Sound Recordings

Biokinetics
Porter Ricks
Type 100

Too often, in the world of techno, the word “minimal” is used as a euphemism for “simplistic” or even “content-free,” while the qualifier “dub” often actually signifies “sonically spacious but oppressively boring.” Of course, minimalism and dubwise spaciousness can both be wielded by talented producers with great skill, and therefore the line separating high-quality minimal dub techno from self-indulgent twaddle can be microscopically thin. Case in point: this classic of the genre (originally issued on the Chain Reaction imprint in 1996), now reissued with new artwork. Porter Ricks is the shared pseudonym of production duo Thomas Köner and Andy Mellwig, and they had collaborated on several 12″ singles prior to making this full-length album, though it actually feels more like a set of singles than a unified extended program—largely because the track titles are presented in obvious pairs (“Port of Call/Port of Nuba,” “Biokinetics 1/Biokinetics 2,” etc.). The music itself often feels muted and boomy and oddly claustrophobic, even though the sonic spaces it defines are generally quite large. With some exceptions, such as the relatively sprightly and colorful “Port of Call,” the timbres are mostly cast in shades of grey, and all sonic edges are soft and gauzy, as if heard through wads of cotton in the ears. This approach is least effective on “Port Gentil” and “Nautical Dub,” both of which are something of a challenge to sit through; however, the two “Biokinetics” tracks and the deeply dubbed-up “Port of Nuba” are both quite a bit more engaging, and “Nautical Nuba” introduces some interesting rhythmic displacements and subtle glitches that, by this point in the album, the listener grabs ahold of as if to a life preserver in a vast, cold, and mostly featureless ocean. This is objectively good music of its type, but not particularly recommended for newcomers to the genre. Grade: B

The Fourth Wall
The Vespers
Black Suit

I have to confess that when I look at an album cover and see bearded hipsters in vests wielding banjos and serious expressions, I immediately get suspicious. When the second track on the album attempts an acoustic-reggae groove and incorporates a glockenspiel, full-on grumpiness begins to set in. By that point, the only thing that will ultimately win me over is hooks: I’ll swallow almost any level of pretentiousness and self-seriousness if the songs are ones that will stick in my head and make me want to sing along. I kept waiting for such songs on this debut album by the earnest two-sisters-plus-two-brothers quartet the Vespers, and some of its tracks did come tantalizingly close to grabbing me. The opener, “Better Now,” was promising: singer Phoebe Cryar has a sharp-edged and supple voice that delivers both an attractive melody and tastefully executed filigrees of ornamentation with attention-grabbing grace. But the faux reggae of “Flower Flower” disappointed, as did a by-the-numbers pastiche of blues-based and string band elements titled “Got No Friends.” On the other hand, “Jolly Robber” is a very nice little skiffle number, and the group delivers a fine and stripped-down version of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face.” “Daughter” is as delicate and lovely as hand-tatted lace, but never delivers the hook that would have convinced me fully. There’s no question that the Vespers are both talented and sincere; hopefully as time goes on their songcraft will continue to grow and tighten. Grade: B-

Wrapped Tight
Coleman Hawkins
Impulse CIPJ 87 SA

The slow wave of super-audio CD reissues of classic jazz albums continues to roll on. This one was originally issued in 1966 on the Impulse label, and finds tenor sax legend Coleman Hawkins in one of his last truly great sessions, working in a shifting quartet configuration with trumpeters Snooky Young and Bill Berry, trombonist Urbie Green, and a rhythm section consisting of pianist Barry Harris (misidentified as a bassist on the back cover), bassist Buddy Catlett (uncredited on the back cover) and drummer Eddie Locke. Hawk’s tone is as rich and full as always, though his trademark vibrato is much more subdued by this point than it had been earlier in his career. The program consists mostly of mid-tempo numbers, all of which swing mightily; highlights include excellent renditions of the title track, the strutting “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” (which showcases particularly nice ensemble playing from the horn section), and a tune—probably a Hawkins original—titled “Bean’s Place,” which sounds oddly melancholy, almost valedictory, despite its resolute groove. The music deserves an A+, but this reissue gets docked a couple of notches for sloppy and inaccurate annotations, for failing to provide a tracklist on the exterior of the package, and for offering a skimpy 35 minutes of music (no bonus tracks? seriously?) despite its premium-level, SACD price. Grade: A-

Harmonielehre; Short Ride in a Fast Machine
John Adams
San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media 0053

John Adams came out of the minimalist scene in the 1960s and ’70s, one that was dominated by the hypnotic arpeggios of Philip Glass and the pulsing phase-shift compositions of Steve Reich. But by the 1980s, his work was showing clear heretical tendencies, among them an expansive expressionism that was becoming obvious despite his continued allegiance to the straightforward tonality favored by the minimalist school. Where Reich’s music unfolded with a structural inevitability and Glass’s built up colorful but repetetive layers of broken chords, Adams was writing melodies that would not have sounded out of place at the turn of the 20th century. From the beginning, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has been a champion of these composers (he participated in the premiere performance of Reich’s Four Organs), and here he presides over a reminder of how exciting Adams’s 1980s orchestral output could be. Both of these pieces–one essentially a symphony, the other a charming and exhilarating miniature–will be familiar to longstanding fans of the composer, but Tilson Thomas brings fresh energy and vigor to the performances. Harmonielehre‘s rather Mahleresque tendencies are instructively emphasized, following which the joyful Short Ride is presented almost as a palate-cleanser. Adams ceased being a minimalist in any meaningful sense a long time ago, but this valuable recording reminds us of what a great contribution he made to that tradition while he was still (at least partly) within it. Grade: A

– Rick Anderson

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