Kylie Minogue: Kiss Me Once

kylie minogue

Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

By Matt F.

In 2002, seemingly out of nowhere, Kylie Minogue released Fever. The album supplied a few minor radio hits which manifested into a respectable amount of commercial success and resulted in Ms. Minogue having a mid career revival (which for a sex-bomb pop star nearly 15 years past her initial fame was quite the accomplishment). More importantly though, she’s since managed to foster a loyal following due largely to the quality of her albums and knowing exactly for whom she’s making music. Her latest effort, Kiss Me Once, is no exception.

Kylie’s star has never burned as bright as say Britney Spears or Madonna, but because the spotlight isn’t always bearing down on her, she’s been granted a certain amount of flexibility with her music. On an album by album basis, Kylie’s are stronger than the competition, but remains consistently idiosyncratic. She also has an ear for talent and enlists the skills of other top pop songwriters and performers without leaching off their popularity like many of her peers attempt. Notable songwriters on Kiss Me Once include Sia (of Zero 7 fame) and Pharrell Williams who wrote what may be the best song on the album “I Was Gonna Cancel,” a bright and chipper number about remembering what’s important.

Other high points include “Sexercize” which is the logical conclusion to the other Aussie athletic-innuendo pop classic, Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical.” Not the most pithy song ever written (it’s about as meaningful as a song called “Sexercize” can be), but it’s fun, silly, and clearly written with her fan base in mind and will give her devotees something to dance to.

At this point, Kylie may not be making music for anyone but her fans, but dammit, we appreciate it.

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John Adams: Gospel According to the Other Mary

john adams

John Adams: Gospel According to the Other Mary

By Matt F.

John Adams, more than most 20th century composers, has a hard time finding his voice. In his wayward youth he was a devout John Cage fanatic, preferring concept over actual musicality. As time went on and he discovered minimalism he effectively did a 180 and went from music based on total chance to music based on complete focused structure. But, now we’re seeing that as he ages he seems to stray further and further away from the rigid rigor of traditional minimalism and more and more into a more musical sphere. Not to infer that minimalism isn’t musical, but sometimes it isn’t. 30 years ago it would’ve been easy to write him off as the poor-man’s Philip Glass because he kinda was, nowadays that assumption would be far too simplistic.

Even on first listen, The Gospel According to the Other Mary: A Passion-Oratorio is striking in its approach. Yes, it still employs the basic elements of minimalism, but to call it simply that would be like saying that The Godfather is just a gangster movie; it overlooks some very key elements of the fabric of the piece itself. Depending on the scene, I hear splashes of Stravinsky (the fabulous Les Nocs especially), fluid and frenzy strings a la Shostakovich, brassy blue notes, mainstream style rhythmic sections, all of which is approached with the energy level of a much younger man.

Of course no composer can really include the word “passion” in their large scale vocal/choral work without inviting at least some comparisons to J.S. Bach. I can’t help but wonder…what if Bach had presented a religious piece of music of such scale based on the life and times of “the Other Mary” to his 1720’s church-going Leipzig audience; something tells me it would not have gone over very well. Had Bach looked at John Adams’ piece I think he would have accepted it with hesitant approval. Adams seems genuinely invested in Mary’s plight and, much like Bach, draws from several sources to paint Mary in a varied and complex light.

I mentioned earlier that John Adams has had a tougher time than most 20th century composers finding his voice and really, I still don’t think he’s found it. But the crazy thing is that for some reason I find that very reassuring. It’s sort of thrilling to think that even with a piece as strong and as brilliant as “The Gospel…” that it may take him another 30 years of soul searching before he really comes into his own.

Bryce Dessner & Jonny Greenwood: St Carolyn by the Sea / There Will Be Blood Suite

Bryce Dessner

Bryce Dessner & Jonny Greenwood: St Carolyn by the Sea / There Will Be Blood Suite 

By Matt F

In mid 2013, Nonesuch released an album featuring compositions by Bryce Dessner. A little research revealed that Dessner was the guitar player from the rock band The National, but that he had initially been interested in classical and found that more mainstream music paid the bills. The disc featured none other than the Kronos Quartet, an ensemble known for their adventurousness and they gave the young composer a premier worthy of praise. Now, not to slight the Kronos’ adventurousness, but I didn’t think much would come of young Dessner beyond that recording. It wasn’t because it wasn’t good, it was impressive even (more so to the fact that the Kronos Quartet will often play compositions by fringe composers who have little access to the mainstream than any reflection on the music). So when a poster came into work from Deutsche Grammaphone featuring Bryce Dessner mere months later, a firm mental note was taken. Furthermore, Dessner, an upstart in the classical music world from as far as I know, was top billed above Jonny Greenwood, who has come into fame both as lead guitarist for Radiohead and for his striking films scores, including music to There Will Be Blood and The Master. The idea that Dessner got top billing said something to me, that the yellow label clearly saw something in his pieces that they believed in; this was clear to me before I even listened to the disc.

Upon actually taking the time to sit down and listen to it, all my suspicions were confirmed. To say that Dessner is the heir to any throne, say, Arvo Part or John Adams, wouldn’t quite capture what his music does; he isn’t the heir to the throne, he’s going to usurp it. There’s more to his music than just emotion (which even if there wasn’t that would be good enough), but he has brains. He has an ear for acoustics, he has musical instinct and he isn’t afraid to take a risk.

Prior to the 20th century, volume could only be achieved in numbers, if you wanted it loud you had to get more people. The achievement of electric instruments changed that, now an amplified voice or instrument can sound as loud or as full as an orchestra. Dessner acknowledges the difference and knows that volume doesn’t diminish power; his compositions organically fuse the traditional symphony orchestra with electric guitars in such a way that in all my travels through electro-acoustic soundscapes, I’ve never heard something so convincing.

Arvo Part is a good jumping off point for his music, Dessner may be lachrymose and solemn much of the time, but it isn’t melancholy or dreadful. What strikes me most is how musical he is. Sometimes, especially with so-called “crossover” acts, it sounds so labored even Philip Glass or Steve Reich often sound put-off when forced to write something that isn’t purely what their muses inspire. However, Dessner sounds very natural; the long form composition suits him well. Tight and compact, but expansive and expressive, like Richard Strauss, Dvorak or Sibelius with their tone poems; this isn’t quite a symphony so they could let their hair down, but they still have all the tools in order to not hold back.

The capper on the disc is a suite from Jonny Greenwood, featuring the score to There Will Be Blood. However, in the great tradition of film score composers making their music into orchestral suites, Greenwood has unified his score into a wholly satisfying treat. While I would’ve preferred a premiere recording, as I’ve listened to and absorbed the superb There Will Be Blood score for many a year now, it’s by no means a burden to listen to something you adore and admire over again.

Britten: The Turn of the Screw

britten

Britten: The Turn of the Screw

By Matt F.

This is a knotty, claustrophobic little gem. Britten was never one to shy away from a compositional challenge and here he takes, depending on your point of view, the scenic or the austere route. A chamber opera, scenes are often reduced to piano and voice, but in regard to creating the intense scenes of intimacy, it works very well.

Ironically, the LSO Live label, whose reputation is that they excel in capturing the spaciousness of live recordings, does an exceptional job making the listener feel as if they are invasively close to performers, right between the piano and soprano, while at the same time not losing that penchant for range. It all adds a level of intimacy to the listening experience. The reduction in orchestral forces may be sort of a mixed bag for some; many opera fans may have become accustomed to the bravado of it all, but I like the simplicity. Without the overwhelming forces typically associated with opera it actually adds a greater level of variety, each voice and instrument seem to shine brighter than they normally would under the weight of the rest of the orchestra. The singers can focus on the subtle emoting in their singing rather than trying to stay loud enough so that the audience can here them.

It’s odd, I’ve heard chamber opera before and I didn’t focus so hard on the brevity, but something about this specific recording really drew my attention to the small details.

CPE Bach: Magnificat

magnificat

CPE Bach: Magnificat

By Matt F

CPE Bach, out of all of JS Bach’s musical sons, is probably the most consistently rewarding no matter where you venture with him. JC Bach had his charms (I’m particularly fond of his vocal music and arias) and WF Bach wrote some fascinating keyboard works, but CPE wrote brilliant orchestral music, choral pieces, chamber music, and keyboard works. Much like his father, everything he approached was done with a great  level of expertise.

Harmonia Mundi has a released a clever little disc mirroring a charity concert that CPE Bach headed in 1786 consisting of two of his choral works and his much celebrated Symphony in D. The first choral piece, the Magnificat, was written with the intention of replacing his father as the Kantor in Leipzig. Oddly enough (or perhaps intentionally so) I hear very little JS Bach in that piece, instead I sense a very strong Handelian influence, which in a way makes sense. Handel knew how to write music for a celebration pretty much better than anyone. The 2nd piece, Helig ist Gott, under-stays it’s welcome, clocking in at right around 8 minutes. Bach thought highly of it, believing that it would ensure his immortality, but if there’s a composition in Bach’s body of work that will keep his memory alive, my money is on his Symphony in D. Melodically memorable, concise and economically scored, it fits easily into any CPE Bach revue and almost undoubtedly steals the show (as it does here).

Atterberg: Orchestral Works Vol. 2

atterberg
Atterberg: Orchestral Works Vol. 2

By Matt F.

Thank god for Kurt Atterberg. And for that matter let’s throw in Neeme Jarvi and Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (the city of Atterberg’s birth) too, but mostly just Kurt Atterberg.

At a time when composers were writing academic music with the heads Atterberg was, without shame, writing music with his heart. Big, bold and brassy, had he been born 75 years earlier, he could’ve given Bruckner the boot. While the influence of German Romanticism may be inescapable, unlike his predecessors Atterberg never gives off the air of tortured brilliance. It’s almost as if he heard Mahler or Strauss and thought to himself “okay, I get it, I see what you’re doing, but I will not put my soul through the grinder like that.”

His 2nd symphony starts us out, it’s youthful without being naive (he was about 24 at the time). Fun and spirited, think Brahms, but without all the guilt or perhaps Schumann without the ennui. His 8th symphony (written 31 years later in 1944) starts with some Wagnerian panache, but almost in reverse; where Wagner’s music would start small and grow large and weighty, Atterberg starts huge and then evolves into scuttling effervescent melodies. Highly recommended for fans of the golden age of Romantic symphonies.