Monday, April 21, 2014


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.


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

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).


Cosmic Diva
Sante Music (2013)

Stephanie Sante has been bopping and cruising along since her debut, Into Light, in 2000. Originally slotted in as a spacemusic artist, Sante offered some unique twists on the genre, not just stylistically (her electronic soundscapes usually blended elements of new age into the more traditional Serrie-esque motifs), but also because she played a midi-guitar controller to make her synth sounds (similar to what Mark Dwane does). I have been reviewing her through the years and watched in admiration as she changed course in 2005 with Coffee Culture, embracing her guitar as the recognizable lead instrument and crossing over into a new arena of jazzy, funky licks married to infectious beats. Over the next two albums (2007's Shine and 2010's superb release, Prismatic), Sante rebooted herself, with the end result being some of the tastiest chill-out, lounge, and Nu Jazz music out there, inflected with some sensuous bossa nova leanings at times. Prismatic is criminally overlooked as one of the best ear candy releases of that year and is also the first album where she stopped using a midi-guitar and played all her synths through a keyboard, using guitar as, well, a guitar.

Cosmic Diva, Sante's latest release, explores the nooks and crannies of this talented and imaginative artist's career so far. While Sante herself thinks this marks a return to spacemusic (and there are spacy moments here, no doubt), the eleven tracks actually encapsulate the many styles and genres that she has recorded over the last 14 years. Knowing Stephanie Sante as I do, it's funny that the title contains the word "diva" as Stephanie is as undiva-ish as they come, instead being a sincere, humble, and unpretentious artist who works hard at perfecting her craft. For Cosmic Diva, Sante received inspiration (per the liner notes) from the science fiction trilogy "The Way" (by author Greg Bear) comprised of the books Eon, Eternity and Legacy.

Musically, the eleven tracks draw from all of her other releases, but not in any way derivatively or as a repetitive exercise. The spaciness of the opening "Foreplay" is accented with tribal rhythms and an exotic sounding Middle Eastern wind instrument. "The Quickening" opens with mellow ambient chill tones before spiraling into a jazzy, funky horn-driven affair punctuated by snare beats. "Moments of Clarity" percolates with an assortment of rhythms and layers of synths, adding some mellow vibes later in the track with halting rhythms. Chattering synths pepper the start of "Link with Me" alongside reverbed tones and jazz-inflected cymbal rhythms. "Group Mind" has a science-fiction meets chill-out mood going on with whirly-gigging synths, sonar-echoes, midtempo beats, and smooth synth pads. Gently strummed guitar opens "Genesis of Creation" soon buoyed by bossa nova rhythms and an undercurrent of silky smooth synth textures. "Crossing the Threshold" features iridescent tones amidst a shuffling beat and funkified horns while "Points of Embarkation" has plaintive echoed piano and plucked orchestral strings, set off by a snazzy, jazzy cymbal rhythm, but then starts shifting between that and an excursion into quasi-Berlin school territory. "Promise Me This" has an light, airy quality to it, dominated by synth strings and a delicate repeating tone melody, anchored by subdued rhythms. The last two tracks are "Love's Journey" which races along at a rapid pace propelled by layers of keyboards and snare beats and some tasty guitar licks, and "Light Always Glistens" which is an apt title for another spacy selection with retro synth sounds lighting up the skies amidst shimmering reverbed bell tones.

For me, Prismatic is still Stephanie Sante's best recording, but Cosmic Diva isn't far behind. Sante has been making great music for a long time and if you haven't checked her out yet, what are you waiting for? Fans of this artist's recent previous work will almost certainly love this album, and newbie listeners looking for cosmic chillage, space-age lounge/jazz, or even just some mellow tunes to bop to will find much to revel in on Cosmic Diva, Sante's most completely realized musical vision yet.

The album is available at CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, and Digital Tunes.