Thursday, June 21, 2018

REVIEW: TOM CAUFIELD - Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness

Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness

Guitarist Tom Caufield possesses a truly unique and particularly intriguing musical vision. Every album of his that I have heard reveals something new about his composing and performing talent. Even knowing this, though, I was still startled by his new album, Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness. While Caufield has never lacked for ambition, the departure from his signature styles is marked. The backstory of how this wonderful recording came to be is worth recounting. Performing at a candlelight service at a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles, he had the chance to see performances by cellist Judy Kang and violinist Alicia Spillias. In Caufield's own words " [I was] impressed by their artistry and enchanted by the ancient sound of strings, [so I] asked them to collaborate with [me] on an upcoming set, as [I] wanted to hear [my] melodies played with this burnished, haunting magic." A second violinist, Zach Paul, joined the trio for a performance at The Last Bookstore in downtown LA and the die was cast, so to speak. Before heading into the recording studio, a second cellist, Mark Edward Lewis, was added.

Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness (a cryptic title if there ever was one) flows forth with a sense of subtle vibrancy and artistic creativity, a fusion of the chamber music aesthetic with a minimalist approach to ambient guitar music that is, by turns, beautifully touching, hauntingly sad, and elegantly playful. The feeling of simpatico put forth by these artists who, if one were to be straightforward about it, are relative strangers, is a revelation of how quickly musicians can come to know each other and meld their talents into a cohesive visionary musical expression.

Long-time fans of Caufield's music may be surprised at how unselfishly he has surrendered the spotlight for nearly the entire 25-minutes of music on Deep Cuts… As a music reviewer, I have often extolled those "lead" artists of an ensemble who push their fellow players to step forward rather than he/she hogging center stage (in jazz, pianist Lisa Hilton is another shining example of this trait). It's not that Caufield's guitar mastery is absent on the recording, but more that it is relegated to a supporting role. Again, in his own words "I’ve moved the guitar to the back and brought cello and violin forward, letting them showcase the melodies, harmonies and movement. Instead of fretwork, I focused on arrangements, mood and sequence, aiming to create a half-hour ambient cloud, all cut of one cloth, but with enough detail and movement to also be engaging." Taking these sentences as a statement of the mission of Deep Cuts… leads me to conclude that he has succeeded in every way possible. There is an elegant simplicity to these six pieces, yet it is simplicity wedded to an emotional richness and deep resonance of feeling so that it would be difficult to not be intensely moved (as I was) when listening to this music (provided one has any appreciation whatsoever for the acoustic/neo-classical sound which permeates the recording).

Detailing the individual six pieces, there is the somber and mournful opening "Warszawa" (penned by David Bowie and Brian Eno, one of two pieces here not composed by Caufield, although the arrangement is his), with its plaintive mixture of strummed acoustic guitar and violin, followed by the relatively cheery, mildly uptempo elegance of "Fresh Astonishments," with a fusion of fingerstyle guitar and cello/violin which evokes sunlight and springtime. "Written on the Sky" (composed by Max Richter) begins with a semi-Mediterranean guitar, melding with a gorgeous cello/violin melody that evokes the feeling of fond remembrance, adding in some haunting sorrow in the conclusion. Delicate fingerstyle guitar likewise opens "The Nature of a Heart is to Yearn," and, as one might surmise from the title, here the mood is romantic, and the higher pitched violin melody imparts a subtle feeling of wistfulness which is counterpointed by the underlying sweetly flowing cello line. Reflection and somberness come to the forefront on "In the Realm of the Senses" with its deliberate, slow cadence of the strummed guitar chords and violin/cello melodies which echo each other. The concluding "The Weakness that Leads to Strength" is an emotional "wrapping up" of the themes presented in the previous five selections, with an evocation of a  mood that is both content yet also a tiny bit hoping for something more. The string refrain on this track is too beautiful to describe in words, as the key it's played in gets higher and higher, as if painting a musical portrait of the title, i.e. one becomes stronger through one's weakness.

Deep Cuts from the Moral Wilderness showcases Tom Caufield's maturity as a composer and his talent as an arranger for neo-classical music in a string ensemble setting, as well as, once again, displaying his performing talent and deft touch on his own instrument. I can't recommend this album enough – it's a stunning, brilliant work.
Deep Cuts...and all of Tom's albums are available directly from him at his online store. Some albums are also available from the usual online retailers, e.g. CDBaby and Amazon.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

REVIEW: JOHN LYELL - Planetary Artifacts

Planetary Artifacts

Over the years, some people have come to view spacemusic and ambient music as one and the same. I do not. Obviously, spacemusic can have elements of ambient music, but the opposite is not always the case, e.g. Aphex Twin's SAW II is only tangentially spacey. There are certain definable characteristics to what I consider to be spacemusic, which explains why the genre is nowhere near as populated with artists as ambient music is. Which brings us to John Lyell. Lyell may not be the most prolific spacemusic artist around (this is his fourth solo effort, his first being Dimensions which was released in 2006), but man, he sure "gets" it when it comes to recording "pure" spacemusic.

Spacemusic, to me, embraces its connection to outer space (and, perhaps, a nod or two to science fiction themes). It is in this realm that Lyell satisfies like only a few others do as well (most notably, of course, Jonn Serrie and Meg Bowles). It's not just his albums' artwork (which, by the way, has gotten better with every release; the cover of Planetary Artifacts is gorgeous), or his song titles (e.g. "Traversing The Portal," "Red Shift 2," "Another World"), but his overall musical aesthetic which beckons the listener to don headphones in a dark room (or outside under a starry sky) and do a serious deep dive into the universe that his soundscapes evoke.

Planetary Artifacts represents a subtle departure from his earlier releases, but not in a way that makes it any less enjoyable than those previous stellar works. Here, Lyell develops his more spacy persona, using a lot of electronic effects that, to me, bring to mind science fiction films, especially his fondness for a more retro style of synthesizers and textures. You know what I mean: the bloops, bleeps, whooshes, stuff like that. He layers all his various washes, pads, and effects with expert skill and utmost dexterity. While some tracks include bass pulse rhythms, the album is much more of a "drifter" than a "cruiser,"most notably in the latter half.

I have always appreciated how Lyell, unlike a lot of artists in this genre, tends to favor shorter tracks (relatively speaking). Only "Echoes Of A Distant Past" clocks in at over 8 minutes (8:32) and a handful are in the 4 to 5 minute range or so. I may be in the minority in this regard, but I like how this feature keeps the recording "fresh."

"Arrival" is a floating piece that somehow does evoke the titular reference, partly through subtle dramatic textures, which "feels" like one is arriving (maybe to a spaceport or jumping off point?). The rhythmic pulses at the start of "Traversing The Portal" perfectly capture the feeling of rapid movement, accelerating to cruising speed, as it were. On headphones, you will hear all these cool layers of synths, washes, effects, and this song reminds me why I feel in love with spacemusic in the first place – it just grabs you and whisks you away into a whole other universe. But Lyell executes this gently. His music is never aggressive, but it's also not what I would label as passive. This is why I make a distinction between ambient and spacemusic. Ambient music colors the background unobtrusively while spacemusic invites you to partake in it, as if you were on a voyage to the stars.

Lyell is really coming into his own and the more I explored Planetary Artifacts I realized that I was witnessing an artist maturing and evolving. He has become expert at knowing which synths to use, which sound palette to choose from, and how to execute it all to perfection. It helps, of course, that Robert Rich masters his albums, but mastering can only enhance great music, it can't make it great all by itself.

Whether the effervescent "Traversing The Portal," the stately "Red Shift 2," or the haunting "Echoes Of A Distant Past" Lyell is your able pilot as you stream through the cosmos. Later in the album, the mood gets ultra-spacy as if we are journeying to the outer rim, and even beyond. It's dreamy beyond words. My only regret with an album like Planetary Artifacts is I wish I had much more time to just listen to it and get lost in its explorations and mysteries. Simply put, if you are a spacemusic fan, this is an essential album to own.

Available at CDBaby, Amazon,  or iTunes

Thursday, July 7, 2016


Islands In Paradise
Dancing Man Music

It's been nine years since drummer/percussionist extraordinaire Michael Fitzsimmons released his superb album, Water Flows Over Me. Sometimes, you just have to wait for the good stuff and exercise some patience. Well, that patience has been rewarded big time with his new album Islands In Paradise. While retaining some of Fitzsimmons' musical feel, the album is a marked departure in one immediately apparent fashion, that being a considerable elevation of tempo and mood. Islands In Paradise is a musical excursion to sun-washed tropical beaches and festive seaside late-night cafes and clubs. The album brims with a jubilant sense of joy, exerting an inexorable pull to surrender to a mood of celebration, fun, and a sensual love of life.

As he has did on Water Flows Over Me (2007), Fitzsimmons has the hang drum (a tuned metal percussion instrument) take center stage many times, but unlike on Water…here he explores the instrument's ability to produce uptempo, cheerful, and danceable rhythms through delightfully exuberant tuned percussive melodies. Besides the hang durm, the artist also plays handpan, which is somewhat similar in nature to the hang, kalimba (African thumb piano), and Latin percussion. Joining Fitzsimmons on the album is Tom Ware who contributes mightily on an assortment of instruments: bass, keyboards, drums, and synthesizer. These two cats sure sound like they had a blast recording this album (well, honestly, after listening to it a few times, how could anyone think they had anything but a great time playing such festive, happy music?).

Islands In Paradise certainly merits its title as there is an unmistakable tropical musical influence at work. While the hang drum (and kalimba) certainly can sound like a Jamaican steel drum, they actually have their own unique sound if one listens closely (especially when you compare how steel drums are played – with a mallet – whereas the hang is played by slapping it/tapping it with one's hands). It's hard not to envision any of the Caribbean islands when Fitzsimmons and Ware hit their groove and begin to unfurl the funky, sensual, and infectious beats and melodies. Ware uses his synthesizer shadings and textures to great effect, coloring the melodic rhythms with a pleasing undercurrent of subtle melody and ambiance, like a cooling breeze off of the Gulf as the sun sets in the west.

Not every track is an all-out party, but overall, the mood is one of playfulness and unrestrained festivity, beginning with the opening cut, "Earth Sea and Sky." The title track stays in that same fun-filled mood albeit dials things down just a notch. Just when you might want to catch your breath, the next song, "Fire Dancers," erupts with an emphasis on assorted drums and beats and less centered around the hang drum melody (at least to my ears). On this track, the influences cross over more distinctly into Latin/Spanish territory, perhaps even displaying a glimpse of the flamenco genre, as well as some noticeable Cuban stylings as well. "Elysium" slows to a midtempo pace, but the heavy presence of drum rhythms still will likely get into the listener's blood and induce some toe-tapping or finger-rapping. What sounds like a jawbone opens "Celebration," one of the most light-hearted tracks on the album—music for parasailing high above aqua/blue waters on a sunny day.

If one closes one's eyes and absorbs the ten tracks on Islands In Paradise, I would imagine one might easily envision the sandy beaches, the colorful flora and fauna, and of course the abundant nightlife of St. Lucia, the Caymans, St Kitts, St Maarten, or Barbados, to name just a few of the Caribbean Islands. Let Michael Fitzsimmons guide you on a "virtual" vacation to a land of no worries, lush vegetation, warm days and starlit nights, as you let your stress melt and hair down. It's all good, mon. Have fun and embrace all the joy and happiness that life has to offer in the "Islands."

Islands In Paradise is available directly from the artist here.