May 2012 Record Reviews: Streamed Selections
Stereophile is not all about reviewing hi-fi, and thanks to our all-knowing and thrill-seeking Music Editor, Robert Baird, we cover exciting new releases in each monthly issue for you to consider on your hi-fi escapades. In this post, I listen to all records we reviewed available on streaming services MOG and Spotify from our May 2012 issue, provide my own two-cents, and link to the playlists from the two services. With a premium account, one can stream at 320kbps Ogg Vorbis files from Spotify, and MOG users can stream 320kbps MP3s for free!
The May 2012 Playlists were a tough one to make at first. I was having technical difficulties with MOG. Whenever I paused Carolin Widmann and Alexander Longquich’s Schubert performances, the playback buffering would freeze and restart from the beginning of the album. MOG resolved this issue internally, as it was not happening the next day, but it was nevertheless frustrating. I could not get up to pee without having to restart the Rondo in B Minor, D. 895, Op. 70. First-world problems.
This also led me to notice that MOG lacks both shuffle and repeat functions.
This is not to say Spotify is without its faults. Repeatedly during playback from the Stereophile free account, playback cut-off mid-song.
Our Spotify playlist opens with The Essential Philip Glass, a Sony release. The first song “Façade”, a hypnotic affair of strings and gentle chord changes, is followed by "Open The Kingdom (Liquid Days, Part III)", a glorious chant that straddles the line between religious conviction and parody. Glass’s stoic melodic and lyrical severity is nearly mocking but when contrasted with his stylistic, intense, and twisting flute patterns and catapulting synthesizers, it is nearly impossible to not feel the transcendental notions of humility in the eye of nature and God conjured by the piece’s drama. Co-written by Glass and David Byrne in 1985, it can be difficult to accept the nearly naïve and awe-filled acceptance of higher powers that this song implies, considering that it was written by 1980s New York hipster elite, but this sentiment best expressed by transcendental poets, philosophers, and Hudson River School painters of the late 1800s, is being revisited by Glass. Is he mocking you or does he feel it too? More importantly, do you?
Other Glass works featured on this playlist include two dances from In the Upper Room and two rather funky numbers, Glasspieces and Aknaten: Scene 1 “Funeral of Amenhotep III – Voice”.
In Glasspieces, Glass breaks down the beat through intervallic spacing rather than accenting any down or upbeat. The groove is accentuated via repetition of an entire phrase rather than relying on an individual beat: disjointed patterns patched together and repeated with fervor.
Meanwhile “Funeral of Amenhotep III – Voice” is an ancient tribal funk strikingly similar to Parliament’s “Flashlight”: the same two chords repeated over and over, group vocals, and a dirty groove.
“Point Blank” performed by Yo-Yo Ma actually features some melody, a welcome change from the constant repetition and the monotony of “Funeral”.
I included “Tolstoy Farm” from Glass’s opera Satyagraha just because of how similar it sounds to the Lost Woods song from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Finally in “Knee 5” from Einstein on the Beach, spoken word, organ, and choral vocals are layered, each telling a different story. At onset, an organ repeats the same progression alongside the counting chorus “One, two, three, four…two, three, four” calling out the beats of the irregular time signatures segued together. Laurie Anderson babbles into the left channel. This process repeats itself for nearly five minutes when suddenly, the chorus breaks, a violin starts a glorious repetitive phrase, and a sagely man narrates the story of two lovers with gusto. In this pieace and at this moment, Glass successfully captures the human emotional experience: what it feels to live on a regular rhythm or what you think is a regular rhythm, plodding along mindlessly (““One, two, three, four…two, three, four”), your mind ruminating elsewhere like Laurie Anderson’s narration, occasionally joining in the rhythm, but really just trying to bring order to the things around you, but finally, there is love. Your rhythm stops, your thoughts stop. And you are left in glory and wonder and beauty, like the solo violin. “Impossible, you say?” the sagely voice asks. Finally Glass captures the human fugue state without a shred of irony.
After approximately an hour and thirty minutes of fused shards from Glass, we move onto the record Visions by Grimes, whose wispy J-Pop inspired shrill and slabs of saw-toothed synthesizers float in her densely clouded alien atmosphere. While her high-pitched squeal can annoy, Grimes shines when creating creepy atmospheres. “Colour of Moonlight (Antiochus)” reminded me of an acid trip I had in my shower where mold spots on the ceiling turned into sludge and slowly dripped down my walls while ants crawled all over my elbows. People ask if acid flashbacks are a real thing. Kinda. Your world can briefly become “acid-ified” if the right triggers are set. Grimes will trigger acid flashbacks.
Closing out the Spotify playlist is Bonnie Raitt, a polar opposite from both Glass and Grimes. Rather than experimenting with textures and repetitive phrasing, Raitt writes great songs with captivating chord progressions and unique melodic shifts. While this record is a bit compressed, the instrumentation on this record is still a joy with the punchy and wet organ on “Right on Down the Line”, a reggae number, or Bonnie’s gritty and fat slide guitar work.
Raitt’s deceptively complex songwriting serves as a comparison point to both Glass and Grimes. While Grimes and Glass use repetition and rhythms to emphasize dramatic shifts, Raitt uses melody and chords. Is there a right answer in terms of how to make a “better” song?
The MOG playlist is certainly different from our Spotify list, opting for the subtler end of the spectrum in terms of performance. While Grimes, Glass, and Raitt can all be obvious in their intent, in the “Inflections” playlist we have delicate performances of Schubert, some sublime drones from Hildur Gudnadottir, and jazz-inspired improvisations from Dan Tepfer in his performance of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”.
On Carolin Widmann and Alexander Longquich’s performance of Schubert’s Fantasia in C, For Violin and Piano, D.934, the Andante Molto opens both sweetly and sadly, like watching children grow old. Andantino represent grace and stride alternating between supreme sadness and jubilation. Lonquich’s slight touch on the piano, his quick release from the keys then leading to greater moments of sustain following, is dynamic with nothing overstated.
Hildur Gudnadottir’s Without Sinking, reviewed by Stephen Mejias, gave me goosebumps with her skin-tingling drones. The tension in “Opaque” is visceral and human, like muscles slowly tensing in a bicep. In many ways, the drones and repetition on “Opaque” was the intense spiritual reality that Philip Glass wanted to achieve, but his instrumentations were too cold and mechanical, and his composition too methodical to reach the level of solemnity to which Gudnadottir elevates her listeners.
Rounding out the MOG side of things are Dan Tepfer’s improvisations from his recording of the “Goldberg Variations”, where he gives jazzy inflections to a Bach performance with varying levels of understated dissonance and refreshing turns of phrase.
Albums reviewed in our May issue not featured on these playlists include: Ryan Truesdell Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, our Recording of the Month; Anthony Braxton and Buell Neidlinger 2 By 2; and Julius Hemphill Dogon A.D..
To read the complete reviews on all of the albums on these playlists and in our May 2012 issue, download the digital edition here.