When I wrote my first tranche of 2017 highlights a couple of weeks ago, it very much focussed on music with vocalists. It also felt quite mainstream. Many of the albums that I had enjoyed were common to the various end of year lists. This was no bad thing but it did miss out a few albums that were slightly more left field but no less rewarding.
And a pretty diverse set they are too – an electronic duo from Portland, a gorgeous jazz album from a guitarist capable of jarring face-melting music when he isn’t playing in one of my favourite bands and an album featuring a colliery brass band about a fictional woman from Barnsley’s desire to explore space with beautiful artwork by a David Bowie collaborator.
First up is “Reassemblage” by Visible Cloaks. I had downloaded a bunch of music to listen to whilst we travelled Japan on our holiday in March 2017. This is the one that I have kept coming back to. It was perfect whilst travelling on the bullet train through rural Japan.
As can be said of all three of these albums, the music is best appreciated on a decent pair of headphones or hifi system. There is a sense of architectural beauty in the music created by Spencer Doran and Ryan Carlile. I didn’t know when I speculatively picked up the album but they have been heavily influenced by Japan and its music, releasing musically independently on small Japanese labels. The music also shares some DNA with the work of Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points.
The music is clearly inspired by the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto and the Yellow Magic Orchestra. It brought to my mind the soundtrack of “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence”, the 1983 Nagisa Oshima film that starred both Sakamoto and David Bowie. The former provided the soundtrack (helped by David Sylvian) and the Visible Cloaks LP uses a similar sonic styling. There are sonorous chimes and marimbas which bring to mind Kyoto temples and gardens. It isn’t just ambient background music. It has a sense of melody and movement which is almost European classical, inspired by Satie and Debussy with some Steve Reich thrown in for good measure too. The whole package holds together beautifully and has a sense of beauty that is common to all three of these albums. 2017 was a bit of tough year for me personally and this music was balm for the soul.
Here’s “Terazzo” from “Reassemblage” with a video by artist Brenna Murphy. This piece is representative of the album and Murphy’s treatment of it enhances the whole aesthetic that Visible Cloaks have created. If you are interested, you can pick a copy of the album up here.
The second selection is “Lovers” by Nels Cline. This was originally released on the legendary Blue Note jazz label in 2016 but it has been a bit hard to come by in the UK hence it falls into my 2017 highlights.
Cline has been Wilco’s guitarist since 2004. He works brilliantly with what is pretty much my favourite band, expanding their musical palette with his innovative and stellar guitar playing. He can rip your throat out with harsh electronic treatments or he can sooth your fevered brow with his beautiful acoustic work. I’ve even seen him play his guitar with an electric egg whisk! In a separate life that preceded his time in the band and still continues in parallel with Wilco, he has worked extensively in the jazz and improvisational world.
The music he creates outside of the band can, I admit, be pretty challenging. For example, whilst the double album he released as the Nels Cline Singers “Initiate” is sprawling but engaging, his take on John Coltrane’s “Interstellar Space” is frankly beyond me. That is possibly why it has taken to appreciate “Lovers”. It is very different from what he has done before and deliberately and consciously so.
The album has been in the offing for 25 years. Cline wanted to recreate the romantic mood music that he had heard his parents play in his childhood. This was music to drink to martinis to in your bachelor pad whilst seducing a Grace Kelly lookalike.
“Lovers” is Cline’s take on this. He and his arranger describe it as “minimal lush”. The selections that he has chosen for the project are wide and varied with some standards from the likes of Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers. There’s a Henry Mancini tune from the “Breakfast At Tiffanys” soundtrack. The modern edgier side is covered with a number of Cline originals plus songs by Arto Lindsay and Sonic Youth.
This is an album to be listened to whilst dipping in and out given its side. Cline has acknowledged that it works best with the songs grouped together as they would be on vinyl sides one through to four. His tone for the album is clear and pure, none of the edgy difficult trickery that his other work often features. It is almost disarmingly so as my preconceptions of what a Nels Cline LP should sound like were blown away.
The key is in Michael Leonhart’s arrangements which brings to mind the likes of Quincy Jones and Gil Evans. The band that was assembled was made up of 23 musicians plus strings and harps. It is a rich musical backdrop for Cline to perform upon.
Cline is clearly blown away by the record. He commented:
“When I heard a piece of mine called ‘Hairpin & Hatbox,’ and I heard the way Michael had orchestrated it, I thought ‘This is really happening!’,” he says. “It really sounds like a record from a certain time, yet it’s my piece. So I was surprised by my own music—and happily surprised that this was all coming out better than I could have dreamt.”
He’s toured the album in the USA and continental Europe but has not yet brought it to the UK. Given the size of the band I could see it would be cost prohibitive but let’s just hope.
In the meantime, we’ve got the LP to enjoy. From the opening swells of guitar and strings in “Introduction/Diaphonous”, the record gently draws you in. You need to leave your expectation of what a Nels Cline or Wilco sounds like at the door. There is the most heartbreakingly pure solo at the end of the track. Already there’s more musical content in one song than most albums manage across their breadth. This is grown up playing.
Here’s a couple of tracks that show the band all in the same room together recording live. First up is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed” from “The King And I” with Nels playing slide guitar. Now I’m not one for musicals (can’t abide them if I’m honest) but this is a thing of beauty when it starts about 1:20 into the video.
Here he tackles “Why Was I Born” from another musical “Sweet Adeline”. This time the treatment is more traditional with a gently swinging rhythm and twangy guitar sound.
The album gets slightly more out there as it progresses but at no point does it peel the wallpaper off. There’s a nice trailer for the LP that covers what it offers nicely with an insight into Cline’s thinking.
Set some time aside and give this a few listens. It is stunning.
The third and final selection is Hannah Peel’s “Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia”.
Before we get going on the music, just marvel at the beautiful cover art by Jonathan Barnbrook, who designed the sleeves for the final David Bowie albums from “Heathen” to “Black Star”. The design is a gorgeous heavyweight metallic sleeve which speaks brilliantly to the music it contains.
The album tells the story of an 86 years old fictional woman called Mary Casio from Barnsley in Yorkshire whose fantasy is to go into space. Peel does this via a combination of analogue synthesisers and a 29 piece colliery brass bands and it is beguiling and magical.
First performed in a church in Manchester in 2016, the album was released in the summer of 2017. Peel had finally managed to fit the recording in around her other solo commitments plus her time playing in the Magnetic North.
Opening with the spangly “Goodbye Earth”, the record sees Mary leave the planet and head through “Dusty Nebula” of the second song as she reaches cruising speed. This introduces the brass band. Having played in brass bands since she was a child, she treats the format with respect. She had the idea of blending keyboards and brass together but it finally clicked when she saw bands playing in Saddleworth in a Good Friday Festival. She sees Mary Casio as a forgotten tinkerer in a shed, inventing but not getting the recognition she deserves. The journey to Cassiopeia is what her life has been building up to and the telling of it is emotional. The record speaks of Northern England with a touch of Trevor Baylis.
It is inspired by Peel’s elderly aunt, of whom Peel said:
She is immobile and housebound. Often, when I turn up to see her, I see her at the window and even though her eyesight is failing, she is always looking upwards. I always wonder what she is daydreaming about. She was an eccentric character and the basis of Mary comes from her.
This sense of family connection is heightened by the final track “The Planet of Passed Souls” which features a recording of Peel’s grandfather recorded in a church in 1927 as a boy chorister. It feels like the record is something very close to her heart and she has captured the family bonds perfectly. The finale constantly brings me to the brink of tears.
So three differing but unique instrumental albums to end 2017 with. I’d recommend giving all three a whirl. They all require differing amounts of engagement but all ultimately deliver something that is very different to the standard “best of 2017” fair.
Thanks for all of your support in 2017 and see you on the next one.