Tuesday, July 1, 2014

REVIEW: DAMON BUXTON - Visitations



Visitations
Many Miles Music

Damon Buxton vexes me as a critic even while he delights me as a listener on his latest album. Visitations. The artist's musical gifts and talent, spread abundantly throughout the recording, unveil themselves as richer and more complex with every playing (and I have played the album well over ten times before writing this review), but it is that same ten-plus playings that serves as evidence that something confounds the usually adroit writer in me. Time after time I tried, as a critic, to draw a bead on how to describe this man's music, but time and time again I was stuck with how to convey, in my usual loquacious manner, what his music was "like," so that you, the music-buying customer, would know whether it would be to your liking. At this point in time, I have surrendered to that goal, and will allow my critic to just sit back and enjoy the ride - and a fascinating ride it is on Visitations.

Before delving into some detailed words on individual tracks on the CD, I want to comment on the album artwork and the title. The two beautiful women, draped in white, are, I assume, meant to convey visitations by spirits (or at least that is my interpretation), yet the album liner notes are devoid of overt spirituality or "new agey-ness" and the music certainly doesn’t conjure images of angels or cosmic entities. I bring this up mostly to encourage you, the potential buyer of the album, to look past these images if they had prejudiced you to think this was going to be sweet, syrupy, saccharine-laced music. The music on Visitations is many things but is never syrupy or saccharine. With that said, let's look at the music itself.

A perpendicular comparison could be made to Will Ackerman's music, but that would be wrong because Buxton's music has more going on than Ackerman's more tone-poem, impressionistic approach. After much soul-searching the best phrase I can use to encapsulate Buxton's modus operandi is the introduction of dramatic tension in his pieces. Allow me to quote from an online source which describes it thusly: "Pleasurable excitement and anticipation regarding an outcome, such as the ending of a mystery novel." This is what I hear during the second track, "The Constancy of Angels (for Ash)" especially when Buxton changes key two thirds of the way through the track…there is a feeling of anticipation…of mystery…of unknowingness. It's so deliciously anticipatory. The track perfectly captures the uniqueness of Buxton's allure, the knowledge that something other than the usual may occur as he unfurls his melodies which revolve around what I refer to as circular refrains. "Rain" pleasantly assaults the listener with a cascading fast tempo downpour of notes, played with such dexterity that you are left wishing you could see Buxton play it live for the sheer joy of witnessing how his fingers could deftly navigate the strings and frets so effortlessly. The relative calm of "Sauternes" comes across as a delicious lull. The piece is not just sedate but relatively serene in its quasi-Mediterranean musings, like an aural aperitif. The title track features a wistful note progression that is so ear pleasing you want to luxuriate in it, enjoying its midtempo gracefulness, and then that "unexpected happens" when a series of upper register notes appears as if to say "yes, but…" "Transcontinental" conveys a sensation of travel with its tempo and its melody, while the playfulness of "Lilia Lani" (sounding almost as if it were played on a mandolin) speculates on a scene of unabashed frivolity. "Maledictions" re-introduces that feeling of tension, of something under the surface that seems to occupy a fair amount of Buxton's muse. It's not darkness, or melancholy, nor anything particularly sinister, but instead the "expectation" of the unknown. Call it "delicious anticipation" if you will. However, there is no need to wait for the payoff with Damon Buxton's guitar playing - the reward is right there in the listening, the appreciation of the nuance, the timing, the attention to detail, the juxtaposition of economy (few notes when called for) with a flurry of frenetic spell-binding technique. By the time the listener reaches the end of the "visitation" on the closing track, "Between These Clouds," she or he will feel both sated yet also eager to further explore the CD's fourteen tracks time and time again, peeking into each one's crannies, seeking that moment when magic happens (e.g. 4:30 on "The Constancy of Angels"); that instant when Buxton finds a musical "sixth gear" and the listener suddenly experiences a flood of euphoria thinking "Oh yes…that's it."

Damon Buxton is a rare, unique visionary on the acoustic guitar. Visitations (meticulously engineered, mixed and mastered by Corin Nelsen) is one of the best solo acoustic guitar releases I've heard this decade, and I believe I have yet to plumb its depths and find all it has to offer. It's a visionary effort by a consummate artist.

The album is available from bandcamp and iTunes.

Monday, April 21, 2014

REVIEW: JOSEFINE AND TRINE OPSAHL - Leaving My Silent Empty House



JOSEFINE AND TRINE OPSAHL
Leaving My Silent Empty House
Heart to Heart Records (2008)
 
So many times the expression "the apple never falls far from the tree" has a negative connotation, but in the case of mother and daughter, Trine and Josefine Opsahl, the saying instead connotes that talent does indeed run in the family. No, check that - abundant talent runs in the family. Harpist Trine and cellist (and daughter) Josefine come together on Leaving My Silent Empty House and, to be blunt, this album blew me away. I was already wowed by Trine's Somewhere in a Hidden Memory (2012), which for me is one of the finest harp recordings ever released (if you think that's hyperbole, you haven't listened to it yet - trust me). While this album was recorded several years prior to Somewhere in…, Trine obviously had already refined her harp playing to an incredibly nuanced and beautiful level. Cellist Josefine was only 16 when this album was recorded which, when you hear her play, will likely astound you (it sure did me). Like I wrote above, "apple…not far…tree…" Oh yes, so true.

The album's title gives more than a hint of the mood present on many of the eleven tracks, although truth be told, with cello and harp as the instruments, one would expect a more low key, impressionistic, and sometimes somber affair. However, there are moments here when the mood is less melancholic and is, instead, warm and inviting, such as the uptempo "Under a Bright Moon." Yet, the overall evocation of the recording is more in line with the somewhat forlorn album title itself. Of course, if one actually thinks it through, the leaving of a "silent and empty house" might, instead, elicit emotions such as relief, optimism, even joy. However, this is just my analysis from a narrative standpoint. The music is, if not outright somber, more often than not delicate and pointedly subdued. That doesn't keep it from being intensely beautiful and, in fact, while this album would make ideal background music for anything from relaxation and massage to daydreaming and late night reading, concentrated and in-depth listening will reveal much depth and attention to detail (credit mixing and producing to Henning Olsen and mastering to Dave Blackburn). With one exception, all the tracks were composed by Trine, and daughter Josefine arranged all the cello parts herself.

It's somewhat unnecessary to go into a lot of detail about the tracks, since there is a distinct feeling of uniformity throughout the eleven selections. "Fairies in Moonlight" is light in mood and the cello, in particular, seems rooted in classical motifs. "Under a Bright Moon" opens with some solo harp and when the cello enters, the mood becomes more somber and sedate, however the piece does shift gears at the three-minute mark, becoming light-hearted and fanciful, keeping this mood until the conclusion. On "Lion's Heart," the harp has a notable Renaissance sound to its melody and the cello enters the song deep in its lower registers. Again, the piece builds into something more energetic, but not upbeat in mood, just uptempo in pace. "After the Rain" is a gorgeous folk harp number, reminding me of Glenn Walker Johnson's music (an obscure but super talented folk harpist who lives in the northwoods of Wisconsin). It has the same lightness of feel that his music holds - gentle but uptempo (not an easy paradox to master). Cello takes the lead on the title track, and Josefine bows her instrument with sublime grace while Trine follows behind, embellishing the lead cello melody perfectly.  The last track, "True Thomas," sounds Celtic (and it should since it is inspired by the Irish legend of Thomas the Rhyme) and features Trine and Josefine on accordion as well as their respective instruments. It's a downbeat tune, perhaps based on a story laced with tragedy (it has that feel to it), but it's a wonderful closing song to an equally wonderful album.

Leaving My Silent Empty House is a 2008 album and while Trine has since released Somewhere in a Hidden Memory, it's high time the world was favored with a follow-up recording by this mother-daughter duo. Talent this good should be rewarded with acclaim and success, so get onboard and pick up on this one so Trine and Josefine will be motivated and inspired enough to get back in the studio and give us more of the family magic. 

The album can be purchased at iTunes, Amazon, and CDBaby, as well as directly from the artist.

REVIEW: MICHELE MCLAUGHLIN - Waking the Muse



Waking the Muse
Self-released (2013)

It's hard for me to believe that pianist Michele McLaughlin was feeling somewhat uninspired to record music (which is what she states in the liner notes to Waking the Muse) because her  two previous recordings, Breathing in the Moment (2012) and Out of the Darkness (2010) were some of her best releases.  Yet she professes that just recently her muse began "…coming to life  with renewed inspiration and creativity,  changing  my world  from a dark, uninspired landscape to a colorful palette of music that had been hiding inside of me." I know that McLaughlin had, prior to Out of the Darkness, recovered from some personal tragedy and perhaps the two previous albums were part of the healing process and now, with Waking the Muse, she is truly free and alive to follow her muse. Whether my analysis is correct or not, McLaughlin has released an album full of passion, vibrancy, and personal power, traits which she has always exhibited in her music but which seem intensified and more affirming than before.

McLaughlin is what I refer to as a "heart on her sleeve" composer, i.e. there is no subterfuge, no subtlety at work in her music - she presents her emotional intent of a song forthwith and front and center. It's a testament to her considerable talent that this baring of her soul always works so well, because in the hands of a lesser talent, the music would be melodramatic, overly self-conscious, and would grow tiresome. However, it's not just her technique and artistry, which is impossible to ignore, but also her artist's soul, which seems woven into every piece of music she writes.  No matter how pyrotechnic she can be (and this woman can really play piano with the best of 'em), there is always she presence of heart, sometimes "in your face" and sometimes between the lines, but never hidden behind artifice.

One aspect of Michele's music that has always stood out to me is how she allows for fluidity in her time signature and moods within songs, a characteristic that she shares with only a few other pianists in the same genre (I am thinking of Timothy Davey in particular). However, where Davey roots his music in jazz and bluegrass motifs, McLaughlin is influenced by classical composers with an occasional nod to minimalism. She is unafraid to change a song in midstream from fast and powerful to slow and soft, morphing the melody from a roar to a whisper.  Hearing her play live, and she plays live a lot, would be something to see and hear, I imagine.

It's always been difficult for to encapsulate her albums in just a few sentences, owing to her diversity, so all I can say in summation of Waking the Muse is that it's full of great solo piano music, although if you prefer your music to be staid, relaxed, and with a single dominant motif, you may want to steer clear. Waking the Muse paints for the listener with a broad and deep color palette: romantic, somber, passionate, lively, inviting, and reflective. Take note, though, that these terms may apply only to part of any one song, again because of the artist's ability, perhaps even preference, for mixing it up on a song, allowing the composition to flow with an almost organic sense of evolution over the course of its three to five minute duration.

"Waking the Muse" infuses the uptempo refrain with a hint of mystery and then injects a passage of positive energy. "A Beautiful Distraction" is a somber yet warm classically-rooted piece, and is one the few on the CD that stays put, so to speak.  "Humbled" starts off slow and builds toward a faster pace with an uptick in mood as well, erupting with a sensation of celebration near the end before winding back down.  Paradoxically, the opening refrain of "Misty Fjords" sounds more Celtic than Norwegian, but regardless, it's a joyous, jubilant, and playful song that kicks up its heels.  "Until We Meet Again" is a real gem, and showcases that McLaughlin can write a great romantic ballad, as she switches from soft and sparse to passionate and pyrotechnic, flowing with pronounced yet gentle power. "Torn" may be the most "heart on her sleeve" piece on the album, as the song musically evokes the pain that lies in wait when one arrives at the crux of a difficult decision.

Michele McLaughin is one of the most tireless artists recording in the solo piano genre today, as I always read (on Facebook) about her touring or performing and sandwiching in recording new pieces when she is home in Utah. McLaughlin is also one of the most "open" personalities in this business, always freely sharing her feelings about her life and the world, so it's no surprise that her music presents an equally open book picture of this gifted musician. What I am left with is simple wonderment, because if her muse has only recently woken, I can scarce imagine what lies ahead for her many fans.

The album is available at the artist's website, Amazon, iTunes, and CDBaby.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

REVIEW: THIERRY DAVID - Stellar Connection



THIERRY DAVID
Stellar Connection
Real Music (2012)

The last thing that any long-time fan of the Real Music label would expect was for them to release a serious spacemusic recording - and I don't mean "la-di-da" flowery spacemusic, I mean spacemusic, (in the same vein as Meg Bowles and John Lyell). Maybe I'm wrong in that assumption, but I've reviewing music from Real Music for 17 years and I know I sure as hell was shocked the first time I listened to Thierry David's Stellar Connection. The opening track, "Portal Quest," kicks off the album with darkly tinted drones, swirling synths, and a palpable sense of forlorn loneliness. I did a double take and made sure the right CD had been in the jewel case. Yup, the CD was the right one. I settled in and played the album all the way through and thought, "Well, I'll be damned." Stellar Connection is a spot-on soundtrack for a first-class cruising expedition past the limits of our solar system, out toward the Andromeda galaxy or the Crab nebula or even beyond. Stellar work (pun intended) by David, indeed!

The French artist, whose previous releases on Real Music were either chill-out (Zen Pause), New Age/world beat (Zen World) or new age/world vocal (The Veil of Whispers), reveals an incredible talent for crafting ambient/spacemusic that drifts and cruises. Some tracks flow darkly, painting a sonic portrait of the desolate emptiness of space, tinted with a terrible sense of awe mixed with subtle, somber beauty. Other selections may infuse rhythms that suggest slow but purposeful cruising among the cosmos, perhaps planet hopping in different solar systems, or maybe surveying a distant world's surface. Track titles make it abundantly clear that David is purposefully training his musician's eye toward the distant stars. While some selections are melodic enough in a structured way that this disc will not alienate (no pun intended this time) his new age or chill-out fans, even songs that use echoed piano and warmer synth sounds still contain enough of an outer space atmospheric texture and feel that this album should find acceptance among an ambient fanbase, provided they are not looking for dronefests devoid of any melodic or rhythmic content.

Make no mistake, though. Some of the cuts on Stellar Connection are decidedly not new age (at least not by definition I would use). Besides the opening "Portal Quest," there is "Magnetic Spiral" which opens with layers of drones and pure textural sounds and eerie effects, before slowly evolving into a repeating series of pulses, tribal-esque rhythms, and a minor key echoed piano refrain, the latter of which evokes a deep loneliness and solitude. "Feeling a Stellar Pulse" blends alien-ish electronic textures with a repeating reverbed melodic pattern (again in a minor key) and more tribal percussion (this track reminded me of Robyn Miller's superb soundtrack for the computer game "Riven"). The short (2:00) "The Realm of the Golden helix" is pure, dark, deep spacedrift, with overlapping synth washes, drones, and vaguely metallic tones, as is the closing song, "A Silent Voice Answers," which ups the "creepy but cool" factor to a solid 11.

Other selections on the album include "Plenty of Space" (smooth layers of gently sighing keyboards blended with long, lonely peals of deeply echoed electric guitar), "A Long Crossing" (slow, metronomic rhythms, trumpet-like solos, and a forlorn sparse piano melody with a discernible sense of sadness, anchoring it all), "Surfing the Blue Orbit" (a relatively bubbly mixture of assorted bell and hang drum-like tones, shimmering textures, piano, and a rhythmic textures that are somewhere between mid and fast tempo), and "Galactic Bliss" (beginning as a warm space-drifting number and morphs into pleasantly chattering keyboards set against synth washes infused with some uptempo chill-out flavors as the track progresses).

There are thirteen tracks on Stellar Connection (some not mentioned above) for the listener to delve into and this album will reward total immersion using headphones. The carefully nuanced background music and textural effects will emerge on each successive play. Thierry David's recordings on Real Music have revealed him to be a meticulous artist who knows the magic is in the details, and Stellar Connection is proof of that. I consider the album near essential if you enjoy spacemusic that can really take you "out there" (provided you have the imagination for just such a trip). The album is a wholly unexpected delight from one of the shining lights in new age music and showcases a side of Thierry David that I sure hope to hear more from in the future.

The album is available directly from Real Music, or at  iTunes, Amazon download or Amazon (CD).