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Things I Liked During 2020

Kate Burkart “Twisted Wind” FLAC (Luckystar, US)

Svengali/conflict-of-interest alert: Kate‘s my partner.

Like all musicians, she misses practicing with her band, and playing live. Being homebound, however, just means you have to get creative — both with your art, and ways to go about ensuring it’s heard.

This song was born on acoustic guitar via a voice-memo iPhone demo. James DePrato then, remotely, took the project under his wing with impressive one-man band instrumentation via Dropbox. Kate added a distanced vocal performance in an isolation booth, and the result is “Twisted Wind.” Kate’s son, Will, put together the video using some of my photos.

Kate deftly distills — and, exorcises, perhaps — the pandemic-related internal conflicts many of us are feeling…in her characteristically direct, yet nuanced, manner. Please check out the song, and tell your friends.


Brian Eno Film Music 1976 ~ 2020 2xLP (Opal Records/UMC, EU)

It’s always good to have newer (or, at least, unheard) material from Eno; there are seven previously-unreleased tracks here. “Blood Red” is among my favorites; it’s more compositionally dense than most of his instrumental work, and doesn’t particularly sound like the Eno I came to love around the time of Music for Films. Appreciation to Opal/UMC for, again, including a download coupon for a full-resolution .wav copy of the album. And the LP presentation is wonderful: a gatefold laminate-stock sleeve emblazoned with a colorful collage; extensive notes on sources are included. No one can collage disparate yet simple sounds into an intriguing and beguiling whole the way Brian Eno can, and the packaging elaborates upon and reinforces that point.

Brian Eno Rams – Original Soundtrack Album 2xLP (UMC, Opal Records, Film First, EU)

In the next month or so I plan to see the Dieter Rams documentary ($4.99 to rent on Amazon) for which this music was composed, if only to gain some context for the sounds.

While possibly not relevant to the finished project, I wonder how many of these tracks were collected from Eno’s hard drives full of random sketches…and how many were composed especially for the documentary? Regardless, there’s some good stuff here, context-less as it is for me at the moment of this scribbling.

Clarice Jensen The Experience of Repetition As Death LP (Fatcat, UK)

Among a disappointing (yes, an understatement) year, one particular — and, admittedly, relatively minor — downer was A Winged Victory for the Sullen canceling its April tour stop at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Opener for that show would have been Clarice Jensen. We can take some consolation from her indescribably otherworldly album of experimental — yet lovely, and listenable — instrumental cello compositions. Along with Hildur Guðnadóttir, Jensen is moving the cello towards the 22nd century, centering innovative recording techniques with a focus on expanding the possibilities of her instrument.

K. Leimer A Figure of Loss CD (Palace of Lights, US)

K. Leimer Slight, Far FLAC (Longform Editions, Australia)

Loss is a contemplative musical meditation on the current socio-political climate in the US (and the world). There’s a sad stillness to the presentation, but, taken as a whole, there is a sense of hope, as well.

Slight, Far is a single 32-minute track. It reminds me a bit of Eno’s Thursday Afternoon: an unwavering, higher-pitched, airy drone is the backdrop. In the foreground are gently percussive sounds and floating keyboard pads. There is tension, but the piece also works as a relaxing ambient/environmental piece.

Less Bells Mourning Jewelry LP (Kranky, US)

One of the top instrumental albums of 2020. Something about this release has the same subtle vibe as certain Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani material — a uniquely aural take on the enigmatic beauty of nature, wrapped up wordless voices atop organically arranged keyboards and synthesizers. Less Bells’ Julie Carpenter is based in Joshua Tree, and you can sense the quiet loveliness of desert dawns and dusks in these compositions. A truly gorgeous album, one you can easily lose yourself within, and I eagerly look forward to more.

Roedelius Selbstportrait Wahre Liebe LP (Bureau B, Germany)

The Selbstportrait series’s unfailing beauty, now in its fifth (!) decade, continues to delight. There is a certain out-of-time element to these instrumentals; many sound as though they could’ve been performed in the late seventies or early eighties, while also retaining a modern approach and appreciation for all that’s passed under the musical bridge since then. Fans of Jardin au Fou and Lustwandel, too, will find much to love here. This release confirms Hans-Joachim Roedelius is a treasure in the pantheon of keyboard musicians.

Best reissues

Be Bop Deluxe Modern Music 4xCD + DVD + book (Esoteric, UK)

A many-layered, many disc’d reissue of a seventies classic that reveals more with each listen. Some may posit progressive/art-rock hasn’t aged well. Modern Music remains relevant and, yes, fresh, year after year. “Timeless” and “essential” are words tossed ’round lazily and frequently by the most recumbent of rawk journalists, but they’re two very appropriate adjectives here.

Haruomi Hosono Philharmony SACD

The 1982 solo album from YMO founder Harry Hosono is a techno-pop masterpiece, and the SACD mastering gives the work a tight, deep sparkle that makes it sound all new. “Living-Dining-Kitchen” and “Sports Men” dazzle, and the instrumental tracks presage the ambient direction Hosono honed on Mercuric Dance. Sample-heavy interludes “Picnic” and the title track are early examples of how the human voice can be keyboard-manipulated in a manner most pleasing. Classic.

Bill Nelson Transcorder – the Acquitted By Mirrors recordings (2xCD)

Following the disbanding of Be Bop Deluxe, and his Red Noise project, Nelson embarked on a solo career — one which continues to this day. Beginning in 1982, these four-track recordings were included as 7-inch singles in his self-published Acquitted By Mirrors fan-club publication. The series still sounds amazing, especially “Sleepcycle”, “Konny Buys a Kodak”, and “The Beat That Can’t Go Wrong Today.” A very-necessary and long-overdue compilation from one of art-rock’s most imaginative and prolific visionaries.

Best digital remaster for vinyl:

YMO Technodon SACD, LP

This 1993 reunion album was a thing of beauty when released, and, having never been available on LP ’til now, sounds even better on this analog remaster. Few, if any, of YMO/Yellow Magic Orchestra’s recordings come across as dated; Technodon ‘s electro-dub/pop remains most salient, adventurous, and eminently listenable.

Books

Kendra Atleework Miracle Country book (Algonquin Books, US)

This book is a wonder and a whirlwind, among many other things.

It’s a love letter to the desert and mountain landscapes of the Eastern Sierra. It’s a rumination on land, water, and climate policy. It’s a family history. It’s a political, social, scientific, and cultural examination of the complex, and often violent, conflicts that distinguish the Owens Valley as a place borne of plunder and displacement.

Atleework weaves — with irresistible momentum and poetic flair — historical context and insightful literary references with personal experience, and crafts a diamond of a memoir that succeeds on each of its myriad facets, while also cohering into a satisfying — and, often, magical — whole.

It’s a work that will occupy a worthy place on your bookshelf, adjacent to Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.

Abraham Hoffman Mono Lake: From Dead Sea to Environmental Treasure book (University of New Mexico Press, 2014)

A modern history of my favorite place, with emphasis on mining and agriculture in the 19th- and early-20th centuries, and (somewhat futile) efforts to make the Basin a recreation destination. An expansive, yet detailed, overview of an area that will always inspire and enthrall me.

Richard Powers The Overstory book (W.W. Norton, 2018)

This is a book that won’t allow the reader to be lazy. If you’re not fully engaged, you won’t appreciate it. I’ll try not to spoil the approach for those who’ve yet to experience it, but it involves interlocking stories — many that could stand alone — tracing lifetimes. The theme: Trees. I was spellbound.

Bruce Licher Savage Impressions: An Aesthetic Expedition Through The Archives of Independent Project Records & Press book (P22 Type Foundry, US)

A near-overwhelming retrospective covering the output of Independent Project Press (LA -> Sedona -> Bishop), Savage Impressions is a pulchritudinous object, itself, as all essential coffee-table books should be. From Bruce Licher’s early days at UCLA, through his founding of Savage Republic, and up to and including his present letterpress print shop operation and art gallery in Bishop, CA, it documents a life devoted to music, culture, and beautiful printed things. Disclosure: I would say all these things even if Bruce wasn’t a friend.

Video

After Life (Netflix)

Ricky Gervais doing some serious method; this, and a terrific ensemble cast, means season 2 is a must.

Anne with an E (Netflix)

The second and third seasons, especially, struck me as a tad too sledgehammer-y in their reverse-anachronism moralizing, but the series, as a whole, is elevated by emotively believable acting from a well-cast array of talent.

Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn (HBO)

Ever since seeing HBO’s Angels In America, I’ve been fascinated with the complexities that were Roy Cohn. His connection to Trump, detailed here, is just the rancid icing on a very evil cake.

John Was Trying To Contact Aliens Matthew Killip (Netflix)

I wanted it to be about six or seven times longer than it was. If you have 15 minutes to spare, please watch this.

Patton Oswalt I Love Everything (Netflix)

Another tarnished jewel of a performance from Oswalt. Painfully hilarious insights result in consistent belly-laughs throughout.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

We’re watching one installment every Sunday night, and only four episodes in… we look forward to this every week. It’s a narrative that’s irresistible, with a unique plot line, and uncannily stunning acting, all showcased with impeccable art direction. I would never have thought watching people play chess could be this entrancing.

The Last Days of August (podcast, Jon Ronson, 2019)

A harrowing examination of the circumstances and personalities leading to the 2017 suicide of adult film star August Ames. Ronson tells a complex story with grace, integrity, humility, and sensitivity. The extended podcast series is a lesson in journalism and storytelling, as well as expectations; you think you know where it’s going, and how it ends. You don’t. The resolution is riveting and devastating.

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Goodbye:

Kobe Bryant
Harold Budd
Spencer Davis
Kirk Douglas
Andy Gill
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Olivia de Havilland
Buck Henry
Terry Jones
Toshinoro Kondo
John Lewis
Little Richard
Barry Lopez
Lyle Mays
Ennio Morricone
Neal Peart
Charlie Pride
John Prine
Bill Rieflin
Diana Rigg
David Roback
Florian Schneider
Matty Simmons
McCoy Tyner
Eddie Van Halen
Andy Weatherall
Leslie West
Ian Whitcomb
Fred Willard
Hal Willner
Bill Withers