It's entirely possible, of course, that my definition of Angels' Abacus (2004)
as being "Emily Bezar's commercial album", one that only our
present times, changing for the worse as they are, could prevent from becoming
her Court And Spark (here I was obviously referring to Joni Mitchell's
album, the one that thirty years earlier had signaled the triumphant admission
of the Canadian-born musician to the US mainstream), only demonstrated
the size of my ignorance when it comes to all things mainstream/commercial.
But yes, I have to admit that, in a vague way I won't be able to clarify
here, I had really hoped that Angels' Abacus could be her commercial breakthrough.
Though I'm painfully aware of what a difficult climb releasing an album
on one's own, with no real money to talk about when it comes to little
things such as publicity and promotion, can be. And especially so today,
when the sheer amount of material (the old expression "for sale" appearing
more and more inadequate with every passing day) one can listen to for
free makes it quite unlikely for "the cream to rise to the top".
five years after Four Walls Bending - an album that could loosely be defined
as her "Prog masterpiece", with all its Floyd-like grandeur -
Angels' Abacus appeared willing to embrace "modern times" in
its adoption of
"dry" sounds and drum machines, all which dramatically shared the
same space of Bezar's usual "thematic knottiness", her wide instrumental
palette, and her vocal arias. One could maybe spot a fresher spirit, perhaps,
while the fact of having sixteen tracks in the space of 70+ minutes showed
a new propensity for (relatively-speaking!) brevity.
years have already passed, and here's her new album, Exchange. It's a work
that at first had me a bit puzzled, but I can happily say that my reasons
for puzzlement totally vanished after a few listening sessions. Having
a look at the booklet, I saw that this time only ten tracks were featured
in this (70+ minutes) CD, which tells of a return to less concise, and
maybe more ambitious, durations. That the album was recorded and mixed
by Justin Phelps, who had occupied the same chair during the sessions for
Four Walls Bending, made me think of a return to that album's "Prog" climates,
which are indeed featured on this album's opening track, Saturn's Return,
with its hard, dark, attack, "rock group" and all. On first listening,
the album as a whole appeared to communicate to me a strange feeling of
déjà vu, almost like Emily Bezar had chosen to revisit moods, feelings,
and forms that had already appeared on her previous (four) albums.
listening sessions showed me I was wrong. It's true that in some way Exchange
appears to be more "a step sideways" than "a step forward"
(damn those spatial metaphors!), like it had been the case with Angels' Abacus.
But once one accepts the fact that here there are no real dramatic changes,
one can easily see that here there's a control on form that's seldom been
so complete. And one can enjoy the timbral instrumental palette at her disposal
- acoustic and electric pianos, analogue and digital synths, (real) strings
and winds - plus the multitude of voices at the service of the compositions.
What's more, the sound of the album, which I believe to have been recorded
and overdubbed in ProTools, mysteriously manages to add a certain "analogue
warmth" to the clarity of the relationships between the sounds.
like the old days, Exchange just needs the proper amount of time and attention
to be properly appreciated. Readers are invited to add their own impressions
to the following sketches.
I've already said, Saturn's Return is the opening track. An "electric
piano" (quite expressive all over the album, it could well be of the
sampled kind), the electric guitar playing an angular riff, bass and drums
steady on the rhythm, a piano, an "unstable" melody, quite a
lot going on in the background in the right/left channels, with lotsa keyboards
and vocal echoes. Then a "B" section with more "air",
the second time sporting a complex sound that could be a mixture of a keyboard
and a violin. A complex bridge (or maybe they're two? at 2' 55" and
3' 10" - I'm happy I can say bridges are still a part of Bezar's aesthetics),
and at about 3' 30", after a reprise of the "A" section,
we have a piano solo over a "hard-sounding" rhythm section (a
moment that brought to my mind... Gentle Giant! - I have to admit that
a couple of times, while listening to the album, I was really reminded
of that historical group, in their "hard-hitting drummer" days).
So it's time to mention Mark Bernfield on drums, Dan Feiszli on bass, and
Michael Ross on guitar.
They Say has some nice "jazzy-bossa" moves, with a nice rhythm
section, synths, acceleration, and a "stop" at 1' 57", a
new section (performed twice) at 3' 15", with a "trumpet" from
the synth and a counterpoint from the bass, a bridge at 4' 15", then
"electric piano" again, and a real majestic coda with synths.
a certain way, Lament reminded me of the Joni Mitchell album The Hissing
Of Summer Lawns, with its meditative voices with piano backing, a changing
counterpoint of soprano, alto and tenor saxes (all played by Phillip Greenlief),
fine keyboard sounds, and a lot of movement in both channels.
Dynamite is the "obvious chart single" here. It has a
"Minimoog", a rhythmic piano, also bass and drums, at a medium
tempo. It slows, then there's a fine bridge at 3' 50 featuring piano and
synth. It has a real fine instrumental coda.
Air is a "jazz-almost-Fusion" kind of ballad with complex time
signature, double bass, drums keeping time on the ride cymbal, alto sax,
trumpet (it's Chris Grady), then the "electric piano" again.
The track almost inhabits a "New English Jazz" climate, something
which also came to my mind in the course of the piano solo, winds playing
a fine background. A "hushed" coda, a soft close, sounding almost
like a bossa.
Man has vocals and an "electric piano with echoplex", a fine
rhythm section, a fat bass drum, and a rhythm sounding almost techno, with
the snare quite metal-like, resonant with effects, and a beautiful "orchestral"
combination: a melodic synth in the left channel, "vibes" in the
right one. A fine bridge at 2' 56", the structure again, the "techno"
part again, with a piano solo (again. reminding me of Gentle Giant!). In
closing (at about 10'), an ensemble of male voices made me think of the monks'
choir featured in a song by Walter Becker, Surf And/Or Die, off his album
11 Tracks Of Whack.
Or Crazy is a piano ballad, with the drums played with brushes, bass,
"classic-sounding" melody, the guitar playing long tones, a very
"orchestral-sounding" synth, violins (real ones - it's Alan Lin),
and a very charming melody. (This is - obviously - the single's B-side!)
With a bridge featuring cello (played by Beth Vandervennet), piano, and violins,
the piece has a delicate close, with strings.
winds whose entry I can only define as being "quite Davis-like",
Climb sports a piano, some jazzy drums, double bass, trumpet, trombone
(it's Jen Baker), tenor sax. A fine alto sax solo with counterpoint by
trumpet and trombone (all the arrangements on the album are by Bezar herself);
there's also a piano solo with winds as support, then a fine trumpet-vocal
lines unison, then an alto sax solo. Bizarre!
longest track, and one which definitely brought me back to Bezar's first
album, Grandmother's Tea Leaves, Winter Moon appeared to me as being in
a way the album's "resolution". A rich tapestry of synth, piano,
drums with brushes, double bass played arco, then an intro, almost "rubato",
featuring the violin. This is a track that's better left for the listener
to explore, with its multiple sections, the violin with its "icy" echo,
vocals' multiple echoes in stereo, the violin improvised coda on a carpet
real "end" arrives with Exchange, a song which appears to think
about what came before. Piano and vocals, it's a track that (due to my
lack of imagination, perhaps?) reminded me of the closing track of Blue
(Joni Mitchell again!), The Last Time I Saw Richard.
© Beppe Colli 2008
CloudsandClocks.net | Sept. 4, 2008