I haven’t written about music for over a year. (A sad parallel to my own musical [non-]involvement.) And though a regular practice schedule is still something I need to prioritize, I’m glad that at the very least, music listening is part of my day-to-day. I listen to music all the time: when I’m commuting (biking), when I’m working, running, cooking, or just hanging at home with friends and family.
But music is best when shared! So here’s a post listing some tracks that have stood out in the past year or so, along with some ramblings of varying lengths about each one. If you don’t enjoy said ramblings, you might at least enjoy the music!
Tumbleweed, Michael Brecker #
This one first hit me on a run in college, and I think much of the significance for me is tied up with the fact that its tempo and energy arc fit so well in this context of running + endorphins. The track drives hard to a perfect running cadence while showcasing the virtuosity of the musicians.
Also important for the piece’s significance: Michael Brecker was dealing with Lukemia when this was recorded. And by ‘dealing with’, I mean that he was literally dying. In my fevered running imagination, this song is like his last stand.
And picture it: a group of the some of the best modern jazz players out there: Metheny, Mehldau, DeJohnette, Patitucci, partnering with a man who is both a peer and hero to cut what they each know is his last album.
As the opening melody draws to a conclusion, Metheny starts into one of his classic synth-guitar solos. It builds to right around the 3 minute mark, when Metheny hits the octave pedal and shifts into 5th gear. The drums follow. There in that melodic stratosphere, angular bop patterns weave together with classic rock riffs while DeJohnette is going bananas.
As soon as Metheny ends Brecker starts, dropping no intensity or momentum in the transition. He keeps the meter pinned the entire solo in a demonstration of utter mastery. The climax of the solo is Coltrane-esque, more spiritual communion than musical performance. His eyes ablaze, Brecker is halfway to the other side; his soul is already attuned with whatever is beyond this life, attempting to communicate it all through the bell of a horn taken to its physical limits.
Go find yourself a misty running trail and crank this track up. If by the end you have not been stirred, your next beer is on me.
Novels of Acquaintance, Rising Appalachia #
Rising Appalachia is hippie bluegrass. In terms of sound and image, they’re a bit like if John Butler and Crooked Still had a baby, and Ani DiFranco was the nanny.
If buddhagrass isn’t already a genre, these guys could have invented it. I love how their sound can conjure images of logging yards and old rusted-out pick up trucks while simultaneously making you want to light a bunch of incense and go on a meditation retreat. Maybe this is a common thing with new-school bluegrass, but the vibe is totally new to me…and I’m kind of into it.
The song is bit repetitive, but in a good way. It’s mantric. Centering. During the repeated chorus, the sisters’ vocals blend and harmonize so delicately, and while the backing instrumentation is fairly metronomic, the way the two vocalists handle each verse and chorus is free and loose. The result is something lovely, like bourbon over shaved ice.
Anyway, it’s worth a listen. White-girl dreadlocks and moonshine not included.
Life Goes On, Manic Focus #
Over the past year or so, I’ve been getting more into jams like this. It’s the kind of sound you might hear at Mister Sunday in Brooklyn. If you’ve heard any of Mark Farina’s Mushroom Jazz, take that sound but add more dubby hip-hop influence (especially true of the other tracks on the album) and some elements of acid-jazz. Life Goes On has complexity enough to be something you can listen to outright, but you can work (or workout) with it in the background as well. The repetition is balanced by progressive layering and really tasty, head-bobbin’ grooves.
This track is also another one that’s great for your run. The cadence is a brisk but doable 185bpm (OK maybe it’s for your tempo run), and the build is consistent, giving the song (and you) a sense of momentum.
And when it all comes together at the end–just when you think it couldn’t get any tastier–he throws some hotsauce into mix in the form of an alto solo that would make George Michael smile.
What Are They Doing In Heaven Today, (arr. Colin Stetson, feat. Justin Vernon) #
Probably one of the most unique and raw renditions of this old Tindley hymn. What is normally a song of yearning and hope here takes a more mournful tone. Stetson’s expression of the song’s harmony through outlining various chords in fast loops, overtones, and multi-phonics has a franticness to it, and at times a sharp edge. These sound qualities echo the confusion or anger that so often attends loss–all still a part of the Christian experience. Vernon (of Bon Iver) is peerless in singing with such power and sorrow.
As an aside, I feel compelled to say that some of the hype around Stetson as a saxophone player–especially claims to his virtuosity and originality–strikes me as over the top. He’s talented and creative, to be sure. But a lot of what he does is samey, and even his impressive bits are barely a stone’s throw from Pharoah Sanders or Ornette Coleman. And as far as virtuosity goes…did you listen to that Brecker piece?!
Close to You, (arr. by) Jacob Collier #
Jacob Collier is a straight-up prodigy, and this song demonstrates it perfectly. It’s a complete re-imagining of that classic Carpenters tune, with new harmony and instrumentation. He plays every instrument on the track, sings, and does the studio work. He’s it’s just incredible.
His feel on both the drums and bass is mature well beyond his years; his pocket is so fat you could live in it. The harmonies are complex and beautiful, and–perhaps most importantly–his hat is excellent. I like to imagine that D'Angelo listened this track and just nodded in silence. When it ended he looked up, smiling, and muttered only, “…duuuuude.”
Collier just dropped his first full album. It’s insane. His rendition of Jerusalem is worth mentioning too. It’s brought tears to my eyes.
The Universe Smiles Upon You, Khruangbin #
sample medley only
It’s the last track on the album, and it’s also all the tracks on that album in one medley. Khruangbin is another group with that sound that works as background music (e.g. for small social gatherings, or at work) but stands up very well to attentive listening. The music is full of catchy guitar melodies and groovy beats with a heavy dose of reverb reserved drum playing. The sound is timeless and utterly pleasant.
S.O.B., Nathaniel Radcliffe #
This is a remarkably fun pub song despite the pretty sobering (heh) subject material. It’s sung from the perspective of an alcoholic going through withdrawal. But it’s somewhat ironically recorded in the style of a raucous folksy drinking anthem that makes you want to stomp and clap and dance around while throwing back shots and clinking mugs of ale.
The Hymn of Acxiom, Vienna Teng #
The track reminded me of Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap. (And after looking for a live version, I’ve learned that’s no coincidence). There’s beautiful vocal harmony and vocoder work, but not nearly as dense of an effect as on H&S. What you’ll notice perhaps only on the second listening is the bizarre lyrical content (it’s more or less sung from the perspective of a marketing analytics platform). I used to work in adtech, so the quasi-parody of how people relate to technology, submit to data tracking, and in some cases overlook complete privacy incursion, is haunting. You can read her brief explanation here.
Other great tracks: #
OP Jebediah,, The Dip
Satisfying melody that sounds like it was written by a horn-player. A band I’d definitely want to see live.
Basically, Tei Shi
Light on lyrics, heavy on zzoooomg raange.
Beautiful opening chorus, and a really interesting way the time is played with. Also the video is hard to not like as someone who misses BK a bit.
Matt Corby, Telluric (Whole album)
An incredible musician with a creative composition style and amazing vocal control. Example from the album is at this link. One of his popular older tunes—super emotionally charged–that arguably put him on the map: link.
Invisible/Visible, Tony McFerrin
Collaboration between Father/Son (Tony’s dad is THE Bobby McFerrin). Very cool production.
Lion of Rock, Gungor
Christian-inspired band (not “Christian rock”) who compose as well as they produce. I recommend every one of their albums.
Cumberland Gap, Rob Stenson
Banjer! Also, Stenson is a pretty interesting guy. Blog here.
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