"Outta Town" CD Reviews, Archives, 1995-1999

Reviews by Guy Livingston, Dan Warburton, Christopher Elson, James Baiye


David Grubbs: THE THICKET
by Dan Warburton

With the last Gastr Del Sol album "Camofleur" and "The Thicket", Chicago's David Grubbs has finally found a mellower though deceptively not-quite-mainstream voice. As our recent interview hinted, there is a distinctly American sound to this album: perhaps it's the banjo, or the "hillbilly" violin of Tony Conrad, or the C&W shuffle of John McEntire's percussion, but above all it's the quality of Grubbs' light, freshman voice and his intriguing lyrics. No young British band would dare to try for such abstruse--though never pretentious--imagery; in its media-driven obsession with girls, beer and football, Britpop has become little more than a sorry parody of what it once was, while the delicious obscurantism of the US College Radio circuit still leaves plenty of room for what used to be called "Art Rock". David Grubbs--himself still a Ph.D. student--has no difficulty mixing his Kentucky heritage with his love of Cage, Feldman and Conrad. The pristine drones of "On 'Worship'" are equally at home in the Appalachian road music of "Fool Summons Train", and the latter part of "Amleth's Gambit" could almost be Murmur-period REM, with a few changes in the instrumentation. A beautifully crafted album, and a fine introduction to the world of David Grubbs, if you're looking for one.
[Drag City DC 160 CD]

        Robin Holloway

        BBC SO / Oliver Knussen
        by Dan Warburton

        A fellow Cambridge student once described Robin Holloway as a "hothouse plant". I don't think he intended the remark to be complimentary, but it does help to explain how a man who has remained in the choir school/public school/Oxbridge world all his life, and who, in his music, continues to breathe the heady air of late nineteenth-century romanticism, can create a sound world so opulent and Mediterranean, while retaining nonetheless something indefinably English. The Second Concerto, dating from 1979, is perhaps Holloway's finest work to date, and among his favorites--others include the opera "Clarissa", which had to wait fifteen years for its premiere in 1990, and the orchestral poem "Domination of Black", 1974, recently performed but still waiting for a first-class recording. And a first-class recording this is, principally because it doesn't drag: even for his most sympathetic listeners, Holloway's music can tend to go on a bit (I wasn't surprised to learn Bruckner was a favorite composer). It's like fruit: beautiful, subtle to the taste, refined in both form and color, but if you eat too much of it you can end up feeling queasy. Fortunately for us, the Second Concerto is more varied and digestible (and certainly not at all without humor); anyone wishing to discover this woefully underrecorded composer would be well advised to go for this CD, rather than the handful of other pieces now available on the market.

        NMC D015M

        Les méandres du rêve
        by Christopher Elson

        Serge Arcuri, a former student of Gilles Tremblay (see PNMR no. 2, Presences Francophones) is one of Canada's leading electroacoustic composers. This disc, true to its word, meanders a wee bit, but leaves the listener with a positive picture of Arcuri's work. The electronic component is cutting, at times externally-oriented, referential, at others inward and self-defining--we hear for example, shimmering streets of static, and the fall of electronic rain, but also pick out more mysterious psychic groans, the grinding of deep structures like tectonic plates or a lake freezing in the night.
        The perfomances by some of the finest interpreters of new music (Cherney, Ouellett, Tureski, Goodman) are seamlessly integrated with the electronic materials. Lueurs is rather conventional but is so recognizably of Montréal that one half expects Uzeb's guitarist Michel Cusson to cut in with a solo.
        [See our exit page for a link to: empreintes DIGITALes. IMED 9310 CD, Canada]

        IN BRIEF
        by James Baiye


        French atmosphere, German drama: we hear the best of both worlds in La petite mort (The Little Death), a "Phantasmagoria" by German composer Claus Kuehnl. Early studies in Paris with Dutilleux left their mark on the young composer. This sensual and romantic work is a three-act musiktheater piece, not an opera, so much as a concert drama. The writing is skilled though occasionally a bit obvious in its emotionality. The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie is conducted by David Robertson.
        [Wergo-WER 6525-2] La petite mort

        Nicola Toscano Solo

        Festival Planetario di Ecologia
        The CD cover is by well-known artist Valeriano Trubbiani, and will be familiar to any who saw and loved Fellini's E la nave va (And the ship sails on). Guitarist Toscano is excellent, and too rarely plays solo. The music is perhaps a little trendy but certainly entertaining and makes a nice background for a relaxing romantic evening.
        NT 945 Living Art fax (39) 585-634-705


        Recorded live in Cologne in 1992 by the ever innovative Odd Size Records (Paris), the Kontakta sextet uses no conventional instruments, not even regular percussion. Instead they amplify, scrape, bow, and cajole low and sensual sounds out of scrap metal, bicycle parts, tin tubs, and old turntables. In this ambient noise, change comes very slowly- the sounds themselves are long, slow, and drawn-out, with lots of heavily amplified "quiet" sounds. The music gradually moves from one harmonic landscape to another: more peaceful than ominous, despite the post-apocalyptic use of society's junk. Beautifully mixed. Calm, smoothed over, and with no harsh edges. Ambient but not mindless.
        [CD OS 13]

        Off the Beaten Path

        Lieux inouïs (Unheard-of Places) by Quebequois composer Robert Normandeau reminds us of Neil B. Rolnick's Sanctus from Bridge Records. [See PNMR issue no. 5] Working with completely different aesthetics, two composers with absolutely nothing in common have coincidentally created similar sounds from classical sacred music.

        Like a lot of French-Canadian music, the Normandeau CD is narrative; almost programmatic, following a natural and extremely sophisticated progression. And like a lot of American music, the Rolnick CD is abstract, occasionally funny, and mostly non-linear. But Rolnick pales in comparison compositionally, and surprisingly enough, technically. Both composers use tape (analog, not digital) samples of classical music. In Normandeau&'s disc, the cited music is mixed with environmental sound, much of it readily identifiable. For instance, Jeu (Game), an electronic tour de force, uses a mélange of nostalgic references to Paris (sounds of the metro, Orly airport, construction noise) and organ and choral music. As the listener is swirled into the inexorable movement of the piece, the places (lieux) become almost miraculously tangible. Impressive and intriguing.
        [empreintes DIGITALes-IMED 9002 CD] Lieux inouïs

        Kiodyssia: Migrations

        A fanciful reverberant sound, as if one were lost in the enchanted forest. Crooning songs without words and Chinese gongs resonate on the wind that whistles through the trees. The musicians: Jacques Derégnaucourt on violin, viola, voice, synth, percussion, and tapes; Shamail Matra on tabla, ghatam, percussion, and spoken rhythms. Note the gorgeous color collages by Claire O'Neil in the CD booklet. We always appreciate artists who make the effort to think about the visual medium, not just the acoustic one. Remember all those great LP covers?
        Art Gallery CD AG 002
        EPSL, 91 rue Eugene Labiche, 78290 Croissy sur Seine, France
        tel/fax (33-1)

        Electric Harpsichord

        For sheer excitement, try a midi harpsichord toccata on for size. Vivienne Spiteri, harpsichordist extraordinaire, has produced a phenomenal disc of aggressive and insightful new electro-acoustic music for an old instrument. For fans of mechanistic music, David Keane's Turbo Toccata will be a sure hit. Others will find fulfillment in the classicism of Bruce Pennycook's "The Desert Speaks."
        The harpsichord has always lent itself to virtuosity, and Spiteri capitalizes on this: The energy level is high on this disk - the tension never lets up. One highlight is the amplified breathing down your neck of the hair-raising jardin secret ii, (secret garden ii) for tape and harpsichord, by Kaija Saariaho. As the liner note says, "au diable le conformisme!" (To hell with conformity!)[JB] [J&W CD 931] comme si l'hydrogene
        J&W Recordings, Box 2684, Station D, Ottawa, Canada K1P 5W7.