi and spotty cell phone service. Rather, ATP NY feels like a three-day (land-locked) indie rock cruise ship, an idea that may have unconsciously resonated with an industrious  promoter since one now exists: The Bruise Cruise’s maiden voyage was February 2011 featuring The Black Lips and The Vivian Girls, who, coincidentally, also played a set here Sunday night.

For a substantial sum (a weekend pass with on-site lodging runs around $500), the ATP NY crowd is treated to an abundance of passive pleasures strikingly familiar to anyone who has ever stepped aboard, or even just seen a commercial, for a luxury vessel: comedians, dance parties, game room, bingo, trivia, karaoke, and a small cinema. A new addition for 2010 was a midnight breakfast buffet, supposedly running until 7am.  Shuffleboard, though, was notably absent.

Depending upon one’s tolerance for diversions, the  itinerary is exhausting or enticing, perhaps both (note that the majority of the crowd is made up of New Yorkers, a demographic already well versed in option fatigue).This being my third time at ATP NY, I sat out trivia, finding last year’s insufferably lengthy. I repeatedly circled back to the cinema, its programming again presented by The Criterion Collection and featured Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild as well as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Like any traditional all-inclusive getaway, one is free to choose their own adventure, be it late night card games with Steve Albini [pictured below] or skipping the auxiliary frills for a 12-hour day of non-stop music.

Cynics can grouse that this type of tailor-made fun is pandering or discomforting, a circuitous line of thinking similar to avoiding a restaurant whose food is deemed too delicious. For better or worse, and I’d argue the better, ATP knows its audience and continues to thoughtfully construct an all-encompassing atmosphere conducive to a pleasant weekend. And pleasant is the operative word even if it’s unfamiliar within the festival lexicon. Twenty years ago the idea of an indie rock [insert leisure activity here] would, for some, conjure up images of drunken revelry and wanton destruction, whereas this weekend’s program requested ticket holders to behave and close the curtains if indiscretions arose. Be it the gradual taming of a subculture or the hefty ticket price, the ATP NY crowd is a well-behaved lot and the surroundings make it a far cry from the rock and roll bedlam of yore. Events, for the most part, start on time. The staff is pleasant and eager to help. Outside of a delayed performance by GZA, who missed his scheduled slot by 5 + hours in order to carpool with Raekwon (plausible conjecture on the writer’s part), things ran on schedule and did so for the advertised duration.

Now properly acquainted with its clientele after two drama-free years, security was noticeably lighter, perfunctorily guarding the entrance with dutiful looks, but unwilling to hassle or rifle through one’s cooler. Attendees are encouraged to bring in their own food and water, though mediocre-to-good food is available on site. Here, ATP NY flips the natural order of the marathon concert: instead of punishing and restricting concertgoers, it does its best to cater to them. This is why reports coming out of ATP NY focus on the festivities and performances, not first person accounts of the frustrating distances between stages or long lines for the bathroom.

For its troubles, ATP NY has developed a distinct strain of brand loyalty bordering on fanaticism. The ATP designation guarantees a cache among a certain strain of music fan unrivaled in the United States and its established reputation in the UK inspires quite a few late summer transatlantic treks to the otherwise barren Monitcello, New York. This genuine appreciation of the experience ATP provides is another factor preventing the development of a Lord of the Flies-type scenario; wreck the hotel room and fans would only be spiting themselves. Or maybe it’s because most of the people here are pretty old. A cursory glance at the grounds reveals a crowd that skews adult-ish, male, and bearded. Babies trot alongside other distinct minorities: crust punks, aging rockers, and for the first time, a sizable feminine presence. Unlike other festivals, staged on massive campgrounds with far larger crowds, the relative intimacy of Kutsher makes it easy to become acquainted with those milling about, an observation comedian Hannibal Buress relayed as a discouraging reminder of his inability to hook up.

Some of the familiar faces in the crowd happen to be musicians. ATP NY’s egalitarian nature, it boasts of an unused VIP area, can’t help but illustrate the celebrity culture that’s firmly enmeshed within most indie music festivals. Look, Thurston and Kim are getting coffee! Jim Jaramusch is shaking hands in the lobby! If it’s not supposed to be remarkable that Mark Arm from Mudhoney is standing beside you watching The Stooges, there he is. And it is striking and a bit unusual. T-Model Ford [pictured above], the weekend’s resident blues nonagenarian, acted as unofficial master of ceremonies, playing impromptu sets on a battery-powered amp and shaking more hands than a small town mayor. All of this is to say nothing about the music, which, outside of being the weekend’s main attraction, occasionally feels beside the point. On Saturday and Sunday, bands don’t start until after 1pm, providing plenty of time to eat some breakfast, take a dip in the chlorine heavy pool or even indulge in a luxury shower, a curious amenity I regretfully failed to investigate.

Though this year’s line-up provided fewer must-see events or high-wattage headliners, it made for a remarkably full three days of music with very few overlaps. The sound on the larger stage, the appropriately titled Starlight Ballroom, is widely praised for its clarity and above average sight-lines. Rightfully so. Even the semi-curious can saunter in 20 minutes late and settle right in.  On Saturday, the perennially undervalued Fuck Buttons took advantage of the room’s capacity to withstand teeth-shattering beats, outdone only by SunnO))) and Boris dispensing Altar’s squalor the following evening [pictured above]. The second stage, while not nearly as dynamic a venue as the Starlight, never suffered for the room’s lack of ambiance or muffled acoustics during the sets I did see there (The Books, Kurt Vile and Wooden Shjips’ psychedelic power point spectacular).

Whether it is the goodwill in the air, the performer’s enthusiasm or ATP’s impeccable curatorial taste, truly unwatchable sets are hard to come by. Even the handful of disappointments, Tortoise and Hope Sandoval both fell flat in my estimation, were serviceable if not entirely memorable. On the contrary, heavyweights like The Stooges [top photo] and Sonic Youth [pictured above], who both garner above average marks for simply showing up, were unexpectedly ferocious while ATP perennials Shellac came out of hibernation to flaunt its lean precision. A typically raucous performance by Toronto’s Fucked Up helped ensure the rarified air of professionalism never became stifling.

Comparing ATP NY to the gluttonous field of American music festivals might be a tad unfair. Its size and scope is radically smaller than its competitors, providing it with an autonomy to disavow corporate sponsorship (notice the absence of a Playstation-sponsored game room) while allowing it to exalt obscurities like the Sleep reunion and that collaboration between SunnO))) and Boris to headliner status.  Its ability to overtake a fully functioning resort like Kutsher’s is an unusual boon in the United States and according to many articles, a costly gamble that does not recoup on its expenditures. Rumors of its imminent demise swirl every year, some already murmuring ATP founder Barry Hogan has not yet provided explicit assurance regarding the festival’s 2011 return. This constant speculation, found in comment threads and message boards, might ultimately be the best case for its summer camp likeness; when considering the impermanence of a good thing, next year never feels close enough.

Photos: Abbey Braden