1. KRANK 185: Anjou: Anjou (2014)

    In retrospect, Pan*American’s excellent 2013 album Cloud Room, Glass Room (KRANK 175) was a dry run for Anjou. Primary Pan*American Mark Nelson had already enlisted drummer Steven Hess for his last three albums, and on Cloud Room he also asked Bobby Donne, with whom he had not collaborated since Labradford’s Fixed: : Context (KRANK 047), to fill out the bass on half the record. Cloud Room, as I said in my write-up of that album, is really the first Pan*American album to sound like it was made by a band and not a solo artist + sidemen. So perhaps it makes sense that for their next outing, now with Donne a fully fledged member, they arrive in a new guise.

    The music of Anjou is also somewhat distinct from the trio’s past work, in any iteration. Donne’s bass playing is extremely subtle here, compared to the way in which he anchored so many classic Labradford (like my favorite, “Pico,” from Labradford’s self-titled album, KRANK 013). Nelson, too, has taken a new approach to his guitar on this album. In both Labradford and Pan*American, Nelson always brought a melodic element to his songs, even if the overall effect of his music veered toward the minimal. In fact melody is less than a passing concern on Anjou, outside of the simple descending line of “Adjustment.” More often Nelson’s guitar is used for swelling feedback (“Inclosed”) or long, low, distorted chords (“Sighting”). Anjou is about texture and rhythm.

    Rhythm: by contrast, Hess is much more present in Anjou than he ever was with Pan*American, barring perhaps “Glass Room at the Airport” from 2013, which feels like a harbinger for the sound of the new act—ambient textures juxtaposed against a clatter of percussion. Hess only shows up periodically here, but when he does, it is with force. His kit takes on the role of a lurking menace, creeping into “Sighting” and “Readings” in their midway points and upending their ambient character. Ben Frost’s album from this year, Aurora, presents a similar juxtaposition of minimal ambient and percussive force; but where Frost deals in extremes of silence and bombast, Hess achieves something more organic.

    Texture: the real glue of the record is not Hess’s drums, nor Nelson’s guitar, nor Donne’s bass. Rather, it is the modular synths droning and washing through each track, and the skittering hisses of static and clicks that quietly clatter across the album. There is an itchiness to Anjou, a restlessness even in its quietest moments.

    In one lineup or another, these three musicians have been walking a line between restrained live performance and minimal electronica, be it Fixed: : ContextThe River Made No Sound (KRANK 051), For Waiting, For Chasing (KRANK 152), or Cloud Room, Glass RoomAnjou is different, yet the same. Like all albums Nelson has played on, Anjou is at times captivating and at others maybe a bit too inert. It does stand apart in that it feels more ominous, even at times sinister. It’s not always a given that something is going to happen on a Labradford or Pan*American track. Anjou, always simmering and sometimes boiling over, keeps you on your toes.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  2. KRANK 184: Tara Jane O’Neil: Where Shine New Lights (2014)

    Tara Jane O’Neil has been making music in the underground about as long as Kranky has been in existence, though this is her first release for the label. She got her start in the Louisville punk/post-rock/indie scene, first with the seminal Rodan, then with acclaimed-at-the-time acts Retsin and the Sonora Pine, plus a handful of solo albums. I admit I haven’t kept up with her output in the latter half of her twenty-year career, although Where Shine New Lights may encourage me to rectify that.

    The twelve songs on Where Shine New Lights can sometimes feel slightor half-formed, yet as a whole the record is deeply compelling. O’Neil enlists a rogue’s gallery of collaborators—Dan Littleton and Elizabeth Mitchell (Ida), Warren Defever (His Name is Alive), Corey Fogel (Julia Holter, the Mae Shi), Tim Barnes (Jim O’Rourke, the Essex Green), and others—though they each contribute a bare minimum. Each song is minimally played, sometimes hinting at a song structure if not actually assembling one.

    A lot of groups on Kranky veer between songwriting and ambient music, but O’Neil does it differently. She’s not juxtaposing soundscapes with songs a la Benoit Pioulard or dousing everything in murky production like Grouper. She simply lets her delicate songs drift, as if carried by the wind. Sometimes they coalesce into a straightforward, soft-spoken tune like “The Lull the Going,” or other times they pass through the air, barely noticeable, like “Glow Now.” Numerous tracks feature O’Neil singing wordlessly, offering just enough of a vocal melody to maintain a presence. Where Shine New Lights holds together like a spider’s web—it’s beautiful to behold if you can focus enough to find it, though the whole thing might fall apart with the slightest touch.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  3. KRANK 183: Tim Hecker: Virgins (2013)

    Tim Hecker took a creative leap on Ravedeath, 1972 (KRANK 154) by introducing not just acoustic instruments in the form of pipe organ and piano, but also a spatial element in the form of the naturally reverberating Icelandic church in which he recorded his source material. Applied to his extreme digital savaging, the resulting combination was both more massive and more conceptually coherent than any of his previous albums. Virgins, his proper followup to Ravedeath (discounting the sketches of Dropped PIanos, KRANK 161), expands on the ideas set forth on the prior album by bringing in more instruments and, crucially, other musicians, to produce sounds for Hecker to rip asunder.

    Even compared to Ravedeath—never mind Hecker’s earlier albums—Virgins feels like a dramatic departure. Much like the leap Stars of the Lid took from Avec Laudenum (KRANK 059) to The Tired Sounds of… (KRANK 050), Hecker has taken on a role more like a composer, not merely a musician or laptop savant.

    Virgins is somehow more intellectual and more emotional at once. A big reason for that is the arc of the record. Where past albums were often made up of multi-part suites that occupied hulking swathes of their records, here Hecker spreads motifs out, so themes bubble up, echo, repeat. Most apparent is a circular piano progression introduced briefly in opener “Prism” and then presented more nakedly in “Virginal I.” Variations show up again in the stellar “Live Room” and “Virginal II.” If left alone, the piano might resemble a Steve Reich composition. Of course Hecker doesn’t leave things alone. Aside from his percussive attack on the keys, the chords are also cut and jammed into each other, fading out and abruptly collapsing in on themselves.

    "Live Room," placed at the center of the record, is not only the highlight of Virgins but also stands as Hecker’s best work, period. It reaches a dramatic, orchestral apex unlike any other crescendo Hecker has reached before, precisely because the track never loses its musicality, even in its most intense moments. Its epilogue, “Live Room Out” is an elegiac comedown, gently cushioned by soft woodwinds. The track is a perfect example of how Virgins has evolved from Ravedeath—and also Dropped Pianos, which revealed the musicianship that underlies Ravedeath's distortion and decay. Virgins pulls the best elements of both those albums and maintains a balance between the two. On Ravdeath Hecker posed his sounds in opposition to each other—the piano and organ seemed to be pitched in battle against the encroaching digital darkness. This time around, due to the greater prominence and familiarity of piano and woodwinds (and gentler moments like “Radiance,” “Live Room Out,” and “Black Refraction”), the various sounds are working in concert with each other, even if the music still possesses a terrible violence.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  4. KRANK 182: Disappears: Era (2013)

    On Disappears’ first three albums, the band displayed an unsentimental, production-line approach to their songs. The addition of Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and producer John Congleton on Pre Language, their third album (KRANK 164), jolted the group somewhat out of their comfort zone—or perhaps it was simply the best-executed iteration of their sound.

    Shelley didn’t remain in the band long; he was replaced by drummer Noah Ledger, who had previously done time in the Speaking Canaries and Milemarker, among others. The change is noticeable—Shelley was crisp, tight; Ledger plays big. “Power” is a good compare/contrast between the two. The format of the song is not all that different from Pre Language’s “Replicate”—skeletal riffing and a simple yet driving beat. But where Shelley played with forceful precision, Ledger’s sound is a more malevolent power.

    But there are other evolutions in Disappears’ aesthetic that have an even bigger impact. Era is the first Disappears album to have a real arc to it—song lengths vary, and there is a dynamic shift from track to track. As opposed to the assembly line churn of past albums, Era has the feel of a live set. Transitions from song to song are seamless, as if the band can’t wait to start the next song before they’ve finished the current one. The songs also build from and react to each other—from the maelstrom of “Girl,” the leering “Ultra,” the weird pop of “Weird House,” the ominous closer “New House.”

    Critically, Era is by far Brian Case’s best turn as a frontman. His style across all Disappears albums is a monosyllabic wild-dog bark. On Era he’s wilder, more sinister, more impassioned. On “Ultra,” the album’s best moment, he comes off truly creepy, growling “If you go, I go” with a stalker’s menace. On the title track he imbues his words with a strain of emotion lacking from past records, levied by the comical vocal turn of the Wire-esque “Weird House.”

    The strength of Disappears’ earlier albums lay in their formality. There is a kind of monochromatic repetition that buoys Lux (KRANK 143), for instance. On Era Disappears have managed to inject variety into their craft without sacrificing their overall punch. The album bristles against the band’s past definitiveness, opening up new doors for the band to pass through on future releases. Assuming this lineup holds, perhaps this is indeed a new era for the group.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  5. August Mix

    1. Pye Corner Audio: Shared Secret Key (from Intercepts, 2014)
    2. Blonde Redhead: Dripping (from Barragán, 2014)
    3. Spoon: Do You (from They Want My Soul, 2014)
    4. Tim Hecker: (They Call Me) Jimmy (from Radio Amor, 2003)
    5. Lawrence English: Another Body (from Wilderness of Mirrors, 2014)
    6. Eddy Arnold: I Wanna Play House with You (1951)
    7. Porya Hatami: Ladybug (from The Garden, 2014)
    8. Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins: The Way You Look Tonight (from Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, 1954)

    Stray Thoughts

    • I listened to They Want My Soul a lot this month. It was nice to have an indie album that kept pulling me back—I haven’t had one of those all year, really.
    • Aside from that I probably listened most to Eddy Arnold’s greatest hits and the Monk/Rollins album. Not sure what compelled me to listen to either in the first place but I’ve been enjoying both.
    • Porya Hatami is one of those ambient artists who is hard to keep up with. The Garden is his fourth release in 2014 alone. It is very good but I prefer Shallow, which is on my longlist for best albums of the year.
     

  6. KRANK 181: Tim Hecker: Mirages (2004; reissued 2013)

    Tim Hecker’s first release for Kranky, Harmony in Ultraviolet (KRANK 102), was his fourth album overall (not counting an earlier life under the name Jetone). Since then he released three more albums on the label, and we’re just a couple of write-ups away from one more, Virgins. But before we come to his latest, we have the opportunity to travel back to 2004 for Mirages, originally released on Alien8, the album that immediately preceded Harmony.

    Harmony was such a stunning performance, you might imagine that the records preceding it were examples of Hecker finding his voice. That is true to an extent, but what’s most impressive is that Hecker was really making outstanding work from day one. Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It AgainRadio Amor, and Mirages are all outstanding. In retrospect they do show Hecker in an earlier, but not necessarily lesser, form. In my write-up of Harmony I described how listening to it at high volume gave me the epiphany that Hecker is not an ambient artist, but a noise artist. The same can’t be said for his earlier albums, Mirages included. Static, distortion, feedback, and decay are all in the mix, but they are not deployed as aggressively as they would be on later albums like the blistering An Imaginary Country (KRANK 130) or the leeching Ravedeath, 1972 (KRANK154). Rather, they creep into and often swallow up otherwise serene synth tracks. One of the highlights of Mirages is its closer, ”Incurably Optimistic!”, a peaceful three-chord progression that is gradually overtaken by a wash of static and feedback over the course of almost eleven minutes. By the time of Ravedeath, you’re lucky to get more than sixty seconds of something so restful.

    The tension between signal and noise defines Hecker’s entire body of work. Taken on their own terms, the eleven tracks on Mirages strike that balance too. In the big picture of Hecker’s discography, however, Mirages might be one of his lesser works, though it is still quite good. The earlier Haunt Me and Radio Amor albums peel off the noise more readily as Hecker’s sinks into ambient sounds with less obstruction. Here and there, they also reveal elements of Hecker’s minimal techno pre-history, which he obliterated completely by the time of Mirages. And in retrospect a lot of the ideas Hecker explores on Mirages are taken to deeper and more rewarding extremes on Harmony in Ultraviolet—not to mention the magnificent conceptual heights of Ravedeath. Still, even if there are better Hecker albums out there, Mirages still shows the artist working at a high level. Hecker has a sound and approach unlike any others—there’s not mistaking Mirages as the work of anyone else.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  7. After two batches of A+ material, this batch came down ever so slightly—lots of great albums if not any outright classics. Others might disagree on that point in regards to Grouper, whom I know is highly rated in some corners. I do really like her, though perhaps two albums in a row hampered my enjoyment a little. Of all the releases below, it’s worth noting that Pan*American made one of his most interesting records, and newbie Justin Walter made a super-promising record. He’s worth checking out and worth keeping track of for future output.

    The next batch is… the last batch. Well, “last” in the sense that by the time I reach KRANK 190 I will be following the label in real time, and my posts will necessarily be spaced out months at a time, in parallel to their release schedule. But we’re not there yet: follow me into 2014 with two releases from Tim Hecker, new signee Tara Jane O’Neil, and the return of some old favorites in newish guises, Anjou and A Winged Victory for the Sullen.

    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-

    • Loscil: Sketches from New Brighton (KRANK 171A
    • Pan*American: Cloud Room, Glass Room (KRANK 175A-
    • Justin Walter: Lullabies & Nightmares (KRANK 179A-
    • Ken Camden: Space Mirror (KRANK 180A-

    B+ to B-

    • Grouper: Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (KRANK 176B+
    • Implodes: Recurring Dream (KRANK 174B
    • Grouper: The Man Who Died in His Boat (KRANK 177B
    • Benoit Pioulard: Hymnal (KRANK 178B

    C+ to C

    C- to F

    Average grade for KANK 171–180: A
    Average grade for KRANK 161–170: A+
    Average grade for KRANK 151–160: A+

    Average grade for KRANK 141–150: A
    Average grade for KRANK 131–140: A
    Average grade for KRANK 121–130: A+
    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+

     

  8. KRANK 180: Ken Camden: Space Mirror (2013)

    There are a lot of side projects and solo bows within the Kranky universe—Labradford and Pan*American, Charalambides and Christina Carter, Stars of the Lid and Brian McBride or the Dead Texan, to name a few. In nearly every case, the side efforts are frankly not too distinct from the artists’ main gigs. Not so with Implodes guitarist Ken Camden. Where Implodes’ two albums (KRANK 156, KRANK 174) are dank and menacing, Camden on his own reaches for something crystalline and cosmic. There is nothing about his solo material that would indicate his presence in Implodes, nor vice versa.

    Space Mirror picks up where Camden’s excellent debut, Lethargy & Repercussions (KRANK 140), left off. Each track is solo electric guitar, looped and overdubbed and processed so as to sound much more like a whole group of synthesizers. Camden’s guitar drones, burbles, soars, dunks, chirps, whistles, glides. Only occasionally does it sound like a guitar—a change from the debut, where it never sounded like one.

    The change might be due to the fact that the songs this time around stretch out a bit more. They depend less on looping, Cluster-like patterns and instead go for a Manuel Gottsching-esque spaciousness. It makes for something somewhat more serious-minded this time around. The album’s title gives a good sense of what Camden is going for—not only looking into the cosmos, but doubling its size through reflection. Space Mirror is short, just six songs in forty minutes. But it feels much grander. Camden is making music loosely understood as ambient but reaching for something greater. His music does not fade into the background nor drone academically nor wrap around you like a cocoon. It stretches out, it reaches, it searches.

    (Source: Spotify)

     

  9. KRANK 179: Justin Walter: Lullabies & Nightmares (2013)

    Credit to Justin Walter for being a new signee to Kranky despite not having a body of work behind him via other labels or affiliations. He’s the first artist to come onto the label in that fashion since Felix and Ken Camden—forty releases ago, circa 2009–2010. (You could argue that he had some level of pedigree as the trumpet player in Nomo, a Michigan-based Afrobeat band… but I would argue back.)

    And good for Kranky for taking a chance with Walter. Lullabies & Nightmares is definitely the work of someone with a unique voice. The eleven tracks here are all improvisations with minimal overdubs. Walter produces most of the sounds via processed kalimba (thumb piano), electronics, trumpet, and something called an Electric Valve Instrument—a trumpet/synthesizer hybrid invented in the 1970s. Drummer Quinn Kirchner offers light percussion here and there, such as the jazzy shuffle that perks up “Dream Weaving.”

    The Kranky catalog is full of artists who take a familiar instrument and transform it into something else—the guitars of early Stars of the Lid (KRANK 015) or Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Playthroughs (KRANK 055), the organ on Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 (KRANK 154), various instruments on Greg Davis’ Somnia (KRANK 074). But Walter is, I think, the first horn player to take such a stab on the label. The result sounds something like Camden’s excellent Lethargy & Repercussion (KRANK 140), in that tracks like “Western Tears” recall the work of Raymond Scott and Cluster. (I’d be first in line for a Camden/Walter collaboration, by the way.) But it also never loses its grip on Walter’s jazz background, recalling other artists who blend jazz and electronica like Tied & Tickled Trio or Tortoise.

    Lullabies & Nightmares at times feels like a introduction—improvised sketches that show Walter’s potential to make something truly impressive on his next go-round. But not everything feels like a sketch—such as the eight-minute title track, the highlight of the record. It begins with a simple, wave-like pattern, which fades out briefly only to return slightly mutated—Walter clearly looped and scraped it, then picked up his trumpet to solo over top. It’s a nice piece of cyber-noir: futuristic and retro at the same time. As it progresses Walter sets off some wild, squiggling tones in contrast to the warm horn, itself overdubbing on top of itself until it eventually climaxes in triumph. The song never feels busy despite the many layers Walter weaves in. If he could make a whole record as artfully composed as this track, we’d have an outright classic on our hands.

    (Source: Spotify)

     


  10. 2010-14

    My favorite albums:

    10. Rebekka Karijord: Music for Theater and Film (2014)

    9. The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient (2011)

    8. The Radio Dept.: Clinging to a Scheme (2010)

    7. Adam Green & Binki Shapiro: s/t (2013)

    6. Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 (2011)

    5. Feist: Metals (2011)

    4. Josh Ritter: The Beast in Its Tracks (2013)

    3. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (2013)

    2. Beachwood Sparks: The Tarnished Gold (2012)

    1. Arp: The Soft Wave (2010)


    And my favorite songs, roughly ranked from top to bottom. Sorry 2014, your contributions have not sufficiently sunk in yet.


    Cass McCombs: County Line (2011)

    Phosphorescent: Song for Zula (2013)

    LCD Soundsystem: I Can Change (2010)

    Little Scream: The Heron and the Fox (2011)

    Arp: Pastoral Symphony I. Dominoes II. Infinity Room (2010)

    The Walkmen: Heartbreaker (2012)

    Josh Ritter: Hopeful (2013)

    Andrew Bird: Danse Carribe (2012)

    Tame Impala: Apocalypse Dreams (2012)

    Adam Green & Binki Shapiro: Here I Am (2013)

    Los Colognes: Working Together (2013)

    Vampire Weekend: Unbelievers (2013)