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2008: Adam Strohm

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Dusted’s Adam Strohm focuses on some of the best records we didn’t cover in 2008.

2008: Adam Strohm

…in which our intrepid protagonist decides that he can’t decide how to decide the year’s best albums, so he abandons the idea and opts for some change.

My friends, the word hope got tossed around a lot in 2008, in a campaign full of potential, but seemingly guaranteed to leave the most hopeful of optimists disappointed in the pragmatism that is likely to result as 2009 unfolds. In terms of music, the selection of this year’s best isn’t nearly as easy as the choice made by Americans on November 4. As the year winds down, I find myself in no mood to parse my own convoluted internal logic in order to whittle 2008 down to the few select “best” releases, and unlike Sarah Palin, my ability to check out and take in information has its limits, so what follows isn’t the usual year-end tally. Rather than wrack my brain to determine how I’ll decide what was great in ‘08, and writing about albums that I (and others) have already discussed in Dusted, I’ve opted for something different; looking at releases from the past year that deserve some attention, and haven’t been previously featured on this site. These aren’t necessarily my favorites of the past year, but they’re all albums that I enjoyed, and thought ought to get some (digital) ink before Dusted finally turns the page on 2008.

Arnold Dreyblatt - Resonant Relations (Cantaloupe)

Considering that it’s his full-length of new material in more than five years, the release of Dreyblatt’s Resonant Relations received relatively little attention. This is all the more confounding given that the disc features two new directions in Dreyblatt’s work, which, as exhilarating as it can be, has been prone to a certain sameness in the past. The title track dismantles the usual Dreyblatt momentum – staccato repetition of individual instruments moving on separate planes – at times coming together in an almost stately rhythmic cohesion. Performed by the Crash Ensemble, the piece harkens back to the variety of voices last used in Dreyblatt’s spectacular Animal Magnetism, augmenting the usual strings and snare with a flute, trombone and harpsichord. The result is a track that is more restrained than some of Dreyblatt’s more energetic work, but that operates on a level of complexity that proves rewarding over the track’s 32 minutes. The second composition, “twentyfive chords in twentyfive in ninety four variations” is as simple as the title implies, a series of chords stretched over almost 13 minutes, composed and recorded in 2006 at Berlin’s legendary Gelbe Musik. It’s like one of Dreyblatt’s classic pieces for excited strings, but in slow motion – the frenetic pace slowed to a crawl, the negative space in between sounds now as much of a presence as the notes elicited from the strings. It’s one of Dreyblatt’s less exciting efforts, but the piece shows yet another side of Dreyblatt’s sound. Resonant Relations‘ restrained variations on Dreyblatt’s signature brand of minimalism are still a welcome addition to a discography that spans over two decades but remains frustratingly sparse.

Jose Luis Redondo - La Reponse est aux Pieds (Etude)

Toronto’s Etude Records (formerly of Barcelona) issued a trio of smartly designed discs in early ’08 by Alfredo Costa Monteiro, Tomasz Krakowiak, and Jose Luis Redondo. The latter, while it got perhaps the least press of the three, has remained, to these ears, the most compelling, with Redondo utilizing a wide array of stringed instruments (guitars, basses, and banjo) to create an intriguing series of experiments in abstraction. Whether strumming, bowing or plucking, Redondo tends toward the understated, preferring to imbue his music with plenty of breathing room, and often cultivating a sparse solemnity. Feedback, distortion and effects make some appearances, but it’s the simple sounds of vibrating strings that are the disc’s strongest. While the ground Redondo treads on his debut is marked with the steps of others, the versatility is striking, especially as a first effort. In fact, it’s the bluesy “Devine a Qui Je Pense?,” the disc’s closer, that represents the album’s most unexpected sounds. Etude seems to be carving out an attractive little niche for itself, with releases that are as attractive to the eyes as they are to the ears.

Alan Courtis - Unstringed Guitar & Cymbals (Blossoming Noise)

Courtis, as a member of the notorious Argentinian troupe Reynols, has a history of all sorts of musical eccentricism, so it’s no surprise that on his latest solo effort, Courtis’ guitar is stripped of its strings. But such a spartan toolset isn’t indicative of the rich sounds that Courtis cultivates. Light and dark figure equally into Courtis’ mix, a highly layered chorus of celestial highs and foreboding lows. Aside from the album’s cover image, there’s little indication as to Courtis’ means in implementing his instruments, and while some telltale signs emerge now and then, Unstringed Guitar & Cymbals is more powerful with a sense of mystery. Courtis embraces the impact of the unknown as he so often did in Reynols. And while this disc doesn’t exactly sound like the output of that distinctive trio, the album’s compelling concept makes up for it. On this disc, Courtis’ instrumental approach might be reductionist, but the sounds that he creates certainly aren’t.

Chris Forsyth - Live Journal at the Mice Machine VIP Dance Floor (Incunabulum)

Ten years after his first 7”, it’s hard to believe that this heartily-titled disc is Forsyth’s solo full-length debut. In the decade he’s been releasing music, the New York guitarist has made all sorts of sounds, firmly planting himself at the outer borders of rock and free improvisational music. But here, on Live Journal..., Forsyth does the unexpected, engaging in a folk-tinged disc of acoustic 12-string compositions that travel a straight (thought not really narrow) path to create the most evocative music of his career. No one might have known that Forsyth had it in him, but had he not cemented a reputation as a steadfastly unorthodox player, Live Journal... would be only slightly less noteworthy. It’s a debut that stands on solid ground apart from its status as a novelty amongst Forsyth’s usual work. Folk guitar traditions are an obvious starting point in digesting Forsyth’s approach here, but aside from the wonderfully layered tracks that open and close the disc, these aren’t outwardly frilly compositions. Chord progressions are repeated past the point of prettiness in efforts of methodical minimalism, and while one is initially surprised by its accessibility and beauty, the dark undertones of Forsyth’s playing are the more persistent part of the album.

Carlos Giffoni - Adult Life (No Fun)

His early solo efforts were explosions of digital damage, but Carlos Giffoni has embraced the warmth as of late, working almost wholly with analog synthesizers in music that’s not necessarily easier on the ears, but is still more reminiscent of early electronic music than anything Giffoni books at the No Fun Festval. Adult Life is Giffoni’s most straightforward yet, five tracks of simplistic synth composition that rely far more on steady rhythms and slow builds and fades rather than any unpredictable or chaotic musical savagery. A single voice is often at the music’s focus, with shifts in direction occurring so slowly that one can usually see them coming for miles. Each track clocks in somewhere near 10 minutes, allowing Giffoni to take the scenic route each time. There’s no crowding of sound, and the density and grit of Giffoni’s earlier synthesizer albums are replaced by a more systematic, even formal, mindset, with every tone, phrase, or pattern given abundant time to breathe before it is slowly replaced in the mix. Call it easier listening. It’s a little tempting to see the disc’s title as some indication of this album as more mature than Giffoni’s past work, though I don’t think it’s as much a question of growing up as it is growing out. Giffoni’s removed any hint of claustrophobia from his music, and the results are a pleasing slow burn, something meditative more than malevolent.

So, in a year with plenty to be excited about, these were five discs that kept me attentive, and, I think, deserved some year-end attention. Without polling updates, Palin quotes and lame duck hijinks, we all may have more time next year to sink our teeth into new music, and that’ll be nice. Musically, I’m looking forward to the first “official” Tusk Lord release, the continued prevalence of high-quality vinyl reissues and another (hopefully) surprising Sonic Youth studio album, among other things. Withdrawal from Iraq, economic stability, and the reemergence of the United States as a nation respected internationally would also be nice, but we’re not likely to have any of that in a short 12 months. I’ll settle for progress made on these fronts (and the Penguins getting revenge on the Wings in next year’s finals, of course), but, really, if Charlie Wilmoth writes more of his excellent Composers Who Matter features next year, that just might be enough for me…

By Adam Strohm

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