Monday, January 16, 2012

Moises Kaufman, 33 Variations – Available Light

The day is full of noise and I am
grateful, it’s full of grace
and light that takes me
up and out.  I am serious
again, forsythia bloom early
this year, I am going to New York,
goodby.  Intense
experience of pleasure has never
moved me as much as expectation
of an end to it.  Seems real,
is real.  Hello.
Tim Dlugos, untitled

Before I get into minute details of plot and incident and technicality – go see Available Light’s production of Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations.  It’s not here for long, just till next Sunday and if you’ve got any interest in theatre in town whatsoever.  It’s one of the most consistently acted, moving productions of a play I’ve seen in town in years – a simple story so beautifully told that I was moved to tears by the time it was over and I have a hard time picturing anyone I know not walking out enjoying it.

Kaufman’s 33 Variations is the an artful braiding of the story of a musicologist, Katherine Brandt, in Bonn researching Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for what she understands to be her final paper before succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease, the story of her daughter torn between helping her and letting her do this, and the story of Beethoven’s composing of said variations. 

The stage is hung with era-indeterminate cloth half-obscuring a platform through which you can see a piano and its player; the cloth is also the backdrop for projections, everything from text – announcing which Variation is currently being played/discussed/underpinning the action – to closeups of manuscript paper to character’s faces when the action has them in a specific position where that wouldn’t be visible to the audience. The foreground has a table and a few chairs. 

Eleni Papaleonardos directs and does an astonishing job of balancing the little moments with the more grandiose gestures and getting the pacing just right.  I used the word braiding earlier but the symmetry in the material can get beautifully messy, more of a tangle, and the moments where simultaneous action in the different periods and locations overlap, even with characters saying the same word at the same time, could’ve been cheap or too easy but it’s built with a subtlety and the choreography of bodies moving is so natural that it has the intended effect, it hits the audience like a thunderbolt: Oh. Of course.

That piano is played by Dave McMahon and he’s the grout in this production.  As it should be, everyone is in the shadow of that electric, intense music.  Having a piano player instead of recordings not only lets the production use only fragments they want or show Beethoven working through sequences, stumbling or first drafts, but it also provides breath.  Another physical voice on stage blending the colors with the actors.  To the extent that when the other 7 characters dance near the end, it doesn’t feel like an unevenly matched set for the waltz, the piano player is given his due.

Josie Merkle plays Dr. Katherine Brandt, the afflicted musicologist desperate to get one last thing done, and she’s a marvel.  I’d last seen her as a very good Jocasta in an uneven Oedipus Rex but here she soars, mapping out every part of the character as we know it.  The journey takes us from her early dismissing of Diabelli’s source waltz as trite and mediocre and trying to really figure out what Beethoven saw in it and ending up at the place of transfiguration.  Matt Hermes as Beethoven is always a physical presence even when not on stage, and the energy of his body when he is out is stunning, all the frustration and desire and desperate, searching, ego play out in every bit of his action.

Adam Humphrey is very good as the nerdy, smitten nurse who falls for Brandt’s daughter, Clara, funny and charming when he needs to be and a solid rock, at times delivering exposition in a way that doesn’t feel like an infodump and keeping the audience emotionally invested in what’s going on.  Acacia Duncan is first among equals in a cast without any bad parts, she’s luminous, coiled anticipation. 

The supporting cast keeps the quality extremely high, from Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler played by Nate Roderick, Diabelli played by David Tull initially with the broadest comedy possible then slowly given shading, and Emily Bach as Gertrude Ladenburger.  Sound and light are always good at Available Light productions, provided here by Dave Wallingford and Carrie Cox, but they have more work to do than usual and it’s fascinating to see a doctor’s visit or the raging currents of tinnitus are implied wholly with sound and light.

A. said this might be the perfect Available Light show, because it’s a crystallization of their overarching obsession about why you make art when the world’s crumbling, when your life is crumbling, and what’s the point of it all.   I’d agree with that but what I found even more beautiful here is the academic understanding transfiguration – the derivative work that’s greater because of the greater artist’s hand, but really finds its juice in bringing out all the qualities that were already in the lower-rent art that people danced and drank and fell in love and fought to.  It’s a reminder to always work, and always strive, and never settle… but also to keep your eyes and ears open to what real people, not just your fellow nerds/aesthetes, are watching and reading and listening to; you never know when you’ll find that kernel of your next great obsession.

Like Sondheim wrote, “There are prizes all around you if you’re wise enough to see.”

Monday, January 2, 2012

Records of the Year, 2011

There are always great records getting made, no matter how bad it gets.   This year I felt a little disconnected, got a little caught up in trend chasing and my motto for 2012 is fuck that noise.  I still found stuff that knocked me sideways and this is only a sampling.

1.  Blueprint, Adventures in Counter Culture – Long Columbus’s best producer, maybe Columbus’s best rapper for the last handful of years, but as big a fan as I am?  This record is a full-on motherfucker, breaking through to new clarity and new truth and leaving the listener exhilarated.  The beats have a new spacious quality, catchy and head-knocking but everything in sharper quality and the little details are more apparent and get stuck in your head – the vocoder and synth bounce of “Automatic”; the kicks and subtle static on “Go Hard or Go Home”; the huge, sparingly doled out snare sound on “My Culture” – everything feels of a piece, as an album, but without sounding samey or monochromatic.  And the words are, of course, top notch, and like the beats, the product of the same mind but still varied in tone from the singing anthem “So Alive” to the wry barfly story I think all my friends can relate to “Keep Bouncing” to the clenched fist ars poetica “Radio-Inactive”.  Lines you can quote and you’ll find something new every listen.

2.  Tune-Yards, WhokillThis might’ve been the first record I wholeheartedly loved this year; a slap across the face, a Graceland for my generation but really synthesizing and really absorbing the African influence instead of just appropriating.  Rickety keyboards, fierce lyrics, fiery drumming and that perfect sandpaper voice going from a scream to almost cabaret-style recitation.  The use of negative space and dynamics is unparalleled this year or most years, quiet and loud both have aggression and sensuality; dance and protest music at the same time, fist pumping choruses that keep the beautiful release but also undercut it.  A record like life, where sex and politics and love and joy are all more complicated then they seem and at first easily digestible slogans twist and obscure and reveal themselves over time.

3.  Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’Raphael Saadiq can do almost no wrong in my book.  Where his last record The Way I See It was a fizzy Motown riff with some of the catchiest songs of his career, a record very much about leaving other things out, Stone Rollin’ is closer to his classic solo debut Instant Vintage, a big, sweaty all-encompassing look at the world.  Beatles strings, Chicago soul horns, greasy organ, bass lines from James Jamerson play with bass lines from Steve Swallow, and Saadiq’s own guitar in the manner of Curtis Mayfield or Waylon Jennings are jumbled up in the song and the record.  This a record with songs for every dance step you know and dance steps you need to make up, familiar and warm, with the  nuttiness and complexity of the finest bourbon.

4.  Tyshawn Sorey, Oblique-I – I heard some amazing jazz this year but this one made it impossible to pay attention to anything else the first few times I heard it.  Sorey takes the spare, icy song forms of Koan and puts them in the instrumentation context of more traditional jazz – guitar, alto sax, keys, bass, drums.  The songs recall Bartok as much as Paul Motian, contained and folky enough to think you grasp them but wriggling out from that grasp and never letting you get too comfortable.  Loren Stillman’s alto sax does a lot of melodic work but just as frequently does an amazing job seeming like it’s supporting the real melody in the rhythm section. Todd Neufield, a name new to me, does a perfect job on guitar, alternating between spreading almost indistinguishable grout between organ, sax and bass with Grant Green ice skating lines and Joe Strummer jagged stabs that really let the texture show.  Keys and bass are also more than fine.  But Sorey’s drums, of course, carry the day, he sounds like the best parts of every drummer I’ve ever loved – Max Roach, Andrew Cyrille, Sunny Murray, Elvin Jones, Jeff Watts, Paul Motian – but sounds so distinctive he’s a drummer you can pick out from a mile away in a million contexts.  Never better than doing his own compositions, sometimes using the snare and hi-hat for expected propulsion, sometimes just painting shadows with the snare, sometimes letting the song hang with the kick like a heartbeat, and usually doing at least two of these things at the same time.  Breathtaking.

5.  Black Swans, Don’t Blame the StarsEvery time a new Black Swans record comes out I say it, and I don’t see any signs of stopping: Jerry Decicca is the best songwriter in town and one of the best working today.  I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about Don’t Blame the Stars but to say again, it’s not only as beautiful as all the Black Swans records but it’s a different kind of beautiful.  This is a record more concerned with the outside world and maybe more accessible to people who found the earlier work intimidating or hermetic.  All the playing is amazing, from Noel Sayre’s violin – this is the last record of their he worked on before his tragic early death – through Canaan Faulkner’s bass, Chris Forbes’ guitar, Jon Beard’s keys, Brian Jones’ drumming, all recorded crisply and warmly by Keith Hanlon.  If these songs let you go, you might be dead inside.

6.  Amy Lavere, Stranger Me –Lavere’s always been a good singer and an interesting bass player but for me this is the record where she really came into her own.  From the opening track, “Damn Love Song” with its caveman stomp drums, surging organ and guitar stings this record takes old forms and plays them with a simultaneous knowledge of the history and with such fire and confidence that they sound brand new.  One of the best breakup records I’ve ever heard, hitting all the moods from sexy to angry to wry with lyrics that lift the narrative above the self and give it independent life. Arrangements are just surprising enough without being showy, as on “You Can’t Keep Me” with a great Pat Place post-disco bass line and mariachi trumpets after “I’m not your pet / I’m gonna break the chain you have / Tied around my neck / I’m stomping out here / I hope the dishes rattle down / Off your shelf / And if I see you first / I’ll run like hell.”

7.  Craig Taborn, Avenging AngelI wrote about this record at some length already.  A shuffling of every great jazz piano solo and a meditation with so much life in it it feels breathless. 

8.  Times New Viking, Dancer Equired – Times New Viking always had hooks, but this warm, clearer record put the lyrics and the melodies a little more easily graspable.  Everyone stepped their game up in a more accessible way, Jared Phillips’ guitar, Adam Elliot’s drums, Beth Murphy’s keys, all contribute equally to infectious riffs and sticky melodies and the singing claims a more central space.  In sanding the fuzz down, instead of the smoothness being uncomplicated, new contours showed up and the swaggering melancholy that was always there was irresistible now.  For what it’s worth, this record also boasted my favorite love song of the year, “Don’t Go to Liverpool.”

9.   Now Ensemble, Awake – My favorite bit of chamber music this year.  The first track, “Change” was one of the most stunning things I heard all year with pulsing, overlapping cells of horns and piano and little guitar stings building a painting in turns, stops and surges and perfectly controlled splatter.  And the rest of the record maybe didn’t better better that but it kept the intensity up for the rest of its length.

10. Jessica Pavone, Army of StrangersJessica Pavone comes out just about every year with a record that tops everything she’s done and justifies my fandom, whether it needed justifying in the first place.  This record takes her classical work (as on last year’s lump in the throat Songs of Synastry and Solitude) and her improv work (with Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum and others) and puts them in a string-driven rock context that no one’s done this well since the first couple of Dirty Three records.  Moody washes of ink animated Stan Brakhage style, color rupturing darkness and silence splitting sound apart and vice versa. 

11. Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO (And Other American Stories) – Hayes Carll should be the great hope of mainstream country if the world would pay attention.  A thin voice with a tight-enough band but a textbook example of the sum being greater than the parts.  The record has a few curveballs, what feels like enough weirdness to keep the writer from getting bored or complacent, as in the cut-up morphine dream rockabilly of the title track and the Eddie Cochrane meets Booker T boogie for the new Depression of “Stomp and Holler”.  But where this excels is its takes on traditionalism, the sensitive-but-not-quite-broken Merle Haggard ballad of “Chances Are” and the almost-minimal break up remembered with a smile of “Bye Bye Baby” and the slightly political sex duet with Cary Ann Hearst of “Another Like You.”  He writes melodies you’re sure you’ve heard before and lyrics that sound like the bar conversation you always think you had until the next morning’s phone call to rattle off your indiscretions.

12. Gabriel Kahane, Where Are the Arms – Kahane’s second album of pop songs is an ice sculpture of an exposed nerve.  It takes up the gauntlet thrown down by those beautiful David Garland records and pushes on the rib cage, connecting the inherent minimalism in rock with the pulse of minimalism and wrapping it around heartbreaking songs sung perfectly.

13. Psychedelic Horseshit, LacedMatt Whitehurts’s Psychedelic Horesehit project is often the best kind of frustrating.  He has a habit of discarding something the second he seems to have it under control, taking that one kernel of truth out of it and putting it in a context where he’s no longer so confident.  So this second proper album was a surprise but not a surprise at all.  Working principally with percussionist Ryan Jewell, this is a record of pop dance motifs including tropicalia and Eurodisco turned inside out and held together by Whitehurst’s guitar under layers of dirty gauze and that sneering, post-Ron House lyrical sensibility.  This record was a breath of fresh air whenever it came on my ipod and I couldn’t help but stop random and let the whole thing play.

14. Anna Calvi, Anna Calvi This record is a monument to complicated, raw sensuality.  As much about the way breath feels in her (for a lot of definitions of “her”) lungs, inside and out as it is about the on-the-page content.  That said, the content’s pretty damn good too with songs worthy of Roy Orbison or Nick Cave – it wasn’t a surprise when she opened for Grinderman – with minimal percussion and blankets of harmonium, cut through by oil-spill strings and Calvi’s flamenco guitar.  This record has the sexiness of being held in mid-air over curved, sharpened knives.

15. Hunx and his Punx, Too Young to Be in LoveThere are few things I like more than girl group music, and no one’s writing better songs in that mold than Hunx. 

16. Baby Dee, Regifted LightAnother great, piano-heavy record from one of the great songwriters of this confused, joyful, fucked-up age.  A few gorgeous instrumentals around Baby Dee’s always heart-wrenching and frequently hilarious songs, particular attention should be paid to the title track “His blessing glistens on my back / And multiplies / As I regift it to your eyes / Its gentleness increases”.

17. Psandwich, Northren Psych –Every few years, Ron House reappears with a new set of songs that put everyone in Columbus on notice.  One of his best bands, and that’s saying something, and they’re firing on all cylinders with Zac Szymusiak’s drums heavy on kick and tom, Bobby Silver’s melodic bass playing and the snaking, searing guitars of Brett Burleson and John Olexovitch building barbed wire sculptures around House’s voice and lyrics. 

18. Harris Eisenstadt, September SongsEistenstadt’s compositions just get stronger and his drumming continues to blow me away.  As much as I love his usual sextet, there’s a lushness and immediacy in this trio – with Angelica Sanchez on drums and Ellery Eskelin on tenor – that I can’t get enough of.  Ballads that harken back to the dark-sexy side of ‘60s Blue Note but without ever being a museum piece.

19. Cheater Slicks, Guttural: Live 2010It’s a live Cheater Slicks record they thought was good enough to release.  Of course I think anyone reading this needs to buy it.  This band has been on a big resurgence the last few years and this does an amazing job of capturing the volatile, snarling energy of them on a good night in a little bar.

20. Charalambides, ExileEverything those of us who are fans expect from a Charlambides record but somehow avoiding the trap of being stale or precious.  Christina Carter’s voice still cuts through the guitar landscapes like a knife and oblique narratives float on top of everything, meditative but always unsettling.

21. Follies, Broadway Revival Cast Recording – I’ve been obsessed with Sondheim for as long as I’ve cared about music – the same friend introduced me to Sondheim as, a few years later, introduced me to whiskey; I’m never sure if I should send him a gift every year or punch him – but the original cast recording of Follies always sounded really shoddy, despite the talk (which I believe) being that it was one of the best casts of all time.  So I knew the songs but didn’t know them until this new revival.  The cast is just about perfect – Bernadette Peters sounding incredibly fragile as Sally Durant, Ron Raines as Ben Stone coming apart – and everything is just clear enough.  These are ghosts meant to be seen in close up.

22. Jenny Hval, VisceraA perfect title for a near-perfect record.  This is an accounting of everything inside and everything that keeps a person moving, without obscuring any of the dripping unevenness. 

23. Matthew Shipp, Art of the Improviser – A perfect summing up of Shipp’s solo piano and working trio, taking on his compositions from many periods of his career and standards and applying a cubist’s logic to get at the real emotional, structural core. 

24. Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges – One of the most stunning solo saxophone composed records I’ve ever heard.  Little dashes of electronics and brief guest appearances by Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden help fill out the universe.  Just like the stunning Tara Donovan sculpture in my other best-of list I said used mylar to trap the light it’s sculpting with, these are sculptures of pure breath, exorcism via exhalation.

25. Noveller, Glacial Glow –Sarah Lipstate continues the evolution of the Noveller project getting cleaner and more focused but always keeping up that intensity and that mystery.  As a solo guitar record this is an interesting companion to the Stetson record on the list, how much feeling can you funnel through that intense, meditative stripping-away and how do you make it flower, how do you make it explode into a night sky?