Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2019’s New Releases, Part Two

So, we wrap up a calendar year of coverage with ten records in five entries. If your personal favorite of 2019 is not here (or in yesterday’s installment) please fret not; it was most likely unheard in a certifiable avalanche of new music from across the last twelve months. These releases however, struck us as special.

5. Swans, Leaving Meaning (Young God / Mute) & Laurie Anderson, Tenzin Choegyal, Jesse Paris Smith, Songs from the Bardo (Smithsonian Folkways) One of Leaving Meaning’s pertinent facets (and something that relates to prior Swans releases) is that it makes generally worthwhile and even accurate synopsizing difficult. That it is lengthy has little to do with it; rather, it is a work utterly loaded with content, dimension, and with range reflective of this new version of Michael Gira’s long-extant band/ project. But Leaving Meaning can be described as a spiritual record, which isn’t a new development, though it offers this aspect distinctively. Parts of it sound great at Christmastime, even. ‘tis the season!

To call Songs from the Bardo a spiritual record is to spew a banality, at least for folks familiar with Tibetan Buddhism. Even for those with little to no knowledge of the practice, the overall transcendental nature of the collaboration should be easily absorbed. But this isn’t what makes the album special. Instead, it’s in how affecting the contents become for listeners with a casual relationship (or less) to the shared spiritualism it documents. That’s instrumentally (via all three participants), textually (through the persistent calmness of Anderson’s recitation), and vocally (the heartfelt singing by Choegyal). Songs from the Bardo communicates broadly without slipping into the banality mentioned above. That’s special.

4. Bill Orcutt, Odds Against Tomorrow (Palilalia) & Peter Brötzmann, I Surrender Dear (Trost) The beauty motions on guitarist Bill Orcutt’s latest are considerable. We’re talking beauty as a non-contentious property, a facet of the whole that large groups of listeners could (theoretically) agree upon. It’s something of an unexpected development in Orcutt’s trajectory. Not that he didn’t seem capable. It was more like he just wouldn’t be interested in traveling down that particular avenue. Plus, there was an abstract beauty (the kind of beauty people argue over) in his work already. Well, the good news is that Odds Against Tomorrow is a stellar record hovering on the borderline of a sound that’s tangibly rock.

Now, when experimenters and avant-gardists begin migrating toward a recognizably rocking zone, it’s generally time to get nervous. This can also apply to jazz musicians if they are swinging their creative pendulum toward conservatism. In the case of I Surrender Dear, which could be alternately titled Brötzmann Does Ballads except that he’s doing a whole lot more (a few of his own tunes just for starters), there is no need to worry, for the man’s playing, if more clearly intertwined with Tradition than ever before, is still far far away from tuxedos and cocktails. “Brozziman” (a tune by Misha Mengelberg) hits like Albert Ayler decimating a vaguely Mancini-like strip joint number. Glorious.

3. Michael Winograd, Kosher Style (OU People) & Dustin Laurenzi, Snaketime: The Music of Moondog (Feeding Tube / Astral Spirits) Simply put, Clarinetist and bandleader Winograd’s Kosher Style delivered one of the unmitigated delights of 2019. In klezmer terms (which are some fine terms) it is an essentially perfect record from a guy whose clear intention is to explore the style as a vibrant, living music rather than present it as a dusted-off relic. A deeper and more celebratory klezmer experience you will not find on the contempo scene, so get off the fence and scoop this baby up. If you absorb Winograd’s expert sounds and don’t feel at least momentarily better about life, please seek professional help.

But if Kosher Style does provide you some needed uplift and you want to extend that situation, you can flip the record over and play it again. Rest assured, it’ll work. But if varying the program is what you desire, following up the Winograd set with Laurenzi’s salute to the incomparable composer Moondog is a safe bet. Rich with horns and bursting out of the Chicago jazz/ improv scene with aplomb, Snaketime is infectious and hearty, recorded live at the Hungry Brain and just dripping with the warmth and immediacy that performance can bring. Laurenzi’s octet delivers it to the max.

2. Kim Gordon, No Home Record (Matador) & Thurston Moore, Spirit Counsel (Daydream Library) This might seem a somewhat impolitic (or maybe just tacky) grouping, but these records fit together exceptionally well while heading in different directions. Gordon’s LP, its title referencing a fine film (No Home Movie) by the late Belgian director Chantal Akerman, is the most accessible thing she’s done since the breakup of Sonic Youth. But this is Kim Gordon we’re talking about, so No Home Record isn’t all that accessible. In fact, it’s pretty wild at times, with her personality vivid throughout, and it’s also quite funny in a few spots. And smart, which is no surprise, as again, this is Kim Gordon we’re talking about.

Spirit Counsel is a three CD affair, with no vinyl (as of yet, anyway). Yes, that means it more properly belongs on the list of box sets from earlier in the week, but thematic satisfaction beats categorical consistency any day of the week. Spirit Counsel also features music honoring Alice Coltrane, Moki Cherry, Jayne Cortez, Glenn Branca, and Sun Ra. And Spirit Counsel is the best collection of music Moore has delivered since the breakup of SY. You might be thinking that’s because there is a whole fucking lot of it, but it’s really just that Thurston is in full-on expansionist mode here, and exceptionally so. Parts of this also remind me a little of Sarah Lipstate’s work as Noveller, and that’s some sweet icing.

1. Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, Where Future Unfolds (International Anthem) & Sarah Louise, Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars (Thrill Jockey) Damon Locks has been active for a while, residing in Chicago and having grown from the ’90s indie rock scene to make considerable contributions to the avant-garde jazz community, notably with Rob Mazurek and by extension Bill Dixon. This 2019 outing as leader, recorded live in Garfield Park Botanical Conservatory on the West Side of Chicago, pulls off a seriously impressive feat by combining avant jazz, spiritual jazz, choral vocals, electronics, and live and sampled spoken word. Raucous, expansive, sweetly flowing and eclectic, it is an absolute gem.

Witnessing Damon Locks mature and blossom as an artist from his membership in Trenchmouth (alongside drummer and noted comedian Fred Armisen) to his current jazz activities has been terrific. Something similar has transpired with Sarah Louise. Known as a fingerpicking guitarist, Appalachian old-time expert, and as half of House and Land with Sally Anne Morgan, her latest remains guitar-rooted and folk influenced, but in part through electronic manipulation, she travels into territory often cosmic, occasionally drone-like, at times New Ageist but more often psychedelic, Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars is a wonderfully immersive experience with breadth and staying power. In short, a brilliant work.

There are actions we can all undertake to make 2020 a better year than this one. Let’s do them, shall we? Until then, have a wonderful holiday, everybody.

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