New Amsterdam Records – some CDs reviewed

I’ve been sitting on these records for far too long now, but that doesn’t make them any less worth your attention. So, here are some thoughts on four recent-ish releases from New Amsterdam:

William Brittelle – Mohair Time Warp

While singing in a punk band in 2004, William Brittelle injured his voice so badly that he was barely able to speak, let alone sing. This forced a change of direction towards composition, and Mohair Time Warp – complete with rehabilitated vocals – is the first substantial result. Brittelle’s mentors include David Del Tredici and Television’s Richard Lloyd, and small parts of this record can be heard originating in the collision of neo-romanticism and punk; but far more important, it seems to me, are the sounds of urban New York: bebop, Bernstein and Bang on a Can. The music is packed with hyperactive jump cuts between styles, tempos and emotional registers. These sudden leaps and contrasts are quite familiar from Broadway musicals, but here the levels are pushed much higher so that the changes – giant steps – dominate over the destinations. Like Manhattan: you notice the intersections, not the bits of street in between. It’s a confusing place to be, though, because you don’t know the map and Brittelle’s manic imagination is making all the decisions.

After a while, arcs and lines emerge from the fractured surface. You get a sense of the kinetics of each new slice as it comes and goes: beginnings, endings, middles, new chapters. Like the notes of a scale each (perfectly crystallised) micro-piece carries its own cloud of structural possibilities. But, similarly, within that cloud is the capacity to surprise – like the long, fade-out groove to ‘Hieroglyphics Baby’, or the reverse ending of ‘Them’s Lasers’, whose similar groove can only cadence through a series of quick changes.

It comes as a surprise when one registers, halfway through, that music this fragmented, this digital in its aesthetic, in which edits, splices and absolutely crisp attacks are everything, is all played on live instruments – full credit to the players, then. The only exception to this live purity is Brittelle’s voice, which is draped in multi-tracking and stereo effects. That this is the source of the music’s unreal quality is appropriate: since his injury, Brittelle has been forced to lip-synch his live performances. As a composer he guides and shapes this stylistic maelstrom, but as a performer he stands surreally and subtly apart from it. There are a lot of artsong composer–performers around these days, but Brittelle is one of the most compelling I’ve come across.

QQQ – Unpacking the Trailer

QQQ are a quartet of viola, guitar, hardanger fiddle and percussion, and their album fits into that jazz-folk-chamber-indie crossover slot that works so well for Rachels, Threnody Ensemble and Tin Hat. That sound is undoubtedly a product of recent years, but it’s hard pin down in this recording quite how it sounds contemporary. Perhaps it’s the warmth of the production or something more removed like the fonts of the packaging. Anyway, the effect is of a 21st-century nostalgia for a sort of music that never quite existed on the farm, in the cabaret or at the local bar. It could be trite, were it not for the subtle inflections of style pulled in from all over (the free jazz drumming on the bluesy ‘Swimming under the Moonlight’) or the neatness of the arrangements –this isn’t a set-up that you can’t fudge with loads of power chord filler. The mood of this album may be a little single-minded – there isn’t a strong emotional arc holding the thing together – but it is a beautifully detailed piece of work.

Andrew McKenna Lee – Gravity and Air

This is a mixed but nevertheless attractive disc that will appeal particularly to lovers of the classical guitar. Composer and guitarist McKenna Lee begins with a brisk rendition of Bach’s Prelude for Lute in D Minor, and then moves to the first of three compositions of his own, Five Refractions on that same prelude. The shape of the piece takes us gradually further and further from Bach, beginning with a fairly straightforward variation and ending with an extended and often violent toccata.

I couldn’t help thinking, though, that this was all a bit timid, and that perhaps the Bach association hindered more than it had helped. The second work, the dark out of the nighttime, was to my ears more successful. Written for quartet of flute, guitar, harp and viola – played by QQQ’s Beth Meyers – it’s a florid and atmospheric piece of music, closer to the indie-folk of QQQ, but with the compositional balls to stretch itself over a full quarter of an hour. The final piece, Scordatura Suite, for solo guitar once more, is a disappointment. It is the earliest of the three, which may excuse its naive dependence on unstructured strings of gestural clichés, but it should have been left aside for this recording.

Corey Dargel – Other People’s Love Songs

The story behind Other People’s Love Songs is well known now: Corey Dargel has for several years now invited, through his website automaticheartbreak.com, commissions for bespoke love songs. All that’s needed (on top of the fee) are some pertinent and personal details. The 13 tracks on this album are the result of this project.

Dargel has made a speciality of extrapolating the discomfiting and disturbing collisions of physical identity and all-consuming love: whether the subject is stalking celebrities, self-mutilation, vanity medication (Red, White and Blue Pills) or hypochondria. Although ostensibly more straightforwardly charming, Other People’s Love Songs isn’t autopilot Dargel churning out Hallmark platitudes. In fact, the intimacies of these songs are almost unbearable. There’s something transgressive and sexy about being shown this collection of private moments – moments that actually happened to real people, people you could meet on the street or stalk on Facebook. It’s like picking the lock on someone else’s diary. In fact, the psychological relation here between listener and narrator may be Dargel’s most complex yet.

The settings dramatise and amplify every intimacy. The sound may be rounder and softer, but is otherwise close to his previous album, Less Famous Than You – all electronic skitters, beeps and cute synth melodies. Over this prickly background, Dargel’s feathery vocals comfort, reassure and seduce. It’s hard to resist being taken into the heart of the personal mythologies of each couple on this disc, the private moments that have made them who they are – Katie and Teresa, Eric and Moe, Karen and C.J. Overwhelmingly these shared moments and passions are from the outside banal, but Dargel’s rich music and witty settings reflect something of the unique magic that they hold for their dedicatees. Just listen to the glittering halo around of “I will flip all your pieces in Othello / I’m an unstoppable force, you know” if you don’t believe me. The whole experience is utterly disarming and breathtakingly moving.

2 thoughts on “New Amsterdam Records – some CDs reviewed

  1. Tim, thanks so much for your insightful take on Other People’s Love Songs! Trying to come up with a title for the follow-up… Other People’s Folk Songs? Other People’s Fight Songs? Other People’s Platitudinous Power-Ballads?

    xo, Corey

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