Rejjie Snow – Dear Annie

This is a compact, impressively focused effort by an upstart Irish rapper, and his overarching thesis is chill vibes. Normally I don’t go for this frequency of hip-hop unless it comes washed thick layers of electronica, but Rejjie’s simple, mostly live productions in such a concise package left me wanting more. Every track brings something else to the table, each occupying a slightly different sonic sphere all while basking under the safety of the chill-hop umbrella. A solid slate of guest features further keeps up interest through these four tracks… Wait, is this a full LP?

An hour later, I’ve realized that I’ve made a terrible mistake. The four tracks I enjoyed were only a sampling of the 20 total tracks on Dear Annie. I must have saved this album back when only a few of its tracks were available. As I listen to the full album, Rejjie’s diverse musical style begins to congeal into familiar patterns and tropes. I enjoy the experience, but having mentioned earlier that this is not my style of hip-hop, I’m a little disappointed that this didn’t come in a smaller package. In a world where all of the world’s music is practically free to listen to, why do artists insist on such sprawling releases? Quality is must be tantamount, though I understand that rappers love the sound of their voice.

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Johnny Greenwood – Phantom Thread (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

If you read my post from yesterday, you may have noticed in my listing of Modern-era classical composers (a paradoxical term that deserves its own discussion at some point) that I included several film score composers. Many classical buffs complain that classical music is dying, but technically it is being consumed more now than ever before—as film music! This is evidenced by the fact that practically every major orchestra hall in the country now hosts movie screenings, the orchestra performing the actual film scores live in what is oftentimes the most popular concert series of the year.

Some might argue that film music isn’t classical music at all, and that classical music only refers to a very specific kind of music experience: one without screens, without applause between movements, and most certainly without full-fledged movie screenings going on simultaneously. I have to say that I can’t blame them for being so snobbish—I have been known to split hairs over the definition of classical music myself (check out my post on Poppy Ackroyd’s latest album, Resolve.)

When it’s presented in record form, though, without the movie to distract you, the story is much different. When you hear the brilliant compositions of Johnny Greenwood, combined with the remarkably sensitive playing of the musicians involved—a couple of harpists, light piano, some strings, definitely not a tuba—there’s no denying that this is classical music. It may not come in the same package that Beethoven and Brahms doled out hundreds of years ago, but where’s the efficiency in that? We’re in 2018, folks, and classical music has to learn to act that way. Johnny Greenwood is proving through his award-winning score that this is entirely possible.

Son Lux – Brighter Wounds

First of all, this album is an immersive listen, one that I wasn’t prepared for at first. Speaking of Sinistro’s aggressively masculine sound fronted by a female singer, Son Lux’s is a decidedly effeminate sound led by male singer (and keyboardist) Ryan Lott. This combination didn’t do much to attract my attention, even though I did see some merit in its experimental sonic manipulation, but after forcing myself through a few more listens it began to grow on me. Their fuzzy, fragmented grooves truly are unique and interesting, and their understated attack often unfolds organically into a musical onslaught.

Staying true to the music nerd that I am, however, I really only want to talk about one chord progression here. It’s in the final song, “Resurrection,” and it repeats the following:

Bb Major, D Minor, D Major,  Eb Minor, B Major, D Augmented, D Major, F Major.

I     ——    iii   —–  III    ——     iv    —-    bII     ——–    III+    ——-   III   ——-   V

What the hell!?? What’s with all the weird movement? Really the only normal progression here is the V going back to the I at the very end, with each and every chord along the way offering a weird twist. How does it feel so stable, then? Let’s look at the actual notes, laid out horizontally as chords as they proceed down the page.

D           F           Bb

D            F           A

D            F#          A

    D#         F#      A#(Bb)

D#        F#            B

      D          F#         A#(Bb)

D           F#           A

C            F            A

See any patterns? The chords themselves may not line up, but each individual voice follows a very narrow path vertically down the line. Each new chord shares at least one note with the previous chord, and some share two notes. In classical music, this discipline of maximally smooth harmonies is called Neo-Riemannian theory. It was practiced by many Romantic- and Modern-era composers such as Wagner, Liszt, Schubert, Bernard Hermann, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer, and even popular artists like Radiohead—and now Son Lux.

Readers, if you exist out there… wow! I’m amazed that you made it this far. What do you think about this kind of theoretical analysis? If you do like it—or if you’d like it if I stopped—let me know!

Sinistro – Sangue Cassia

Some good old Portugese sludge here, featuring slow-churning grooves and starring the stigmatizing female voice of one Patrícia Andrade. There’s something especially poignant about female vocalists in metal music—be it Chelsea Wolfe, Evanescence, or Laguna Coil. The juxtaposition of a hyper-macho sonic attack with the effervescence of the female voice has an absolutely chilling effect. I may also like the female voice in metal simply because as a straight male I’m attracted to badass women. Third wave feminism aside, one’s singing voice is the musical pathway to one’s identity, and since I can’t deny the femininity of the sounds I hear, and I have to address them as feminine.

For some reason, the female voice is particularly prevalent in sludge and doom metal, perhaps because the slower tempo allows for more traditional melodies to be sung. In most metal music, male vocalists often serve more as instrumentalists than as singers, offering an an additional layer of grit to the already cacophonous soundscape. While offering intense rhythmic satisfaction, this kind of singing isn’t exactly conducive to melody (although that doesn’t stop metalcore and nu-metal acts from trying to sing and scream at the same time). This in my mind leads to two primary forms of metal, that with the singing and that with the screaming. With the bands discussed so far, this may seem equivalent to the distinction between female-fronted groups and male-fronted groups.

While there may be plenty of metal groups with male singers, are there any examples of female screamers? Is anybody even reading these posts? If so, let me know if you know any female screamers!

Poppy Ackroyd – Resolve

Poppy Ackroyd is a very talented pianist, violinist, and composer. What makes her a composer, though, instead of a songwriter? For starters, these compositions being all instrumental, they’re technically not songs. After all, a song by definition is something that you sing.

Why bother with that distinction, though? Plenty of songwriters have written instrumental “songs.” The only reason why Poppy Ackroyd is a composer, and why her compositions aren’t “songs,” is because this is classical music. Classical music, you see, is a bit more self-serious than your typical music genre, and thus its practitioners demand a separate lexicon of terms describing their craft in a way that is decidedly more sophisticated.

But what, then, makes this classical music? It wasn’t composed by a dead white man but by a very much alive white woman, and furthermore it plays out much more like pop music with its minimal melodic lines and static harmonies. Why, then, is this music deserving of the same self-seriousness as classical music? Sure, there may be a lot of violin and piano, two traditionally classical instruments, but both of these instruments are common in popular genres as well.

The only real reason why Poppy Ackroyd should be considered a composer, and why her compositions aren’t songs, and why her music is classical music, is because she chose for it to be that way. In her classical upbringing, it probably seemed to her like she didn’t even have a choice. It’s important to understand that choice as a musician, though, because it largely determines the course of your career. Poppy Ackroyd could have easily peddled this same music as a “singer-songwriter” and spent her years playing bar gigs, but as a “composer” she gets to play concert halls.

GoGo Penguin – A Humdrum Star

GoGo Penguin is a jazz trio that plays minimal grooves with light electronic effects. I’m a sucker for good musicianship, and these guys do not disappoint here with their dexterous break-beats and sensitive grooves. Harmonically they stick within fairly safe territory, staying true to a post-modern vibe that’s emotional but generic. It’s hard to listen to this music without comparing it to a traditional jazz trio, and this is why I am so affected by the relatively minimal harmonies here. I want there to be more to distinguish this group musically, and so I listen for the electronic effects. The electronics are limited at most, though, with understated reverb and delay effects that only serve to create atmosphere. Where, then, can I find satisfaction in this music?

When I listen to a jazz trio I know immediately to pay close attention to the changes, and the way they are treated by each musician. It’s a meticulous listening experience, and it requires a degree of concentration similar to classical music. This, however, plays more to the idea of ambient music, where less attention is necessary. Hearing those three instruments played together, though, cues up my attention all the same. In order to fully appreciate this group I have to separate myself from these habits and learn not to listen. As I actively listen, though, I still find this music very entertaining.

Julian Lage – Modern Lore

And so one of the most talented guitarists of this generation puts out a solo album. While there’s no doubt this is a great vehicle to display his virtuosic abilities, it isn’t much more than that. Much music released by solo instrumentalists seems to accomplish this, occupying some nebulous genre space between blues, jazz, folk, and country that brinks on the verge of elevator music. I actually can’t decide if this is to his credit or not. I do value performance first and foremost, and so I’m not necessarily deterred if his songs aren’t that compelling. And there’s no doubt that Julian Lage is a great guitarist, combining first-class technique with amazing sensitivity. These are the marks of a great session player, but as a frontman you typically try to inspire audiences with some degree of personality within the songs themselves. As a performer, I wouldn’t be surprised then if Lage intentionally kept his songs tame so as to not detract from his performance of them. Or perhaps, as is the case with most music that doesn’t strike my fancy, I just need to listen to more of it in order to truly understand what’s going on here.