MusicWatch Weekly: Year end album guide

Get your healthy 78 minutes of listening with albums of modern classical, vintage pop, nouveau prog, Australian psych, and Portland Gothic

We recently came across a study showing that 78 minutes of music a day can have a positive impact on mental health. Now, this particular study wants to break it down into percentages and so on: yet another instance of the commercialized slicing and dicing that gave us the one-minute bible and endless “classical adagios” compilations. I say cancel all that noise and damn it to hell. Listen to what pleases you. Don’t make a goddamn recipe of it, reducing Glorious Music to a set of instructions. If you’re going to do that, you might as well buy one of Philip K. Dick’s Penfield Mood Organs and relax into navel-gazing oblivion.

Anyways, the main takeaway here is that curiously specific 78-minute block of time, which just happens to be pretty close to the exact length of a CD (remember CDs?)–and that’s probably no coincidence. Various other studies (start here) have shown that our brains prefer twenty-minute chunks of mental processing, and if you string four of those chunks together you get your basic symphony. Vinyl LPs (remember LPs?) followed the same flow format, their 20-minute sides strung together into 40-minute single albums and 80-minute double albums. Scale that back down and you get mini-albums and EPs. These usually these clock in at a brain-friendly 20-30 minutes, shorter than a full-length album but also distinctly more substantial and coherent than a mere collection of songs.

Back in the ‘70s, when CDs were first being designed, the companies involved spent some time debating the new format’s size and storage capacity: should these little plastic dinguses hold an hour of music, or forty minutes, or two hours, or what? A 74-minute limit was proposed, based partly on the idea that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony absolutely had to fit on one disc, and that’s what they went with.

They were right: the long beat of attentive listening requires an ample story arc with internal ebbs and flows, and that’s exactly what a good symphony provides. And with the advent of jazz suites in the ‘50s and album rock in the ‘60s, a new musical form had recently been born–the “album” has become a large-scale structural form unto itself, a technological-age equivalent of “sonata” or “symphony” or “opera,” and the 74-minute just-over-an-hour attentive beat has ended up working nicely across various genres that generally don’t have much in common.

So, since you can read all about December’s concerts in our semi-monthly columns–holidays here, unholidays here–we thought we’d devote this week to albums of recorded music. It was a busy and exciting year, full of wonderful releases from both local artists and international acts, and we’ve got a year-end list of the best and most memorable.

Two caveats about what this little album guide is not. Firstly, this isn’t an objective “best of 2019” list; many other worthy albums came out this year, and you should certainly tell us your favorites in the comments. These are simply the albums your relentless music editor encountered and loved in the last twelve months of personal and professional listening.

Secondly, we’re not going to talk about the Danish String Quartet’s much-lauded Prism albums, or anything like them, for the simple reason that absolutely no one needs new recordings of Beethoven and Shostakovich (and no, DSQ doesn’t get extra points for Bach and Schnittke). We already have our Fitzwilliam Shosties and our Takács Luddies, and if we get bored with those we’ve got enough Amadeus, Borodin, Brodsky, Cleveland, Emerson, Juilliard, Miró, et alia ad infinitum to keep us happy for the next thousand years.

Instead, we’re going to talk about new music by living composers–Danny Elfman, Hannah Lash, Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe–and a whole lot of “popular” music by working “bands.” In some cases we saw the artists in concert first and followed up by digging into their albums (Roselit Bone, Human Ottoman); in other cases we went to see the band precisely because their recorded output was so good (Federale, Consider the Source).

We don’t really want to contribute to the eternal commodification of holiday cheer, but let’s not be too cynical about it: there’s plenty to be said for the act of giving gifts, even to oneself, and in our attention economy all you really need to do to support these artists is listen to them (though it wouldn’t hurt to throw them ten bucks out of your holiday bonus or financial aid funds).

The following–listed in order of running time–are all available to purchase or stream; some are even available on souvenir grade vinyl. However you get your 78 minutes of listening, be sure to tell us all about it!

Jimmie Herrod & Pink Martini, Tomorrow
16 minutes

Edna Vazquez & Pink Martini, Bésame Mucho
17 minutes

Local pop-activist orchestralette Pink Martini loves their newest singers so much they recorded EPs with each one this year, a pair of gorgeous quarter-hour samplers that showcase each singer’s unique talents while showing off PM’s sweet, refined retro sound. Herrod’s show-stopping “Exodus” closes Tomorrow, but it’s the arrangement of The Exciters’ “Tell Him” that really dazzled us. On Bésame Mucho, Vazquez performs her original song “Sola soy” and four covers in luscious PM arrangements that color and support her unique voice. One of these EPs will fill a single quarter-hour brain-beat; put em on back-to-back for a half hour of homegrown retro bliss.

Roselit Bone, Crisis Actor
33 minutes

Roselit Bone was one of many opening acts that up-staged their headliners this year. We saw them open for Federale at Mississippi Studios in November, and their enthusiastic Gothic Americana vibes won the evening.

This septet is essentially three bands in one. Stage right: a Southern rock quartet comprised of grizzled bearded dudes playing drums, bass, guitar, and lap steel. Stage left: a Portland Hip trio of glammy violinist and two youngish fellas switching between keys, percussion, and duelling mariachi trumpets. Center stage: the founding duo of bandleader Charlotte McCaslin and Victor Franco, matching their guitars and voices like some kind of MTV special starring Siouxsie Sioux and Frank Black.

That big sound paid off splendidly in their engaging live show, and you can hear the same energy on their latest release, a rich half-hour of delightfully gloomy outlaw country songs. Two in particular have been stuck in our head since November: the spooky rancherobilly opener “Surgeon’s Saw” and the Arcade Firesque singalong “Proving Grounds.”

Human Ottoman, Rampage
33 minutes

This characteristically Portland Weird quartet didn’t quite steal the show from Moon Hooch last Sunday–an impossible feat–but it was a close race. The rhythmic section is solid: David Robert Burrows’ funky, chunky bass lines supporting drummer/vocalist Susan Lucia’s stretchy polyrhythmic Afro-Cuban grooves.

The other half of the band is where it really gets Weird. Julian Kosanovic, a damn fine cellist and alum of PSU and Portland Cello Project, runs her cello through a slew of strange effects that wouldn’t be out of place in a typical Old Church contemporary classical concert of Reich and Resnick. Vibraphonist/vocalist Grayson Fiske goes even further with his instrument, using a damn whammy pedal of all things to bend notes and chords on his glittering electrified metallophone.

The resulting melange blends with catchy chants and edgy pop choruses and percussive breakdowns, resulting in some of the most exciting stuff we’ve heard from a local band since the dissolution of Menomena.

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Infest the Rats’ Nest
35 minutes

The infamously prolific Australian prog-psych septet released two short albums last year: the peacefully trippy Fishing for Fishies and this aggressively metalloid mini-opus. The two complement each other very nicely, but the latter album is far superior: it was clear from its first single, “Planet B,” that KG had been plunging into the back catalogue of classic metal acts like Metallica and especially Slayer.

Infest’s nine songs smash thrashy beats and wild, cathartic guitar solos over the band’s customary odd-meter riffage and confrontational lyrics, this time on ecological themes (“there is no Planet B!”) We’ve had this one on infinite repeat since August and still haven’t got tired of it.

Federale, No Justice
43 minutes

This was one of those albums that made us stop everything and sit down to just listen–from the terrifying opening title track through the catchy-as-hell Morriconesco Maria Karlin showcase “Unchained Malady” to the apocalytpic Barryesque closer “When Snow Falls,” the latest from the local cinematic murder balladists grabbed us and wouldn’t let us go. If this year-end list were shorter and more objective, this one would still be near the top–probably in the number one slot.

Chelsea Wolfe, Birth of Violence
44 minutes

It’s a little hard to pin Wolfe down, and that’s because the best genre label for her–”black metal”–is a broad and slippery term which can stretch all the way from thrashy to doomy to folky. The main thing is really the eldritch vibe and an aesthetic which is lo-fi in spirit if not in actual practice. Wolfe has released more overtly metallic albums (2017’s gloriously facemelty Hiss Spun, 2011’s gnarly Apokalypsis) and more overtly folky albums (2010’s The Grime and the Glow); the gloriously layered and moody Birth of Violence does a good job of blending both worlds.

Julia Wolfe, Fire in my mouth
48 minutes

You either like Wolfe’s complicated sound or you don’t. All her stuff–especially from Anthracite Fields onward–exists at the intersection of aggressive rhythmic dexterity, post-minimalist fractal harmony, a post-modernist union of thorny dissonance and frank prettiness, dense and beautiful choral writing, and radical storytelling informed by political consciousness and labor history. Her latest oratorio memorializes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, but to be perfectly honest we don’t care all that much about the musical history lesson: we primarily care about how it sounds, and how it feels listening to it.

It sounds great, dear reader. Hopefully you’ll take away a bit of raised consciousness, perhaps a newfound empathy for the women (mostly immigrant laborers) who were burned alive by the capitalist forces of malign neglect, but we hope you’ll also enjoy Wolfe’s music.

Hannah Lash & JACK Quartet, Filigree: Music of Hannah Lash
56 minutes

Harpist Lash makes a few appearances on this album, joining the quartet for the closing suite Filigree in Textile, but it’s her compositional voice that really shines here. We first heard her im-/ex-pressionistic, early-modernistic sound at Chamber Music Northwest a few summers back (on a concert with Ravel and Kati Agócs), and we’ve been dying to hear a whole album of her chamber music ever since. We’re still getting acquainted with this one, but it’s already revealing itself as an excellent introduction to the composer’s sound.

Caroline Shaw & Attacca Quartet, Orange
64 minutes

It’s easy to get enthusiastic about Caroline Shaw; it would be fair to call her our favorite young composer (sorry, Andy and Gabe). Most of you probably know her Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices, her songs, and her hip-hop collaborations. But Shaw is also a violinist and a fine composer of string quartet music, and that shows on this album, which makes excellent work of showing off her relentless musical curiosity and hybrid pop-classical compositional talents. From the opening Entr’acte (which so thrilled us at CMNW this year) to the closing pizzicato workout of “Limestone & Felt,” Orange makes a perfect post-Partita introduction to Shaw’s delicious soundworld.

Danny Elfman, Violin Concerto “Eleven Eleven”
65 minutes

We’ve talked about this guy enough already. Just listen.

Consider the Source, You Are Literally a Metaphor
73 minutes

For such a showy trio of virtuosi, New York’s Consider the Source sure does love melody. It’s easy enough to just throw together three kickass musicians and listen to them kick ass, but unless the music itself is compelling that sort of thing can easily descend into self-indulgent dreamtheatrics. Restless CTS travels beyond mere virtuosity into realms of science fictional delight with an album full of odd-metered, harmonically engaging earworms that will have you shaking your ass in 17/8 while you sing along to Gabriel Marin’s sweet fretless electric guitar melodies.

Tool, Fear Inoculum
87 minutes

Most Tool albums require a breaking-in period, a trait they share with Coen brothers movies and Octavia Butler novels; you have to spend a little time with them before the deeper glories reveal themselves. We listened to the beloved prog quartet’s eagerly-awaited, long-delayed follow-up to 2006’s 10,000 Days with our metalhead friends the day it came out, and our reaction was universal: we hated it. Most boring metal album in years, we said. Major disappointment, we said. “Meditation Metal,” we scornfully called it. Totally not worth the wait.

But we couldn’t let it go. We all listened to it while writing, painting, jogging, doing yoga, editing drum machine parts–and it bloomed. Crimsony seven- and eleven-beat polyrhythms forge a dancing fortress of thick, overlapping grooves; drones and soundscapes and Tool’s finest melodies in years all scurry around the heavy, mathy beats. The album’s long undulating arc expands and contracts over the course of four brain-chunky movements, from the opening “Fear Inoculum”–”Pneuma”–”Litanie contra la Peur” triptych to the gargantuan homestretch of synthy drum solo “Chocolate Chip Trip” leading into the septuply epic “7empest” and closing with the outro soundscape “Mockingbeat.”

MEUTE, Live in Paris
96 minutes

This German techno marching band’s gimmick is simple: the 11-piece brass-and-percussion crew plays European-style electronic dance music on trumpets, trombones, saxophones, tubas, and drumline. It shouldn’t work, at least not well enough to merit a place here, but there’s something extremely compelling about what they do: sassy street-friendly arrangements of Eurodance singles that plunge deep into Jacob TV-land by pitting catchy polyrhythmic melodic layers against interlocking electrobeats and trippy harmonies straight out of Daft Punk’s oddly Baroque playbook. The one we can’t get out of our head: their rendition of Marc Romboy & Stephan Bodzin’s “Kerberos,” a Matrixy ode to the three-headed canine guardian of Hell.

And with that cheery thought, dear reader, I leave you. We’ll see you again next week, when we wish you a Happy New Year with a spread of decade-ending local shindigs from Pink Martini at the Schnitz to Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra at Jack London.

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