1. KRANK 122: Christina Carter: Original Darkness (2008)

    In her many releases on Kranky, either solo or with Charalambides, Christina Carter has basically displayed two sides of her aesthetic—primal, wordless music or something approaching familiar, folk-like song forms. In truth the two varieties are not that far removed from each other, as Carter’s overarching m.o. is improvisation and ephemerality as a vehicle for spiritual epiphany. Her music is essentially like a Zen koan—incomprehensible contradictions that,if properly received, might bring you to a new level. Sometimes she succeeds—see Living Contact (KRANK 075) or Charalambides’ A Vintage Burden (KRANK 095). Other times, she doesn’t—see most the rest of her Kranky output, including this album.

    Original Darkness gets off to a rocky start. On the opening, title track, Carter seems to have all the elements of a song in her arsenal—a repeating guitar motif, a vocal melody, an organ joining in at the midpoint—but somehow keeps them from ever cohering into a song. Carter performs with a willful amateurism—her overdubbed guitars not quite in sync, her vocal not perfectly in key, her organ strikes a little too aggressive. There is a deliberate lack of finesse applied to what should be a delicate track. On the next two tracks Carter sounds as if she is simply reading straight out of her journal, forcing meter where originally there was none, walking a thin line between song and spoken word poetry. “You are So Far Away” sounds quite literally like a letter to Tom Carter, Christina’s ex-husband and Charalambides partner; the sentiment of her words is intimate and even a bit beautiful, though as a piece of music it is not terribly enjoyable.

    In many ways Original Darkness reminds me of the Kranky album that so far ranks as my absolute least favorite, Dawn Smithson’s Safer Here (KRANK 089). Both possess a level of amateurism that makes them hard to sit through. Carter fares slightly better only because it’s clear this is her intention—conceptually, Original Darkness has a stronger foundation. That doesn’t mean the end result is a whole lot better.

    The record makes a shift toward the (somewhat) better on “Re-Found Mary,” when Carter moves toward material that more closely resembles her Charalambides aesthetic—minimal, primal, reaching toward another plane if consciousness. As with past material the success of these tracks lies more with the listener than with Carter. You’ve got to be on the same page as Carter in order to find pleasure in her work; she certainly doesn’t extend easy entree into her music. 

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  2. KRANK 121: Bird Show: Untitled (2008)

    Ben Vida’s first album as Bird Show (KRANK 078) emphasized the instrumental—thumb piano, percussion, sawing violins, electronics. His second (KRANK 093) brought his self-harmonizing vocals to the fore while still maintaining the largely atonal aesthetic. Now with his third, Vida not only finds the right balance of vocal/instrumental and song/improvisation, but he treats Bird Show as a band and not a solo act. His previous albums sometimes felt claustrophobic, perhaps because they were layers of loops and overdubs by one person. On this album Vida invites his brother, Adam, and Michael Zerang to constitute of full band. This gives many of the tracks more blood, more breath. Even if the overall Bird Show aesthetic is still present—drum circle rhythms, druggy vocals, fluxus-like electronics—the group dynamic imbues it with a looseness that approximates the energy of a live performance. It might be worth noting that Vida started using his name for subsequent solo outings, while the fourth Bird Show album was credited to the Bird Show Band; this, meanwhile, was Vida’s last album for Kranky. He went out on his highest note—this is his best Kranky release.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  3. KRANK 111120

    I feel a bit like a marathon runner at mile 19 or so. My legs are beginning to give a bit, but I’ve come too far to stop—I can see the finish line ahead of me. This batch of ten was decent, not great. The run from KRANK 112 to 116 (and 120) was kind of a slog—all artists I knew, some of whom at best I like (not love), and a few of which I’m just not crazy about or am plain tired of hearing at this point. The new-to-me artists Cloudland Canyon and Jonas Reinhardt were the exceptions, though it’s bittersweet knowing that Cloudland Canyon left the label following Lie in Light, so we’ve no more to look forward to from them. Joining Cloudland for their final Kranky bow are Autistic Daughters and Valet; the former I never really did connect with, the latter improved with her second album though never, to my ears, reached that top tier of Kranky greatness.

    Coming up in the next ten, lots of Kranky veterans in the form of Bird Show, Christina Carter, Benoit Pioulard, Deerhunter, and Tim Hecker, plus the happy return of Pan*American and Windy & Carl, two favorites who we haven’t covered in quite a while. New faces will include Raglani and Lockett Pundt’s first outing away from Deerhunter, Lotus Plaza.

    As always, you can catch up on all past writings via the archive—search by catalog number or by artist. You can also hear nearly every single album released on Kranky via this Spotify playlist

    A+ to A-

    • Cloudland Canyon: Silver Tongued Sisyphus (KRANK 111A
    • Cloudland Canyon: Lie in Light (KRANK 117A
    • Jonas Reinhardt: s/t (KRANK 119A

    B+ to B-

    • Christopher Bissonnette: In Between Worlds (KRANK 118B+
    • Atlas Sound: Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel (KRANK 114B
    • Valet: Naked Acid (KRANK 116B

    C+ to C

    • Charalambides: Likeness (KRANK 113C
    • Autistic Daughters: Uneasy Flowers (KRANK 115C

    C- to F

    • To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie: The Patron (KRANK 112C-
    • Boduf Songs: How Shadows Chase the Balance (KRANK 120)  C-

    Average grade for KRANK 111–120: B
    Average grade for KRANK 101–110: A

    Average grade for KRANK 091–100: A
    Average grade for KRANK 081–090: B
    Average grade for KRANK 071–080: B-
    Average grade for KRANK 061–070: D+
    Average grade for KRANK 051–060: A-

    Average grade for KRANK 041–050: A+
    Average grade for KRANK 031–040: C
    Average grade for KRANK 021–030: A
    Average grade for KRANK 011–020: B-
    Average grade for KRANK 001–010: C+

     

  4. KRANK 120: Boduf Songs: How Shadows Chase the Balance (2008)

    Here’s a strange phenomenon: Boduf Songs’ albums are getting progressively (if incrementally) better, but my distaste for his music is also increasing, almost exponentially so. I think my write-up of Lion Devours the Sun (KRANK 099) summed up my feelings about Boduf Songs, and How Shadows Chase the Balance isn’t so different that my opinion has changed much. 

    If, on the other hand, Mat “all of my heroes died the same day” Sweet’s oppressively down songs don’t nag at you the way they do me, then let me say this: this, his third album, is his best so far. The production is still lo-fi, the lyrical imagery is still bleak, and the general vibe of his songs has not veered too far from the sound of his debut (KRANK 085); but here and there Sweet colors in his sound with fuller instrumentation, to the benefit of those tracks. “Things Not to Be Done On the Sabbath” features a nice banjo accompaniment, and “Quiet When Group” pushes forward with a thick, plodding rhythm section. Both are welcome additions to Sweet’s usual m.o., which is typically just whispered vocals over acoustic guitar. Most of the record still hews to Sweet’s usual style, but the few fuller tracks give How Shadows Chase the Balance more of an ebb and flow than his previous two. Better would have been a whole album full of this added dressing; as it stands, the improvement here is only slight.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  5. KRANK 119: Jonas Reinhardt: s/t (2008)

    The influence of krautrock looms large over a great deal of the Kranky catalog, whether it’s the open-ended jams of Amon Düül II or the repetitious rock of Can and Neu! or the drones of Klaus Schulze. In this most recent run of Kranky albums, however, it seems to be the pioneering electronics of Cluster and Harmonia. (See also my recent favorite, Andrew Pekler’s Cue, KRANK 109). The latest case in point: Jonas Reinhardt.

    I admit a certain bias here. I’ll knock a few proverbial points off of Cryptograms because it sounds too much like various 90s indie stuff, but I tend to add points to anything that draws on certain realms of kosmiche music (which is another way of saying that, while I noted all of Cloudland Canyon’s influences a couple records back, I really like that album [KRANK 117]).Yes, this is a hypocritical stance. Now that I’ve acknowledged it, let’s move on.

    Like Cloudland Canyon, Jonas Reinhardt’s sound is absolutely vintage—an incredible act of mimicry. What makes classic Cluster albums like Zuckerzeit or Soweisoso so compelling is that they manage to be a hybrid of organic and synthetic—you sense the cold-blooded electronics as much as the warm-blooded hands that manipulate them (not for nothing that Kraftwerk made a record called The Man-Machine). Reinhardt accomplishes the same. 

    "Reinhardt." I’m talking about the artist as if he’s one person. In fact there is no individual by that name. On this album the alias mostly belongs to San Francisco musician Jesse Reiner, though he had assistance from Trans Am’s Phil Manley, and the two would go on to steward Jonas Reinhardt into a full-band format on subsequent albums (all the way up to Ganymede, released just last month). So this debut might be taken as the seed of an idea just beginning to take root—one man’s idea of what Jonas Reinhardt is, but soon to be opened up to collaborators.

    None of the thirteen tracks here are too long. Most are under four minutes, and the longest track just edges past six. The album sometimes feels like a sketchbook; any of these tracks could have doubled or tripled in length to plausible improvements. That’s not a complaint about the material as presented—only that I want more.  

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  6. KRANK 118: Christopher Bissonnette: In Between Words (2008)

    My take on Christopher Bissonnette’s debut was helped along by its title, Periphery (KRANK 087)—that is, his music falls into an area I’ve taken to calling “peripheral ambient,” a kind of minimal ambient that rewards concentration but doesn’t necessarily command it. In Between Words occupies a similar zone, and once again the album’s title helps to describe Bissonnette’s aesthetic. I suppose you could take “in between words” to mean the silence between words spoken; my first thought was more typographic—the negative space between words on the page or screen. In a way that space defies language and defines it at the same time. It’s not silence—it’s context.

    The six long tracks here could be said to be something similar. They’re minimal but not silent. They’re more than mere “sound,” but they also demand little from your ears. This is subtle stuff, in other words.

    "Provenance," the opening track, is a good example of the nuance to be found in Bissonnette’s work. In one regard it is a ten-minute drone piece—strings, oscillating tones, a low distorted guitar, all hyperelongated into many layers hovering around the same drawn-out note. Only none of them are a perfect tone. Each seems to be quavering around the edges of purity, clashing against each other at a microtonal scale. The song is a long drone and a constant mutation at once.

    Most of In Between Words operates on this level, with the minor exception of the tolling bells of “Tempest” and the slightly more rhythmic “Orffyreus Wheel,” which sounds a little like Loscil at his most minimal. This album makes no real demands of its listener, though there is plenty of nuance if you take the effort to hone in.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  7. KRANK 117: Cloudland Canyon: Lie in Light (2008)

    The opening track on Cloudland Canyon’s debut full-length is titled “Krautwerk”—a three-way reference to Kraftwerk, the song “Krautrock” that opens Faust IV, and the krautrock genre as a whole. And then there is the song itself, which actually sounds most like La Dusseldorf, Klaus Dinger’s post-Neu! outfit. Coming off Cloudland’s Silver Tongued Sisyphus EP (KRANK 111), which was shaded by hints of Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, and Harmonia, you start to get the idea.

    Or do you? It’s true there’s something inextricably vintage about Cloudland Canyon’s sound, but the krautrock derivations dissipate fairly quickly—or, at least, they blend with other influences that dilute any one obvious reference point. The duo of Simon Wojan and Kip Ulhorn call two nations home—Wojan from Germany, Ulhorn from the U.S.—and it shows. Strains of American psychedelia (everything from 13th Floor Elevators to Flaming Lips) factor into their sound as well. 

    As Lie in Light gets going it manifests as a swirl of drone-rock. There’s a thickness to these songs, a palpable fog. “White Woman” and the title track are beatless squalls; album highlight “You & I” is built out of a dense, heaving groove. The album threads long instrumental passages with melodic vocals that somehow feel anthemic and dissolved at the same time. By the time the album ends the game of “spot the influences” has totally evaporated. Somehow Cloudland Canyon manage to throw it all into a stew that is, ultimately, fulfilling all on its own.

    (Source: Spotify)

     


  8. PS feel free to buy the book, too.

     

  9. KRANK 116: Valet: Naked Acid (2008)

    Honey Owens’ second album as Valet follower her debut, Blood is Clean (KRANK 105), by just eleven months. Given such a short span of time between releases, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Naked Acid felt like a retread of the debut. In fact, it’s a marked improvement. While it had many strong moments, Blood is Clean was both eclectic and ephemeral. Its eight tracks ranged from good to great but did not always feel connected to each other, or were wispy enough to slip from memory once they were over. Aesthetically, Naked Acid is not too different, but it is nevertheless a big step forward—Owens maintains the eclecticism (more so, even!), but this time sews it together into gorgeous tapestry, especially in the first half. Traditional song forms slip in and out of ambient washes; electric guitars peal across some tracks; and the specter of Jon Hassell’s Fourth World Music hangs over the whole affair. The entire record hangs together as one epic experience, with discernible movements and a tangible arc as it moves from the almost folky “We Went There” to the minimal “Drum Movie,” then into album highlight “Keharr,” with its processed vocals and soaring guitars. Owens eases down from that height with “Fuck It,” which begins as a half-formed bluesy number that might’ve been recorded in her bathroom but devolves into an improvised swarm. That song signals entry into Naked Acid's second half, full of fairly loose songwriting that veers toward a Christina Carter/Charalambides-esque improvisational vibe without going quite as far as those albums. Finally Owens upends the whole shebang with closer “Streets,” a distorted beat-filled electronica track unlike anything else on this or her last album. Somehow it all works—the beats, the songs, the open-endedness, the ambient sections: Naked Acid stays thoughtful, never allowing its variety to dissolve into a lack of focus. Owens has somehow managed to become more eclectic yet more assured at the same time.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  10. KRANK 115: Autistic Daughters: Uneasy Flowers(2008)

    Four years separate Uneasy Flowers from Autistic Daughters’ debut, Jealousy and Diamond (KRANK 076), though the elapsed time does not translate into a huge aesthetic leap. The group still makes slow and spacious music in the vein of Hood or late-period Talk Talk, though lacking the melodicism and grandeur of the latter band. There are little details here and there that are quite nice (the hand claps in “Rehana’s Theme,” the intro and outro to “Starch and Liquid”), though they’re not enough to elevate the album far beyond the previous album or bandleader Dean Roberts’ earlier solo album (KRANK 063). The issue as usual is Roberts’ vocals—not so much bad as ill-conceived. His lyrics, separated from the music, are engaging, with characters and images recurring throughout the record. But that’s just it: they seem to have been composed away from the music, as if the whole album were one long story. That in itself is no flaw, but Roberts often seems to be in search of a melody that links his words to the music. His shaky voice meanders up and down, unmoored from rhyme or meter, foraging among the minimalist rhythm section which offers little to no foundation to hook into. Uneasy Flowers would be all the better if Roberts simply printed his lyrics in the liner notes but allowed the record itself to be instrumental—because Autistic Daughters’ strength, by far, is in their musicianship. Brushed drums, clattering piano, minimal guitars, intruding sounds—Uneasy Flowers is actually a sonically interesting album! If only we were allowed to focus on that.

    (Source: Spotify)