Robert Takahashi Crouch, "Jubilee"

I don’t know exactly what synth-like equipment Robert Takahashi Crouch uses to generate these sounds and maneuver them into place, but these three pieces are very impressive. This is an album of abstract music and it is useful for reference to have detailed context of Crouch's personal challenges and struggle as outsider, victim, self-destructor, or whatever. I read those between my first and second listens to Jubilee and it definitely helped.

Room40

The opening track "Ritual" has a tense vibe and a sense of emotional heavy lifting is achieved by huge slabs of grinding, vibrating, texture, which emerge and then blend or get overlaid like shifting tectonic plates of sound. There is a weird feeling of aggression, but this feels turned inward rather than aimed at the listener. I felt involved with the music but it also came over as both detached and claustrophobic. An odd pair of descriptors, perhaps, but I hear Jubilee not unlike how I see the doomed grey void of the Rothko Chapel: it drew me in but kept me at arms length). According to Crouch's contextual notes, the next track “I have been part of evil doing” is an acknowledgement that even the abused may do "bad" things to others which they come to regret. This shorter work, which takes it’s title from “People Like Us” a 2007 record by The Dears, has a calmer, gentler, softer, air - an excellent variation against the weightier “Ritual.” This quite lighter mood leads perfectly into “Reconciliation” which is just as beautiful. This final track begins with the recounting of a survived bridge suicide attempt in a sample from a poem by Ted Berrigan from the 1975 record The Dial-a-Poem Poets: Biting Off The Tongue of a Corpse. The placement of a human voice here is another fine contrast, and the somber tone and graceful pace of "Reconciliation" succeeds in uniting the whole album with a powerful renewal of hope and forgiveness (especially the latter). The three sections together make Jubilee a really coherent and satisfying recording, located betwixt sound installation art and electronic expressionism, with an emotional edge that gives it a tangible feeling of integrity and maybe even hope for personal growth.

This is a fine album which I would prefer to listen to again than revisit the Rothko chapel (though I love Rothko's other works). In fact I have already heard Jubilee six or seven times, despite the title being a reference to a work by the so-called anarchist poet (with a trust fund) Hakim Bey to whose writing I have a strong aversion. To call him a juvenile imitation of William Burroughs would be flattery. It is certainly possible to view him as an incoherent creep, spinning deceitful tips for weekend rebels or oozing his pitiful justifications for pedophilia like puss from an open wound. It is debatable whether his blather is worse than the illogical, pseudo-freedom loving gasbag rambles of Ron and Rand Paul when they butter-up their constituents with easily-decoded defenses of racism. I personally can't stomach a message of forgiveness from any of them and the fact that Andrei Codrescu got suckered into feting Bey also does nothing for my digestion. Thankfully all this is merely a matter of opinion, perhaps worthless, certainly available free on the internet as is the entirety of Bey's writing. Crouch's record is worth more.

sounds available here

 

't Geruis, "Various Thoughts and Places"

cover image

Released back in the spring, this debut full-length from cryptically named Belgian composer 't Geruis has gradually blossomed into my favorite Lost Tribe Sound release not made by William Ryan Fritch or Andy Cartwright. According to the composer, Various Thoughts and Places is "an exercise in finding the balance between beauty and what is broken," which is a concise and poetic way of saying that this album shares a healthy amount of common ground with the more sublime side of tape loop artists such as Craig Tattersall and Andrew Hargreaves. Admittedly, few stylistic niches scream "Anthony D'Amico will like this” more than that one, but this album is also unexpectedly psychotropic and otherworldly in a way that is quite unique to 't Geruis. My best stab at describing that vision is that Various Thoughts and Places sounds like it was crafted from a handful of fragments of gorgeous and impressionistic-leaning classical albums and enhanced with strangled animal-like howls (I think there may also be a cannibalized pop song that I cannot place lurking in there too). Moreover, the execution is absolutely transcendent. Anyone looking for a slow-burning and immersive phantasmagoria of hissing loops and tenderly bittersweet melodies can basically begin and end their search here, as it is damn near impossible to imagine anyone surpassing this modest masterpiece once it hits its stride.

Lost Tribe Sound

The opening "Tree Weeping (Lacrima)" nicely sets the gently hallucinatory mood with a one-finger piano melody wandering through a landscape of subtle string drones, crackle, and hiss before blossoming into a lovely and bittersweet violin melody. In a rough sense, both the opener and the album as a whole could be described as "classical-adjacent," as the primary building blocks are simple piano and string melodies, but the album starts to feel considerably more unique and inspired with the third piece ("Een Deur Ergens In De Vallei"), as the full depth of 't Geruis's vision starts to quietly reveal itself. It evokes a flickering, slow motion silent film accompanied by a crackling supernatural Victrola that imbues every sound with a dreamlike melancholia that feels gnawed, vulnerable, and lovesick. From that point onward, the album settles into a sustained run of absolutely beautiful pieces that makes it clear that 't Geruis is probably some kind of textural genius/master loop architect. On "Where Birds Resonate," for example, a simple plinking melody gradually starts tumbling into itself while a cricket-like textural backdrop hypnotically pulses and pans in see-sawing fashion, while "Le Cadeau d'Alice" calls to mind the gossamer folktronica of early Colleen enhanced with a corroded-sounding bass loop that feels half "industrial" and half "slowly heaving cosmic exhalation."

Elsewhere, "Rendit l'Âme" uses a simple, pretty piano loop as the backdrop from a gnarled, warbling melody that sounds like it is struggling to emerge from the spirit realm. There is a definite "séance" vibe to the piece, but it also feels more visceral than that, as if 't Geruis built a homemade microphone that could pick up the sadness of eternity and that it manifested itself as a loop of tape-ravaged, heartbroken moans. Despite that, the piece and the album are not particularly dark one on their surface, as the central focus is almost always on light, lovely melodies rather than brooding atmospheres—the melodies just happen to be corroded, crackling, and hiss-chewed to such a degree that they always feel haunted and otherworldly. I suppose I would be remiss if I did not also mention that "Wanneer Alles Even Stil Staat" and "De Waarnemer" are highlights as well, but the album feels like a series of elegant variations on the same themes and its true magic lies in the sustained and beautiful spell that it casts as a whole. At its best, Various Thoughts and Places scratches roughly the same itch as some other contemporary tape music melancholia luminaries (always welcome territory), yet it also feels like it is being somehow channeled from an earlier century, which is quite a neat trick (and a tough illusion to sustain). While it admittedly took me a few listens before the full beauty of 't Geruis's vision began to fully bleed into my consciousness, I certainly got there eventually and this has since become one of my favorite releases of the year.

Samples can be found here.

Fluxion, "Parallel Moves"

cover imageAs far as I am concerned, Konstantinos Soublis earned a lifetime pass as dub techno royalty with his early Chain Reaction work (the likes of which enjoyed a well-deserved renaissance when Type reissued Vibrant Forms in 2013). Much like fellow visionary Moritz von Oswald, however, Soublis has a creatively restless spirit that has led him in a number of different directions since that scene's late '90s/early '00s golden age came to an end. While I cannot say that I have been a fan of all of Fluxion's various detours over the years, Soublis's unpredictably hit-or-miss discography has continued to surprise me with a legitimate hit every few years. In fact, Fluxion has been in unusually fine form recently and that upswing seems to have culminated in this album, which is unexpectedly one of the most uniformly strong and inspired releases in the project's entire oeuvre. Part of that success is likely due to Soublis's decision to take his vision in a more intimate and inwardly inspired direction (the album was inspired by "real life moments, people, expectations, joy, dreams and disappointments"), but the primary appeal of Parallel Moves is that his new inspirations manifested themselves in quite a killer batch of unusually sensual, soulful, and melodic songs. To my ears, this is a very strong contender for the best Fluxion album ever released.

Vibrant Music

At its core, Parallel Moves still very much feels like a Fluxion album, as the usual dub techno elements are all in place (propulsive grooves, dub-wise production shadings, a fondness for minimalism, and a warm, repeating pulse), but it also feels elevated in a way that is difficult to pin down. I have seen it described as jazz-tinged and "almost balearic," however, and that seems reasonably accurate: it certainly feels breezy and tropical at times, yet is also feels like a lot of other things as well. The deeper transformation seems to lie in the execution rather than the style, as the best songs feel organic, nuanced, and casually effortless in the best way possible. For example, the album’s zenith is "Orange Sky," which is essentially just a stomping, off-kilter beat, a simple two-chord pulse, and some warm, bleary drones, yet the magic lies in the details and the dynamics (finger snaps, flickers of spectral guitar, etc.). Moreover, Soublis somehow makes it all feel effortless. It feels a bit like the heavily reggae-influenced dub techno of Rhythm & Sound, yet this is one of the rare instances where someone can match that celebrated project in quality, as Soublis steers that aesthetic into more sun-dappled territory with impressive lightness of touch and no loss of depth.

The title piece is even closer to the classic R&S sound at first, but the austere reggae groove proves to be merely the foundation for a smokily beautiful and soulful electric piano melody. And it only gets better from there, as an echoey dub breakdown steadily builds into a thumping and vaguely noirish finale. Elsewhere, "Correlation" beautifully transforms a warmly bittersweet synth reverie into a surprisingly sensual and thumping house banger, while "In Limbo" takes that four-on-the-floor kick drum into neon-lit noir-jazz territory (if Nicolas Winding Refn made a hyper-stylized Raymond Chandler adaptation with lots of slow-motion night driving scenes, this would absolutely be the appropriate soundtrack). "Blue and Yellow" is another highlight, as what feels like an improvised vamp steadily evolves into a nuanced, shapeshifting juggernaut that seems like it would have only continued to get better and better if it had been allowed to extend for the entire album. Naturally, there are plenty of other excellent grooves and delightful stylistic twists among the remaining pieces, as Soublis rarely (if ever) misses the mark here. More than that, however, he regularly blows up the goddamn mark with a seemingly supernatural gift for subtly incorporating new elements at precisely the right time to make a song catch fire. I have had this album in heavy rotation for months and I have yet to start growing tired of it, as there is a seemingly endless host of details and shadings to newly appreciate with each listen. Parallel Moves is instantly canonical dub techno.

Samples can be found here.

Old Saw, "Country Tropics"

cover imageThis is the debut album from a "network of New England string pluckers, organ drivers and bell ringers" centered around composer/pedal steel guitarist Henry Birdsey. This is my first real encounter with Birdsey's work, though I was vaguely aware of his duo Tongue Depressor with Crazy Doberman's Zach Rowdan. While I do not get the usual otherworldly "Just Intonation" vibe from Country Tropics' buzzing and layered harmonies, unconventional tunings have historically been a central theme in Birdsey's work, so that may be an element here too. Then again, Old Saw seems like a very different project than Birdsey's usual fare in one very significant way, as Country Tropics is billed as a unique strain of devotional music. I believe it is a secular one, however, as the album description claims "Old Saw points our gaze downward towards the terrafirma unconsidered, and guides our hands into the dirt" rather than towards a "fantastical, celestial vision of understanding." Regardless of their inspirations, Old Saw is an ensemble like no other, approximating a rustic drone or free folk ensemble like Pelt or Vibracathedral Orchestra in an especially warm and transcendent mood (albeit not so warm and transcendent as to preclude some welcome sharp edges, shadows of dissonance, and heavy buzzing strings). This is quite an excellent and unique album.

Lobby Art

Aside from the strangely beautiful and poetic cover art of a dirt bike soaring over the clouds, Country Tropics is the sort of album that could easily be mistaken for an old private press release from a rural religious commune. I would definitely find it challenging to guess where that commune was located, however, as the vibe feels like a quaint, historic small New England town was dropped onto a sundappled Pacific coast. Regardless of where that hypothetical commune is based, Old Saw seem to be channeling something beautiful and magical in a way that is quite singular, as these four drone reveries feel simultaneously dreamlike, homespun, and earthy. Knowing that Birdsey is a serious avant-garde composer helps explain how the album ultimately turned out so texturally compelling and languorously hallucinatory, but it also feels like he consciously set out to make something pure, semi-traditional, and organically collaborative. This is kind of a "best of both worlds" situation, as the compositions themselves are simple, beautiful, and devoid of self-conscious artiness, yet they definitely sound like they were ultimately produced by someone who knows how to craft richly textured and harmonically interesting sound art.

Each of the four pieces is quite lovely in its own way, but the first two feel like the most gorgeous incarnations of Old Saw's devotional dreamscapes of bygone Americana. I honestly do not know how the ensemble conjured the buzzing backing drones for the opening "Dead Creek Drawl," as none of the instruments I think I hear (shruti box, tampura) are listed in the credits, but it all certainly sounds great nonetheless. As the piece unfolds, however, the gently churning and buzzing acoustic drones are subtly enhanced with rippling banjo arpeggios, woozily sliding pedal steel, moaning strings, and fleeting glimpses of a very cool guitar motif. The piece has a very unhurried and meditative feel that suits it well, as I do not feel like Old Saw are headed toward a destination so much as fading in and out of focus from a place of sublime bliss that I am quite content to linger in. "The Mechanical Bull at Our Lady of the Valley" initially has a more propulsive feel due to Harper Reed's rapidly rippling nylon string arpeggios, but otherwise sticks to roughly the same territory as its predecessor until some inspired new elements creep into the reverie, as it feels like someone starts prying the top off a Pandora's Box of subtle and warm psych textures (flickers of backwards melodies, twinkling and clanging bells, etc.). The remaining two pieces are cut from roughly the same cloth, which is just fine by me, as the real magic of Country Tropics is that Old Saw manage to cast and sustain a mesmerizing and immersive spell of soulful, subtly hallucinatory tranquility for nearly forty minutes. This is a quiet and modest masterpiece—the kind of album that I wish I could live inside.

Samples can be found here.

Body/Dilloway/Head

cover imagePast experience has taught me not to get too excited about promising-sounding collaborations between great artists, but the allure of this particular project was admittedly damn hard to resist: Body/Head is consistently the most provocative and intense of Sonic Youth's descendants and Aaron Dilloway seems absolutely incapable of releasing a disappointing album these days. Still, there is never any way to predict which threads will assert their dominance when distinctive visions collide, so there are a number of possible shapes that this album could have taken. To my ears, it is Dilloway's broken, murky, and obsessively looping aesthetic that mostly steers the ship, but the balance between the three artists is sufficiently unpredictable and shifting to make this trio feel like something quite different from either Dilloway's solo work or past Body/Head releases. Matt Krefting already did a fine job of summarizing the trio's shared vision with "over and over one gets the sense that the music is trying to wake itself from a dream," but it is also more than that, as this trio have a real knack for slowly transforming gnarled and challenging introductory themes into unexpected passages of sublime beauty.

Three Lobed

The album is comprised of two longform pieces separated by a shorter piece ("Goin' Down") and each one feels like a different direction or even an entirely different band. In fact, the album art does a remarkably great job at conveying what the music is like: a handful of recognizable elements chopped up and re-assembled into a nearly unrecognizable abstraction. The opening "Body/Erase" is the most "Dilloway" of the three songs, as it features a long, slow fade in of subtly oscillating drone and warped tape warbles that feel like an unsettling dream where conversations are slowed and smeared into something inscrutable and vaguely sinister. Gradually, the gnarled tape loop fragment become more frequent and violent, blossoming into a jabbering, splattering phantasmagoria that starts to become even more unhinged shortly after the nine-minute mark with the appearance of an ugly repeating buzz and an insistent pedal tone from Nace's guitar. Once all the elements are in place, "Body/Erase" becomes a massive, seething juggernaut of layered cacophony.

In the wake of that slow-burning tour de force, some more recognizable and expected elements surface with "Goin' Down," which initially sounds like a classic Sonic Youth single that has been stretched and deconstructed into abstraction. I dig the repeating howl of warbling guitar noise, but the real payoff is the squelching, wobbly, and ruined reverie of the final minute. The album then ends with its wildest, most go-for-broke piece, as the shapeshifting 13-minute epic "Secret Cuts" alternately sounds like the slow boinging of a massive cosmic spring, a noise guitar show frozen in looping suspended animation, and the hushed voice of an angel speaking from inside my head ("do you want?" is the only phrase that I can reliably make out). Some of the transitions between segments can be a little jarring (purposely, I presume), but all of the segments themselves are compelling and lead to a lovely set piece of warm, swelling drones and flickering voice fragments. It is damn lovely while it lasts, but an earlier noise guitar motif unexpectedly claws its way back from the grave to end the piece on an ugly, gnarled note. I cannot say that I am particularly surprised that Nace and Gordon were so game to let Dilloway drag their vision through a meat grinder or that the end result was so good, yet I was legitimately caught off guard by the ephemeral oases of beauty that occasionally surface. While this can admittedly be a prickly, difficult, and potentially room-clearing album at times, it is also a singular and unusually memorable release for all involved (no mean feat, given the massive, highlight-filled discography of the trio).

Samples can be found here.

Emeka Ogboh, "Beyond the Yellow Haze"

cover imageThis bombshell release is the first album from Nigerian sound and installation artist Emeka Ogboh, but it sounds like the assured work of killer dub techno producer at the height of their powers. On its surface, Beyond The Yellow Haze admittedly (and probably unintentionally) shares a lot of common ground with prime Muslimgauze, as a central theme of Ogboh's art is his passion for capturing the ambient city sounds of Lagos. Consequently, these five pieces are nicely enhanced with layers of street noise, conversations, and passing snatches of melody, yet Beyond The Yellow Haze is primarily a great album because Ogboh is a goddamn wizard at crafting heavy, shape-shifting grooves with elegant dubwise percussion flourishes. I suppose the beats also creep into Muslimgauze territory at times, as Ogboh is similarly quite fond of slow and hypnotic grooves flavored with African and Arabic rhythms, yet the two artists differ dramatically when it comes to focus and exacting execution (among other things), as nearly every song here is a flawless diamond of immersively layered textures, slow-burning dynamic transformation, and crunching physicality. This is probably the strongest beat-driven album that I have heard all year, debut or otherwise.

A-Ton/Ostgut Ton

This is technically a reissue, as the album first surfaced as a limited vinyl release of 150 hand-numbered copies as part of Ogboh's 2018 exhibition at Galerie Imane Farès in Paris. I suspect very few people outside the visual art world noticed or heard that initial release, however, so it is a minor miracle that Berlin's influential Ostgut Ton picked up the baton to give Beyond The Yellow Haze a well-deserved second chance to make an impact three years later. It certainly made an impact on me within its first minute, as "Lekki Aiah Freeway" is a feast of deep dubby grooves, stuttering woodblock flourishes, and dreamlike rave pads. The ghostly synth bits quite beautiful and unexpected, but they are also basically just icing on an already perfect cake: I could listen to Ogboh build and dismantle a beat all goddamn day.

Unsurprisingly, an opening salvo that resembles a giant woodpecker stomping his way Godzilla-style through crowded Lagos streets on his way to the club is quite hard to top, yet Ogboh nevertheless manages to surpass that killer opener at least once with "Everydaywehustlin" (and arguably a second time with the more ambient-inspired "Palm Groove").  In a rough sense, "Everydaywehustlin" is quite similar to "Lekki Aiah Freeway," but with the beautiful synth pads mostly swapped out for layers of street noise and voices. As far as I am concerned, however, the salient point is that "Everydaywehustlin" is a monster groove for the ages, as it sounds like a great Muslimgauze album and a chopped & screwed Notorious B.I.G. tape crash landed in the middle of a busy Lagos street (and the woodpecker is back too). It is, quite simply, an endlessly shifting juggernaut of industrial-damaged heavy dub brilliance. The album's other beat-driven piece ("Danfo Mellow") does not quite hit as hard for me, as a gently burbling synth motif is entrusted with a bit too much heavy lifting, but it may be a good entry point for those looking for a bit melody in the balance. The album's final major piece, "Palm Grove," unexpectedly abandons drums entirely in favor of bleary, rainswept ambiance that evokes a sensual, hallucinatory, and neon-soaked tour of late-night Lagos streets experienced through the window of a slow-moving cab. Remarkably, even the extremely brief "Outro" that concludes album is kind of great, as Ogboh manages to turn 90 seconds of finger bells and distant street noise into an immersive and gently psychotropic reverie. To my ears, this album is at worst two or three instant classics in the span of just five songs, but it comes extremely damn close to being a wall-to-wall tour de force.

Samples can be found here.

Robert Ashley, "eL/Aficionado"

Robert Ashley’s enigmatic opera of interrogation was frequently performed between 1987 and 1993, and a previous recording was released on Lovely Music in 1994. The cast of a 2021 production in Roulette, Brooklyn, are featured on this new rendition, with Kayleigh Butcher, as The Agent, and Brian McCorkle, Bonnie Lander, Paul Pinto as Interrogators #1, 2, and 3. Above and beyond Ashley’s melodies, each participant singer is assigned their own distinct pitch around which they improvise vocal inflections to portray intent and meaning. eL/Aficionado displays the compelling depth of Ashley’s dazzlingly creativity, which is somewhere on a line leading from Edward Hopper and Samuel Beckett to Laurie Anderson and Len Jenkin.

Lovely

This piece has a clarity of enunciation and easy pace (Ashley favored 79 beats per minute) which gives it a hypnotic and relaxed feel. Yet it is also a work of complexity and intensity which sustains interest over repeated listens. I recommend a least four or five o really get into it. I love the way the language of personal ads and descriptions of real estate heighten the atmosphere of double meaning. These could be coded assignments, perhaps target subjects for The Agent detailing their locations and plans of their residences to aid home invasion, snooping, or worse. The singing and narration are mostly not easily identified as operatic in the classic sense, but they establish the necessary mood. The use of synths adds to the sense of a Kafkaesque trial in a dream landscape. I am reminded of an excellent presentation by Matmos of Ashley’s Private Lives at a festival in Knoxville in 2017, where I nodded off briefly at one point but awoke quite confident that, given the use of repetition and the skillfully disguised material, I had not missed a vital clue. The hypnotic mood of eL/Aficionado is similar; as meaning goes in and out of focus, reassuring voices become sinister, and whispers mislead or give helpful prompts. Yet repeat listens offer up some real jewels, for example the meaning (in The Agent’s department) of the word “brother” and the reference to a “time displacement exercise” and information which must be taken "to the grave." Part gumshoe exit interview, part meditation on the way artists interpret (and alter) their surroundings, part comment on the universality of double lives, part snapshot of the shifting reliability of memory, part critique of society as spectacle; eL/Aficionado is as mysterious and life-enhancing as spending purgatory unable to leave the grounds of the Getty museum because you lost your companion and forgot where you parked.

samples available here

Phương Tâm: Magical Nights – Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul (1964-1966)

cover imageThis collection, which I hereby deem an instant Sublime Frequencies classic, is devoted entirely to the long-unheard and elusive discography of one of the most magnetic singers of Saigon's "golden music" age. Part of the reason why Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m's work has languished in undeserved semi-obscurity is grimly predictable, as most of her music was destroyed during Vietnam's great purge of American-influenced culture in 1975, but T√¢m also abruptly ended her singing career in her prime to pursue forbidden love instead (an acceptably cool reason, I feel). According to her daughter Hannah H√†, Phương Tâm remained something of a highly localized karaoke supernova in the years since her stardom days, but H√† did not discover how truly famous her mom actually was until late 2019. One thing led to another and H√† found Mark Gergis after discovering his beloved Saigon Rock and Soul compilation. Gergis and a handful of like-minded crate-digging luminaries then set about tracking down as much of Ph∆∞∆°ng T√¢m's rare and often mistakenly attributed oeuvre as they could find, much of which even T√¢m herself had not heard since the recording sessions. While the journey to this album is undeniably a fascinating and heart-warming one, the best part is the songs themselves, as this album is a treasure trove of fun, soulful, and sexy genre-blurring gems from the golden age of swinging Saigon nightlife. Moreover, I was legitimately gobsmacked to learn that these songs were all recorded by the same person in such a brief span, as T√¢m channels everything from Brenda Lee to Ella Fitzgerald to the kind of impossibly cool, sexy, and ahead-of-their-time numbers that feel like would-be highlights from Lux Interior and Poison Ivy‚Äôs oft-anthologized record collection.

Sublime Frequencies

Fittingly, the story of Phương Tâm's rise to stardom is nearly as strange and improbable as the story of this compilation, as her passion for music was first ignited by the ambient sounds of the courtyard where she played with friends as a child ("from one particular house, all sorts of American music seeped into the courtyard"). Once Tâm was thusly "introduced to a new world beyond traditional Vietnamese music," she proved to be a natural at assimilating the rapidly evolving cultural forces of the era ("musical trends with wild, ephemeral dance crazes were being thought up weekly; the twist, hully gully, the mashed potato – none of them a problem for Phương Tâm."). I dearly hope the same can someday be said of me. Fatefully, Tâm entered a singing competition at age 16 and soon became a fixture at various legendary Saigon nightclubs (often performing at multiple venues in a single night). Unsurprisingly, she quickly caught the attention of all of Saigon's most influential record labels and composers, as she was a "commanding presence" as well as "one of the very first singers to perform and record rock and roll." Demand for Tâm was such that she recorded "almost 30 known tracks" between 1964 and 1966 that seemed to effortlessly channel every fun twist- or rockabilly-esque trend of the time. Most (or all) of those hits are here and they are invariably a delight, yet the real magic of Magical Nights is the handful of less "bubblegum" pieces that feel like a killer surf band, a Bollywood dance party, a James Dean-style teen exploitation film, and a sensuous cabaret chanteuse all blurred together in a perfect cocktail of soulful, kitschy, and hip-shaking fun. One such gem ("Có Nhớ Đêm Nào") kicks off the album in style, but that is only the first of many bombshells to come. My other personal favorites are currently the slinky-sounding "Ngày Phép Của Lính" and the rolling lurch of "Anh Đâu Em Đó," but there is also an extremely generous helping of second-tier highlights destined to keep growing on me, as Tâm was almost always backed by musicians who knew how to whip up a hot groove. This entire album is pure pop bliss.

Samples can be found here.

Steph Kretowicz, "I hate it here"

cover imageThis unique debut album is definitely one of the year's most pleasant surprises, as art/music journalist Kretowicz assembled a bevy of talented collaborators to craft a poignant and subtly hallucinatory tour de force of autofiction-based sound art. While some of the people involved (Mica Levi, Tirzah, etc.) certainly enhance the initial allure of I hate it here, it is a great challenge to focus on anything other than Kretowicz's sardonic, time-bending narrative as soon as she opens her mouth and things gets rolling. Thematically, the album is billed as a "psychedelic audio narrative" that "wanders through a layered and multi-dimensional notion of existence as suffering," which mostly feels apt, yet it fails to convey how truly charming and blackly funny wandering through that notion with Kretowicz can be. More importantly, this is the rare spoken word album that remains compelling beyond the first listen, as the combination of Kretowicz's deadpan, accented voice and the sound collage talents of felicita & Ben Babbitt make it an absorbing delight long after the meaning and impact of Kretowicz's words dissipate into more abstract and nuanced pleasures like texture and feeling. To my ears, this is one of the most inspired, immersive, and memorable albums of the year.

CURL

The album has the feel of a radio play, as it is centered primarily upon Kretowicz's recounting of a few significant events from her life, but her monologue is fleshed out with other voices, subtle ambient colorings, field recordings, and several surreal intrusions from scene-appropriate songs (such as Polish disco, for example). There is also a bittersweetly lovely piano theme that recurs at key moments throughout the piece. At its core, however, the album is essentially a handful of interwoven narrative threads united by the theme of suffering: an infected tattoo, an uncomfortable van trip to Poland, a desperate visit to a shaman, and the final days and funeral of Kretowicz's grandmother. Given that dark theme, a deep current of sadness, disconnection, and restlessness certainly runs throughout the album, yet Kretowicz wraps her heartwrenching memories in such a colorful, digression-filled, and bleakly amusing storytelling aesthetic that it all feels intimate, transcendent, and beautiful rather than uncomfortably sad. For example, a brief and incomplete list of my favorite moments includes: the tale of the aforementioned tattoo, a discussion of how Polish truck drivers keep themselves entertained, a morbid rumination interrupted with strong opinions about pants, Kretowicz's thoughts during a psychotropic shamanic ritual, and a treasured memory of the fleeting happiness she once experienced at a PJ Harvey concert. While a couple of the album's smeared stabs at psychedelia do not quite hit the mark for me, Kretowicz herself is an unwaveringly interesting and entertaining monologist and the album is masterfully edited and paced from start to finish. Moreover, it all builds up to quite an emotional wallop of an ending, but so far that ending has not been too heavy to deter me from immediately starting the album over again as soon as it ends. My gut tells me that I hate it here is an instant classic.

Samples can be found here.

Myxomy

cover imageThis is one of those rare collaborations in which I had absolutely no idea what kind of album to expect, as the only obvious common ground this duo shares is a strong interest in sound design, though it is probably safe to say they are both drawn to unusual projects too given their past involvement with Rắn Cạp ĐuôI Collective. Now that I have heard Myxomy, however, I am faced with the fresh challenge of describing a vision that is elusively shapeshifting, kaleidoscopic, and wrong-footing from start to finish. I suppose the most consistent aesthetic is something akin to "half-deconstructed/half-maximalist outsider R&B" or some similarly heretofore nonexistent genre, but the real theme seems to exclusively be one of endless mutation. In fact, the idea for the collaboration originally began with James Ginzburg sending Ziúr some beats from his early techno days, which triggered a dueling exchange of raw material reworkings that rapidly escalated and morphed until the "duo's fragmented sketches and scribbles took on new life" that "developed into anxious, hybridized pop jewels." To be fair, Myxomy is admittedly poppier than I ever would have anticipated, but this project is waaaaay too weird, fractured, and unpredictable to ever be mistaken for actual pop (jewels or otherwise). It mostly feels more like a handful of hooks wandering through a collapsed post-industrial landscape in search of a proper home. I am not sure any of them ever quite found one (seems doubtful), but some of these experiments are impressively visceral and unique in their own right (even if they can sometimes be a real challenge to digest).

Subtext

I suspect the title of the opening "Sloppy Attempt" provides some self-deprecating insight into the mindset that Ginzburg and Zi√∫r brought to the Myxomy vision, as it seems like the pair genuinely delighted in breaking and stretching each other's work and all other concerns were purely secondary. That is not intended as a disparagement, but the primary pleasures of this album are definitely in the vein of "this is a playground where songs convulse and break in interesting ways" rather than "check out all these hot new singles we wrote." Helpfully, "Sloppy Attempt" is also one of the more representative pieces on the album, as a blooping synth hook seems to keep wandering off course rather than locking into a groove. Nevertheless, a groove eventually does take shape (albeit fitfully) and the piece blossoms into a seething and moody song of sorts. In the rare moments where the beat does not collapse and the bass line is allowed to unfold naturally, it is not hard to see the ghost of a much catchier song lurking inside it all, but the overall impression is one of a remixer purposely stretching and pushing that hapless piece past its breaking point to see what happens.

The following “A Little Opaque” takes a similar trajectory, as a squirming and glistening synth pile-up sluggishly lurches forward along with spectral vocals and thudding, slow-motion drums. Naturally, every time it threatens to catch fire, it quickly gets pulled apart, ravaged by static, smeared, or broken in some way. "Make self-sabotage an art form" definitely seems to have been a guiding principle here. That said, the following three-song run can be quite impressive at times. The hot streak begins with "In and until," which sounds like a howling, junkyard percussion variation upon the massive rattling metal strings of Ginzburg's last solo album (Crystallise, A Frozen Eye). Next, "It is it everything" unleashes an absolutely killer motif that sounds like a haunted, lysergically smeared vibraphone enhanced with lots of wonderfully clattering and ringing metallic textures. It is a bit too sizzling and erratic to make a strong single though, which seems like a real missed opportunity. In fact, I strongly feel it deserves its own remix album (collaborative cannibalization is in Myxomy's DNA, after all). Elsewhere, the heavy industrial crunch of the following "Toxin Out" admittedly feels closer to earthquake than groove, but it is damn hard not to be charmed by the rousing chorus of "eat the rich and throw up on the fuckbois." The closing "Nuance Unseen" (another self-deprecating title) is also quite enjoyable in a seething/clattering/industrial-damaged R&B way and makes some more fine use of howling violin. If someone threatened to kill me if I did not choose a single for this album, I would probably pick that one. For the most part, however, Myxomy's pleasures lie primarily in hearing Ginzburg and Ziúr inventively mangle each other's work and veer quite far off course from their expected terrain (though fans of Ben Frost-style seismic intensity will likely find much to appreciate in that regard too).

Samples can be found here.