Five December 2017 Albums You May Have Missed
I have a love/hate relationship with end-of-year lists. I read them but mostly hate them.
While music journals have already compiled their top albums for the year, we at DBP like to actually acknowledge music that comes out in December. Crazy, right? Releasing an album in December shouldn’t count against how your music ranks in the grand pantheon of imaginary relevance and music critic wankerdom. Not that it matters anyway, but we salute the hold-outs or maybe those just trying to nail that one final mixing session before throwing their art upon the masses. This month the wait was worth it.
We’re capping off the year with some worldly jazz, great Seattle indie rock, repurposed exotica, and Japanese video game music. It’s all below. Happy New Year, ya frickin’ misfits, and thanks for reading!
I have about as much knowledge of Jewish folk music as I do the internal workings of the Hadron Collider, but I know a good thing when I hear it and Bahla are an end-of-year surprise for sure.
The group was started as a jazz quintet in London, but before that, members Tal Janes and Joseph Costi began playing around with Jewish melodies that they grew up with while studying jazz at Middlesex. From there, it seems a new interpretation of Jewish folk was unlocked and reborn, bringing ancient music to light with modern jazz sensibilities.
Listening to Imprints, you can hear everything from North African rhythms intermixed with electric and acoustic guitar reminiscent of modern jazz greats like John Scofield. There’s intriguing piano work at play somewhat akin to contemporary acts like Gogo Penguin, to say nothing of the powerful vocals that swirl around Bahla’s loose but enthralling music. At times, it recalls the North African stylings of Tinariwen and at other times it brings in elements of Russian Yiddish music.
If none of this sounds like your thing, don’t be alarmed. Jazz is the backbone that holds it all together. Behind it all sits a bold upright bass and contemporary melodic stylings that make for a mysterious and compelling listen. It’s kind of like finding yourself in an unexpected corner of the world and then sticking around for a while because you know you’re not going to find any other places quite like it. As to what that corner of the world is specifically, well, Bahla have a few different ones to show you.
Back in the day, my grandparents used to have the coolest vinyl collection in all of Northwestern Kansas. Sure, that’s not a massive sample size, but it was impressive regardless. Prominent in that collection were records by Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, and Juan García Esquivel – music ready to act as soundtrack to any number of cocktail parties and downed highballs. This music, and other forms of Exotica, was popular with the post-war crowd, and much like a lot of the “tropical” music we hear today, it was meant to invoke a sense of far-away places for those who may not have had the means to visit them.
I only bring this up because listening to Flowering Jungle, the latest album from L.A.’s Monster Rally, is like imagining someone raiding that record collection and looping it back on itself with Madlib-style beats.
Found in the sound collages of Flowering Jungle are looped Hawaiian and lounge records cut with a mellow and laid-back beat structure that makes it perfect for your next cocktail party or just lounging at home with a highball of your own. The songs act as vignettes of forgotten records and lounge orchestras the world has moved on from.
In repurposing them, Monster Rally has both opened a window to that forgotten world while making it sound both fresh and nostalgic. Call it Neo-Exotica for lack of a better term, or just call it sunny and fun music to listen to while you think of far-away locales.
A while back, former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer extraordinaire Chris Walla tweeted about how much he loved a song called “Fire” by a little-known Seattle band called Special Explosion. As a long-time Death Cab fan, I took his words at face value and listened to it. Next thing I knew I was fighting back tears.
I mean, I wasn’t even in a hyper-emotional mood that day. It was actually a pretty good day all things considered, but “Fire” sucked me into its world of cold winters, longing, and regret with its simple but powerful verse repeated over and over until I thought back to times I’d had that were similar. I didn’t need to be in that moment to appreciate having had been in it at one time.
Shortly after, Special Explosion released To Infinity, their debut album, and it’s about the easiest thing to like if you cut your teeth on the early aught Pacific Northwest scene, or basically anything from the Barsuk Records catalog. The band is able to create beautiful tension and build upon it with overwhelming melodic power – not unlike a Plans-era Death Cab for Cutie. It’s almost criminal this album came out at a time when most end-of-year lists were already compiled because it’s a humble yet powerful album that shows that great PNW indie rock continues to thrive throughyounger bands. It deserves your full attention.
Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno
The holiday chaos has waned. You’ve driven back home, leaving your family and racist Trump-supporting uncle behind. It’s that brief respite in between Christmas and New Years and you need a little down time to yourself. That’s where Finding Shore can help.
Tom Rogerson is a British pianist and improviser. Brian Eno is, well, Brian Eno. Together they’ve crafted thirteen meditations with Rogerson in the saddle while Eno plays guardian ambient angel and interlocutor. Finding Shore was mostly made with Rogerson doing what he does best – improvising and getting out his ideas onto the piano keys – but Eno is able to hone in on the moments worth looping, expanding, and modifying.
The result isn’t as jarring as one might expect from a guy who is known to wail away on the piano as a means of finding something, anything out about where he is at that point in time. It’s a soothing listen, music for staring out your window on rainy or snowy days brought to you by two British guys who both seem to know that tapping into the subconscious can sometimes yield the most peculiar of results.
Diggin in the Carts: A Collection of Pioneering Japanese Video Game Music
Full disclosure: I never played Cosmic Wars – it was only released in Japan. I have faint memories of the game Nemesis on a Game Boy from a long time ago, but not enough to recall it with the same nostalgia as, say, Tetris. But that doesn’t matter because the style should appeal to any gamer that fondly remembers those days.
In some ways this is the perfect album for this list. Music and gaming combine, making for the ideal DBP recommendation in Diggin in the Carts, which is essentially a collection of forgotten music from great video games you may or may not have played. Either way, that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying all its MIDI glory.
What stands out to me while going through these little minute-long tracks is A) how Japan already recognized its video game music makers as “Composers” and B) how damn skilled these composers were to make the music with the limitations set out for them. Listening to the opening for Cosmic Wars, I marvel at that killer backbeat and know how that one-minute track must have taken hours, if not days to create. That, and Genpei Touma Den, an arcade side-scroller, had badass atmosphere and melody that came along with its yen-goblling goodness. All of it is enough to make you scour the web for a good GamePi or emulator of your choice to rediscover these games anew if you can get your paws on them.
Good on the Hyperdub label for compiling this and releasing it. It’s a reminder of a different time that isn’t necessarily clear in all of our collective consciousness.